Sunday, September 9, 2012

Finding Noah

No good photos of your kids together? 
I'll clean them up and make them look like they like each other.

When I first heard from Jennifer, I didn’t think I was going to be able to help her.  When drawing a pencil portrait, I often combine different elements of the same person from different photographs (good hair day from one, a smile from another). 

I'd combined separate photos lots of times. But Jennifer wanted me to create a whole new person from pictures of other people. It sounded hard. I prefer not hard, because I am lazy that way. 

Considering how picky some clients can be about a drawing of an existing person, how was I going to match Jennifer’s expectations for someone I couldn’t see?

About fourteen years earlier, Jennifer had been expecting her first child, a little boy.  Over the moon with excitement, she went in for an ultrasound.  As she began telling me her story, Jennifer asked me if I had kids.  “You know how there is sometimes a hesitation by the ultrasound technician that can be a little scary?” 

I knew what she meant.  I had some greenhorn hack of a nurse’s aide during an early appointment when I was expecting Max.  We'd heard a heartbeat immediately with Joey, but this time the nurse couldn’t find one.  As she fumbled around, she kept glancing furtively at me with what seemed like fear or pity.  By the time she gave up and called a doctor into the room, I was sick with terror.  The doctor found Max’s mischievous little whooshy heartbeat quickly and I burst into relieved tears.  The nurse’s aide gave me a sheepish smile while I fantasized about giving her hair a good yank.

Nobody came to Jennifer’s rescue.  She left the appointment with an ice cold suspicion that something was wrong.  Her doctor called her at work a day or two later with devastating news. Her baby boy had anencephaly – an absence of brain.  The baby had a brain stem that allowed him to grow inside of her, but once he was born, he wouldn’t survive.  
Let’s pause for a moment and collectively consider the stupidity and insensitivity of that nimrod doctor calling someone at work with that kind of news.  Don’t doctors go to school for like 20 years?  How about a pre-med class in not being a dick??
 Somebody missed this class.

There would be serious health risks for Jennifer in continuing the pregnancy.  She and her husband were stunned, devoutly religious and devastated.  They sought the help of their pastor who sadly advised them that in their case, terminating the pregnancy was a necessary, terrible thing they needed to do for Jennifer's safety.  The same pastor baptized their son, at 22 weeks.


They had planned to name the baby Zachary, but Jennifer saw in a baby book that Noah meant “at rest.”  So they named him Noah and he was alive in their hearts.


Thankfully, Jennifer had three more healthy pregnancies… three beautiful, vibrant children. 


“Noah’s loss has always been something that we talked about openly with the kids,” Jennifer told me.  “My children are very spiritual and they have always understood why Noah is still important to us.  It’s okay to say his name and to remember that we had another baby.”  Noah came into the world, and left it, on December 1st. Every year, Jennifer has a little birthday party with a cake in his memory.

On a scrapbooking web site, she ran across an artist’s rendering using photos of a baby’s siblings. Jennifer thought it was one of the most heart breaking and sweet things that she had ever seen. 


This wasn’t the first time I’d worked with a grieving parent.  Jennifer knows that most people can’t understand how she feels.  She had always suffered painful, mixed feelings about the Polaroid picture that had been taken of Noah.  As scary, blurry and broken a picture as it was, Jennifer couldn’t bear to throw it away.   At least it proved he was real.


“In my head,” Jennifer said, “he’s whole, he’s complete." 

Jennifer googled me about her idea and we exchanged tentative emails.  I told her I would try to digitally combine aspects of Noah's siblings to come up with a layout she could approve.  It was a little nerve-wracking for both of us.  I love to connect with my clients and there was a sad divide between us as I approached the project from a technical perspective and she held her breath, wondering how close I would come to the flesh and blood Noah of her dreams.  Trying to ease the tension, I gushed with Jennifer about how delicious babies are.  She told me, “My favorite baby stage is around 9 months when they are sitting up on their own and cruising around.  My other children were all big juicy babies, chubby and happy.


“That’s how I picture Noah.  I just don’t want to think of him like in that photograph, anymore.” 


I'd never faced such a heavy responsibility, as an artist.  To create an image of Noah, of hope, of what should have been.  I put him in overalls, because I’d loved them so much on my chubby baby boys. 


I drew Noah’s name stitched on the front of his little boy’s overalls and remembered the soft, sweet, heft of my own babies in my arms, wishing I had those hectic, glorious days back.  It was my turn to hold my breath as I emailed a scan of the portrait off to Jennifer.  She admitted, she was afraid to open it at first.

To both of our relief, Jennifer loved the portrait and was particularly thrilled with Noah’s overalls; her little boys had worn them, too.  She said that Noah’s portrait reminded her of a police sketch artist's age progression to find a missing child, and when the child is found, the sketch miraculously matches. 
It choked me up that I’d come anywhere close to the private image in her heart.  I thought about my easy pregnancies, how I happily announced to anyone and everyone that I was expecting about ten minutes after I knew for sure. I never worried for a second. How would I have coped with something like this? Was Jennifer able to enjoy her subsequent pregnancies? Did the fear ever give her rest? I wanted so much to ease her pain, if only a little.  Looking back, I wish the sketch was better, that she'd found me after I'd had more practice being a full time artist.


Jennifer surprised her family with Noah’s portrait on what would have been his 14th birthday.  They were all delighted.  It hangs in their kitchen.  Jennifer’s son, Joshua, called him “No No,” and he asks where Noah is when he looks at the portrait.  “I tell him that Noah is in heaven,” Jennifer says with confidence.


Although the portrait hangs in a prominent place, Jennifer hasn’t really shared it with anyone outside of her family.  “It was a long time ago,” Jennifer tells me, “and people think you’re supposed to be over it.  If you haven’t experienced it, you just don’t know how it feels.  It doesn’t go away.” 


There have been other special stories, like Gideon – a baby who was given little or no chance of survival but fought like a warrior, the meaning of his name.  One woman worked with my husband and wanted a baby more than life itself, trying and trying, only to have her only surviving baby gone in a flash of hospital white.  She told me not to rush on her lost baby’s portrait; she had waited a long time and could wait as long as it took.  When I called with the finished portrait months later, there was a baby’s cry in the background; an adopted answered prayer that brought a lump of happiness to my throat. 

Most of the lost babies I've drawn took a few precious breaths before they left their broken hearted families. Some of the photographs have been wrenching to see. Some parents have asked for wings or a halo. Some just wanted no more tubes or machines. 
They all want what Jennifer wanted… a picture of a healthy baby. The dream child, a portrait from within their hearts, from the way things were supposed to be.

Wendy Zumpano


  1. Beautiful, Wendy. It made me cry!

  2. I can relate. I had two miscarriages before my oldest son was born. Even as he grows, I always just want to hold him so he never slips through my fingers like I felt when I had those miscarriages. I am so happy your portraits are able to bring a moment of hope to other grieving moms that have experienced greater trauma than I.

    1. How much more precious is a child when you've experienced a loss like that? I can only imagine. So glad he's in the world!

  3. Just saw your email and came over to read this. Oh my! You expressed this perfectly and I love some of your additional thoughts. I remember taking a few days to open the email with the proof that you attached. I desperately wanted to see what you came up with and at the same time, I was so scared. When I finally worked up the nerve, I was stunned. You captured the essence of my children, the nuances of them, and gave me a wonderful gift - a vision of my son as he appears in my mind.

    Your gift and talent is amazing. You are like the pencil whisperer!

    1. The pencil whisperer! I love that! That's a better name for my blog than Pencil Envy, maybe I'll change it. It was such an honor to draw Noah for you, Jennifer. I've drawn many lost children since then and I always think of you and Noah.

  4. Wendy, what a beautiful story. My second baby was stillborn so I understand the loss of everything when a child dies before birth. Creating a portrait of that baby is a wonderful way to keep an image of that child forever.

    1. I'm so sorry to hear that you lost a child, Kris... that has got to be so scary. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment! I'm finding it hard to find the time to write as I'm getting busier with portraits this time of year. Nice words like yours make me want to steal some time!


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