I gazed at the newly created gowns and held my breath.
They were not the vibrant colors of rainbows and spring flowers, but shades of white: pearl, ivory, and eggshell. All were like silk to the touch and probably many were literally made from silk.
Some boasted buttons. Brocade embellished the hems. There was intricate stitching in each outfit, but all appeared as simple as they were elegant. Though ignorant about designing and sewing clothes, I have learned that every simple-looking creative effort represents hours of labor and years of experience.
Every gown was handmade. Correction. All of the clothes I admired were twice handmade; each garment was re-purposed by the work of love and created for sharing love.
And for sharing tears.
Recently, at my hospice, I went into a room to view gifts given to our Angel Babies program. A group of women at a local church (Fresno’s St. George Greek Orthodox Church) have gathered together for an ongoing project. They receive donations of wedding dresses—in those subtle, traditional shades of pearl, ivory, and eggshell—and transform them into gowns for infants. (Here is a link to a 2014 video on the church’s project.)
The infants who will wear the “new” gowns have died in the moments or days after their birth.
(There is no way around writing that blunt, anguished statement.)
Apparently one or more of the Fresno-area women heard on the news, or read on social media*, about another group of women in Fort Worth, Texas. The Texas group used the fabric from donated wedding dresses, turning them into the final clothing that would be worn by a child that had lived a few moments, a few hours, a few days.
Here in Fresno, the Angel Babies program in our hospice strives to help parents during the most difficult time of their lives. Something for their child has gone wrong. Instead of nine months of anticipation culminating in birth and a newborn life—accompanied by family laughter and parental joy, of announcing the name and preparing for endless diapers and already worrying about the start of a college fund—the parents face death.
Maybe a doctor informed them several weeks or months before that the child growing in the womb would die before or just following birth. Maybe the parents—and the medical staff—only discovered in the fragile time after birth that the child had a terminal condition. Instead of a lifetime together, parents enter a twilight zone of impossible decisions, with farewells and final prayers said long before their baby would ever speak any first word. They are angry with God or doctors. They stagger in guilt from unfair and unrealistic questions: was this death caused by what they did or did not do during the pregnancy? They often feel lost and alone, barely able to mutter a word or endlessly talking nonsense.
The Angel Babies program tries to support these anguished, grieving parents. Perhaps the child will live for a short time and the Angel Babies staff will help them celebrate and remember those precious experiences. The staff will also accompany the family into the next year and beyond to try to make sure each individual parent (and sometimes the extended family) knows they are not alone, knows they can ask the hard questions, knows they can continue to do things that will help them honor and remember the child who was their best dream.
And there are groups from churches like St. George’s who add their unexpected and generous gifts to the program.
Some of the baby gowns these women have created are not much larger than my two hands held together. There’s a smidgen of fabric, mere inches of stitching. Seeing the gowns broke my heart. Once worn by the proverbial blushing bride—maybe a few years before, maybe a few generations ago—they will now be worn by the tiniest of children. These gowns worn on the day of “I do” will be placed in a coffin on the day of farewell.
I am humbled by the Angel Babies program, and deeply touched by their compassion as they serve the needs of those mourning a terrible death. I am so thankful for others, like the Fresno women gathering together at a church with their creative eyes and hands. They sit at their sewing machines, spread out “old” wedding dresses on folding tables, and stitch together a gift that honors a unique life. They let a hurting family know that they are loved and supported.
On each gown, there’s a tag with this quote from Dr. Seuss: “A person’s a person no matter how small.”
*There are several like-minded projects across the country. A brief search on web would lead to those organizations and individuals.
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)by