If this were any other newborn blog post, I'd probably begin it by gushing over 8 day-old Clover's perfect, pouty lips and sweet little toes. Or how she occasionally lifted a brown when she peeked around, but never once cried.
I'd also swoon over how her proud, big brothers gazed at her with such adoration and love that I thought my own mama heart might just burst.
Honestly, I could go on and on about all of those adorable little things and simply stop there. But if I did, I'd be leaving out a huge piece of the story- perhaps the actual framework for it- because this wasn't a typical newborn shoot. Sure, there were cheesecloth wraps and delicate headbands, the noise machine, posing pillow- all of the newborn session essentials were there and checked off.
But the most important piece, actually, was a pair of brown, leather cowboy boots.
They were scuffed and worn around the edges, having been broken-in and loved hard. They were smaller than I had anticipated. So petite, in fact, that it caused me to suck in my breath a little when I picked them up for the first time. I guessed them to be no bigger than a toddler size 8 or 9. They belonged to a little girl named Lelia- who also happens to be Clover, Micah, and Brendan's sister- and who passed away in December of 2017 at the age of 3 after battling cancer.
Suffice it to say, her death left those who loved her- many of whom had never actually met her but had followed her story- reeling. Her loss was a personal one for me, as well. Lelia's portrait was part of an exhibition I did earlier in the fall of 2017 to document some of the lesser-seen sides of childhood cancer. In their most vulnerable and exhausted state, Michael and Rebecca graciously agreed to let me take a few pictures of Lelia as they left clinic one day after one of her treatments. To say it was a humbling experience is an understatement. The months have since come and gone, but I can still remember in vivid detail her heart-melting smile and that tiny voice as she talked about the animals on her farm. When Rebecca reached out to me a couple of months ago to ask if I might do newborn pictures for their new baby girl who was due in February, I knew this would be something special- even if it was hard.
She also wanted to bring Lelia's favorite boots- the ones she practically never took off- in hopes that we could incorporate them into the pictures in some way.
At first, I struggled to know exactly what to do with Lelia's boots- how to place them in the frame in a way that didn't seem trite or cheesy, carefully arranging and then rearranging them- Rebecca and I both getting teary, but then almost immediately shifting our gaze to Clover and getting googly-eyed as she hiccuped and made squeaky newborn noises. And I guess at some point, I realized I was overthinking the set up- that the essence of this session wasn't one that needed to be staged, much less spoken. We all felt Lelia there.
Rebecca told me that the day she and Michael really understood the depth and devastation of Lelia's diagnosis was the day she felt in her gut that there would eventually be another baby. It was an ache, the sense of knowing something intuitively- but in a way that no mother ever should.
To recognize that Clover is here and Lelia isn't- but then to go a step further and try to grasp that Clover is here because Lelia isn't- is a space that can't really be put into words. A constant flux between grief and gratitude, of being in awe, and also in shambles.
I'm going to be honest- I wrestled with how to write this blog because I worried it would be "too sad." The balance of life and death- in this context- felt so precarious to try to preserve. I didn't want to inadvertently overshadow the joy of this precious new baby's arrival into the world by speaking too much of her sister's departure from it.
And yet, I realized that this is the beautiful and broken reality- theirs, particularly, on a vastly larger scale compared to anything I'm feeling. So if I'm going to talk about the One who makes all things new, the One who is near to those who mourn- if I want to write about the miracle of new life and unconditional love and the process of learning to hope all over again even when it's terrifying and absolutely excruciating- well, it means that I start with Lelia.