It's time to reveal the most impactful photograph of the year for 2017.
I won't show you the photograph, and that may seem strange. I won't share it because I want to preserve this family's privacy. That is one of the elements of this work that is most important to me, and families tell me it is one of the reasons they ask me to be with them. They know their worst day won't show up in social media unless that's what they want.
So I'll tell you the story behind this photograph, and I'll share something else from my time with this family instead. Do you have tissues? I'm grabbing mine, because reliving this moment is emotional for me. I know nothing of the pain this family lives with on a daily basis.
She was four months old when I met her. She smiled and wiggled, and she made that adorable gurgling laugh when she was pleased. Her parents had learned that her life expectancy was about 18 months due to a rare genetic disorder that attacked her nervous system. I saw her every other month or so until just after her third birthday. That was my last visit with her family before her funeral.
That was the day her parents elected to withdraw life support.
One month earlier she experienced difficulty breathing and had been receiving assistance since then. During that month, her parents talked about her life, shared stories, laughed, cried, sang to her, held her, and made peace.
"The length of her life was never tied to her impact. Even one day, one hour, would have changed us forever," her father told me.
Her mother called me and whispered into the phone that it was time. While I couldn't make out all of her words, which were few, I knew what was happening. We had talked about this. I promised I would be there if they asked.
The room was nearly unrecognizable without the constant pfffff of the ventilator and the beeps and peeps of the monitors. I could see her gorgeous, pale face; her cornflower eyes looked relaxed and peaceful. Mom and Dad took turns holding her, rocking her, stroking her, kissing her . . . all the things they had always done.
These were the last times. They meant everything.
After nearly an hour of being without support, she was tired. She smiled a little, looking directly into her mama's eyes, leaned her head on her shoulder, and exhaled one last time.
The instant following is the photograph of the year for me.
Mom clutched her little girl in a bear hug, grasping her left forearm with her right hand. I watched her knuckles and fingers whiten with the intensity. Her daughter sat on her lap, facing her; her little head tipped down, tucked just below Mama's chin. The small arms reached around Mama, where Dad was holding her hands. The three of them sat, nestled together, on the hospital bed that had been home for so long.
Dad's forehead dropped against his wife's left shoulder. I could see his shoulders heave with silent sobs. His legs came around either side of his wife and his knees and thighs turned in, seeking every bit of physical contact they could find with this forever changed family. His hands cradled those of his daughter, his thumbs resting lightly atop.
Mom's face is the focal point.
Her eyes squeezed shut. They crinkled and turned down while her pursed lips and taught cheeks fought against them. Tears seeped out of the corners, racing down her cheeks to dangle off her upper lip before they took their final dive down to her precious girl's lowered, forever still head. Her nostrils flared at the moment she inhaled her first breath without her daughter.
Her face was the most stunning combination of love, joy, anguish, gratitude, and uncertainty. I will never forget it.
I see a lot of incredible moments of the human experience while being with families in love and grief. From each family I learn, and those lessons and points to ponder are what I wish to share with you here.