The unbearable lightness of being

Before me stands a black-and-white photograph of hands. A pair of female hands rests upon a larger, rougher male hand. And nestled inside is another hand — pale, tiny, lifeless.

“People think, ‘Oh, it’s so wonderful!’ when you tell them … that you work in Labor & Delivery. That’s the fun, happy place to be. And it is,” says Moni Taylor, tossing her long, ash-blond hair over her shoulder.

“But it’s also the saddest. When you’re an L&D nurse, you can be living the saddest of times in the happiest of places. It’s got the extremes of everything — the births as well as the babies who don’t make it.”

Taylor is perched on my couch, her slender, blue-jean-clad legs tucked up under her, a cup of tea by her side. She expresses herself passionately in rapid-fire, run-on sentences. And with every utterance, her hands spring into action like a pair of eager marionettes. On the coffee table between us lie pages from her forthcoming book, The Time Between: Reflections of an L&D Nurse.

For the past 14 years, Taylor’s been a nurse at Mission Hospitals in Asheville. Each year, more than 3,500 babies are born in Mission’s 15 labor-and-delivery rooms. And as a level III neonatal intensive-care unit, it’s the go-to place for at-risk babies in Western North Carolina.

But Taylor is also a professional photographer. In her free time, she captures her fellow Ashevilleans in whimsical, nonstudio environments. And several times a year, those two vocations come together in the quietest rooms at Mission — the ones reserved for women pregnant with what the medical community calls a “fetal demise” (a baby who has died in utero or who isn’t expected to survive more than a day or two past birth).

Fully 35 times in the past seven years, for the saddest of reasons, Moni the nurse has been asked to become Moni the photographer. And what makes her so unusual is the profound empathy and resilience she brings to these poignant moments.

Other nurses photograph only the baby, just for the record, she notes. “But I’ve always been drawn to photograph the entire family — that beautiful cocoon, that collective spirit of a family that was created, even if just for a short while. Of course I’m photographing the emotion, the intensity of how we deal with these moments, the deep loss of that future dream. But we can see the whole thing [only] when you photograph the family.”

Arrival and departure

“I once had a teenage couple with a demise,” Taylor recalls. “The girl was only 15 or maybe 16. He was 18 with tattoos, earrings, all that kind of stuff. I was overwhelmed at the maturity that blossomed in that moment when they realized the baby was not going to make it. That look of ‘Oh my God, this is real, this is real!’ They took their baby and dressed it. And this 18-year-old boy just took that little baby and held it, and I was overwhelmed. They’ll never be the same, and it’s a good thing. This is just a profound moment of change.

“There’s that magic moment: Is it going to happen? That little sliver of space where you just don’t know. Will the baby make the transition from living inside with mom to living by itself outside? It’s a little magic line — will it come together, or will it change your life forever?

“It always does, with birth. Even if everything is perfect, you still have been changed. … Your skin’s been changed, everything’s different. And you’re different. There’s an instant maturity of knowledge. People get a light-year’s worth of experience in that moment.”

Many might understandably shy away from witnessing such sadness and despair, but Moni emphasizes again and again what an honor she feels it is to be a part of a “space in time” that is, as author/priest Henri Nouwen describes it, “arrival and departure … yesterday and today … all compressed in one blink of an eye.” And for Taylor, that eye is the camera’s, giving her a chance to pay tribute not only to this tiniest sliver of a life, but also to the parents — capturing a fleeting family tableau that will soon exist nowhere else except, perhaps, in memory.

Dreams to work out

Moni Taylor

It took a long, lonely journey to bring Taylor to this remarkable perspective. For years after becoming a nurse, she went out of her way to avoid fetal-demise deliveries. Having lost her own first baby in 1976, the pain of seeing others go through same experience was simply unbearable.

“Even many years later, it was still too fresh to what I’d already gone through,” Taylor recalls.

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