I started sending holiday cards 18 years ago. Back then, all of my friends sent holiday cards, too. We were in our 30s, they with husbands and kids, me with my dog, Molly.
I sent holiday pictures because it felt grown up, and since it was pre-social media, sending cards was a way to show off. I also sent them because I’m a family photographer and it’s good for business.
Six years ago, I shot the Guerra family. A few months later, I heard from the friend who referred them. Their middle daughter, a 2-year-old, had drowned. I didn’t hear from that family again. Until today.
Today I received an email and felt my eyes fill up as I stared at the family photo attached. He was emailing to buy a photo session for his wife for Christmas. “It’s time,” he wrote.
I know what he means. I also had a daughter who died as a small child.
When my twins were born in 2007, I took pictures at every stage. For their first holiday photo, I dressed them in matching white sweaters and tiny pink bows. Maclain and Blake were 6 months old, and I plopped them on the floor of my studio with only a black blanket underneath. They flanked their brother, Jackson, who was 2. In the picture, they are looking at the camera with wide eyes.
My last holiday photo with the twins was taken nine months later and still hangs at the bottom of my stairs.
Maclain didn’t like pictures. She didn’t like most things. Perhaps she was cranky because of her medical condition that made it difficult for her to eat and breathe.
But for a few minutes Maclain was happy posing with her sister and brother. The girls wore yellow, blue and white striped tank dresses. Jackson, 3 at the time, wore an orange shirt. Their bare feet pointed at the camera. I hooted to make them smile and Maclain responded. The other two sat stone-faced, probably thinking their mom was nuts. Maclain raised her hand as if to wave, five fingers spread, and smiled with all her teeth showing. It was the biggest smile she gave in all 16 months of her life. Now I see it as her wave goodbye.
A month later, she died after she choked on a french fry. Maclain was born with a vascular ring. Her aorta was wrapped around her trachea and esophagus, which is why eating and breathing were hard for her. Her surgery was already scheduled. The surgeon assured me that it was no big deal. “One snip and she’ll be as good as normal.” She didn’t make it to the surgery.
I’m so grateful for that photo. I did not send cards that year. Or the next. It took two years and a new baby to inspire me to send another holiday card. I think I sent it to assure the people around me that I was okay. Look, I survived.
But really, I was struggling. Having another baby didn’t fill the hole left by my daughter, and neither did sending out cards. I felt fake. I survived, yes, but the picture felt wrong, like someone was missing. And I didn’t feel like blasting my struggle with some bogus holiday card.
I imagine that’s why it took the Guerras six years to hire me again. It was too soon. It would have felt fake.
I faked it for a few more years, then I stopped sending holiday cards. I told people I was too busy taking everyone else’s photos to concentrate on my own. It was partially true.
From October through December, I take pictures every weekend and edit all week. I see many of the same families each year: the braces, the pudge, the acne. I also watch the parents age. So, getting the perfect family shot for the card often means jumping up and down like a clown, bonding with angry teenagers who couldn’t care less about being there, and shooting the mom at just the right angle so her stomach looks flat. It also means getting pretty good at Photoshop. I spend hours removing fly-away-hairs, whitening teeth and smoothing wrinkles so every card will say: Look at my perfect family.
What I can’t do with Photoshop is bring people back.
Blake is 11 now. She hates when I tell people about Maclain, especially her friends. “I don’t want people to feel sorry for me,” she says.
I get it. She just wants to be normal. So I don’t bring it up unless she does.
Last week before bed, we curled up together. I said, “I shot identical twins today.”
She hugged a little tighter and said, “You hate twins.”
I shook my head. “I’m just jealous of the people who get to keep theirs.”
We cried and talked about how much the boys would annoy Maclain if she were here. How my youngest, Sloan, probably wouldn’t have been born.
“I want her back,” she said, and I hugged a little tighter.
We lay like that for a while as my mind replayed the movie trailer I’ve seen so many times. I saw the day I found out I was having identical twins. “You’ve got to be kidding,” I said to the doctor, and she laughed. I saw the vomit and the fever and the colic of the early months. I relived first steps, first foods, first words. And then, I saw the last day with them. I always see the last day. We went to the country club for lunch.
As we walked through the dining room, the kids held hands, blonde hair bouncing with each step. The old ladies smiled. Five more days and “she’ll be as good as normal,” I thought as I smiled back, ignoring the angst I felt about Maclain’s upcoming surgery. Less than an hour later, we were in the back of a rescue truck. “Please, no,” I said over and over again.
It’s been 10 years since Maclain died. It’s incredible how time flies. This past summer, we went on vacation to celebrate her and us, and I got lucky. The kids jumped off a dock while I had my camera pointed at them. They were in colorful bathing suits, holding hands and smiling huge. Right then, I decided this was the year.
That’s the thing about grief. At first, you’re sure you’ll never laugh again. Just breathing feels wrong without her. And then one day, your kids jump off a dock and you look at these people you love so profoundly, and you think about how they lighten your pain, how they are a counterweight to the grief. And you accept that you can’t always keep everyone you love.