I have this phrase I sometimes repeat to myself during sessions: “find the light”.
That little phrase reminds me of the basic principles of photography, but more than that, it’s an invitation (perhaps even a challenge) to find the light and beauty in every season, every person, every story.
There are days when that feels like an easy task. When a perfectly dressed family cuddles together in a field at sunset or when a young couple laughs in each other’s arms as they look towards a sweet future together or when a family finally brings their newborn home to the nursery they’ve lovingly prepared for her, it feels easy to see and celebrate the light and beauty in those moments.
But what about in the hospital room where a couple holds their newborn son, born alive but unresponsive? What about those hours when they hold him close, knowing it could be their last day with him? What about the day when they have to choose to let him go? Can we – can I – find beauty in that place, too?
At the end of June, I had the profound privilege of spending a couple hours in the NICU with my friends and their newborn son Benjamin. Benjamin was born alive but unresponsive after suffering a severe brain injury in utero. He held on to life for eight miraculous days, amazing us all by the ways he defied the odds and by the ways that his little life stirred and united so many people in prayer. The day that they planned to remove Benjamin’s breathing tube, my friends asked me to come and take some photos of them as they snuggled him skin to skin (their skin to skin times with Benjamin are some of the precious memories they hold onto from his time in the NICU). I was a little nervous to enter this space with them, because I had never photographed anything like this before and it would be an understatement to say that the moment felt weighty, but at the same time, I had never felt the value of photography as deeply as I did in that room.
Near the end of my time with them, they played a song that a friend had written and dedicated to Benjamin. I couldn’t hear most of the lyrics, but the one phrase that resounded in my ears as I snapped those last photos was, “You make all things beautiful.” Later, when I re-listened to the song, I found out that the lyrics actually said, “You make all things new,” but I think perhaps the word “beautiful” was what I needed to hear in that moment. That phrase, “You make all things beautiful,” defined those hours (and all of Benjamin’s life) for me.
Because even in the midst of the heartbreak, those two hours in that NICU room were full of more beauty and peace than I could have ever imagined. And I saw so much beauty in Benjamin’s short life:
Beauty in his mother’s greeting as she gently touched his head.
Beauty in his tiny, perfect fingers and toes.
Beauty in the way his arms snuggled around his mother’s chest.
Beauty in the way she tenderly cupped his feet in her hands.
Beauty in the sound of her laughter billowing into that hospital room.
Beauty in the gaze his parents shared as they held him close and the way they closed their eyes as they touched their foreheads together.
Beauty in the way he nestled under his father’s chin.
Beauty in his father’s soft kiss on his forehead.
Beauty in the way his fingers (so tiny, so strong) curled around his father’s finger.
Beauty in the light on his mother’s face as she closed her eyes and entered into the prayer of the music.
Beauty in each rhythmic breath he drew, skin to skin on their chests.
Beauty in the warmth of his body alive in their arms for those eight days.
And even after those moments of beauty were gone and Benjamin was “swallowed up by life”, held only in memory and photographs, still I saw beauty in Benjamin’s story.
Beauty in the rawness and vulnerability with which his parents have shared this story.
Beauty in their posture of humility and faith each step of the way.
Beauty in the words that flowed in from all over the world in response to his life.
Beauty in the voices lifted in prayer and worship, day and night.
Beauty in the hearts that rallied in hope.
Beauty in the hearts that broke in grief.
Beauty in the emotions of wonder and grief, celebration and sadness, that unite us all.
There is grief here, to be sure, and a depth of pain that can’t be put into words. But through it all, so much beauty. And finding the beauty here, even in these hard spaces of Benjamin’s story, renews my hope that He can make all things and all stories (including my own) beautiful.
And so each click of the shutter as I witnessed these moments of beauty became a thank you. A thank you for the preciousness and purpose of Benjamin’s little life, even in such a short amount of time. And a thank you for the privilege of witnessing this little bit of his story.
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
(If you'd like to hear more of Benjamin's story firsthand from his parents, I encourage you to listen to the message, "Swallowed Up By Life", that they shared recently at our church)