On the evening of April 5, Justin Allen Wier rushed into this world earlier than expected, weighing three pounds and 14 ounces. His mother, who struggled through a lingering labor, felt genuine joy after giving birth to her first baby.
“I felt euphoria,” Jayme Wier recalls.
But within seconds, Wier’s jubilation began giving way to the sorrowful reality of the situation-Justin died in her womb a few days earlier. An ultrasound revealed no heartbeat from her little bundle of hopes and dreams.
“That moment was the proudest and saddest of my life,” says Wier, a 26-year-old music teacher.
Still, Jayme and husband Tim dressed Justin in a light green outfit they picked out months earlier. They wrapped him in a patchwork quilt. And they cradled, coddled and cuddled him, whispering in unison, “We love you, Justin. We love you very much.”
The River Forest couple knew this euphoric, yet tragic moment was coming. They pondered it for weeks beforehand. They even planned for it by having these precious few hours together as a first-time family captured forever.
To them, it didn’t matter that Justin died before he lived. It didn’t matter that he was conceived with multiple medical problems or that his skin had already begun to shed. It didn’t matter that his soul prematurely ascended from his lifeless body.
What mattered was that they arranged for a professional photographer to be in the hospital delivery room for these fleeting moments.
“We wanted to memorialize the most private and intimate time of our lives,” Tim says.
Jayme, a part-time photographer, learned of a nonprofit organization called Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. The Colorado-based group coordinates 5,000 volunteer photographers in 20 countries to take intimate and sensitive portraits of newborn babies who face fatal fates.
The organization was co-founded in 2005 by two women-a mother whose baby died six days after birth and the photographer who captured the freeze-frame images of that family together. Other parents have since told the group that without such once-in-a-lifetime photos, these memories can fade away like a cemetery in a rearview mirror.
“It’s a topic that parents rarely think of unless they or someone they know are faced with a need for it,” says spokeswoman Danielle Pereira.
In many situations, parents find out their baby has only days or hours to live and, if they’re interested, hospital personnel refer them to Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. Unborn infants must be at least 25 weeks gestation, according to the organization’s criteria. In other situations, like with Jayme and Tim Wier, they have more time to make arrangements.
A few weeks before their baby was born, they met with David Hails, a 59-year-old photographer from Prospect Heights and a Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep coordinator for northeastern Illinois. They explained their rare situation and asked if he could be “on call” if needed.
“Sure,” he replied. “Just give me as much time as you can to get there and prepare.”
The Wiers were one of the first Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep families for Hails, one of six coordinators and 20 volunteer photographers in the Chicago metro region. He joined the group as a way to give back to society, figuring his involvement costs only his time.
“I immediately felt a special connection to Jayme and Tim,” says Hails, who has since photographed more than a dozen babies with their proud parents. “I rearranged my schedule so I could be ready for their call.”
A death, a birth
Last October, the Wiers celebrated the conception of Justin by rearranging their lives, announcing their great news and planning for their future as parents. Three months later, their dreams tossed and turned into a nightmare when a routine ultrasound discovered a chromosomal disorder with fatal complications.
Traditional advice tells parents not to bond with such doomed babies, to avoid getting their hearts broken. But this attitude is fading, with more parents not only choosing to bond with their babies, but also to bond with every minute of their shortened life.
“You can’t go back and make up for it later,” Jayme says.
This is ultimately why the Wiers decided to contact Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep and David Hails.
On April 4, after Jayme had the ultrasound revealing Justin died in her womb, the couple called Hails. They told him that doctors would soon induce labor and she would be giving birth within the next 24 hours.
They also called their families, who quickly filled the waiting room at Rush University Medical Center. The next day, a Saturday, Justin Allen Wier arrived at 6:25 p.m.
“It was a torpedo birth, with fluid everywhere,” recalls Tim, who first held Justin before placing him in Jayme’s arms.
Next, Justin’s grandparents held him and then other family members. Minutes later, Hails entered the room and shot several intimate photos of Justin with his proud parents. There were smiles. There were tears. There was love.
Hails caught it all on camera and minutes later he quietly left the family alone.
That night, the Wiers spent several hours alone with Justin, cooing into his ears “Mommy and Daddy love you,” and “We’ll see you in heaven.” Just before midnight, they finally called the nurses to take Justin away.
‘I have a son’
The couple agreed to an autopsy on Justin to determine exactly what caused his abnormalities and his death, but it proved inconclusive. Genetic testing also failed to explain God’s decision-making process, they discovered months later.
“We’ll never know,” Jayme sighs.
The school where Jayme teaches music class allowed an early dismissal for students to attend Justin’s funeral. A children’s choir sang “Children of the Heavenly Father,” a song Jayme had picked for her son’s baptism, not his death. And photos of Justin adorned the ceremony, taken by Hails, who also was in attendance.
Hails later presented the Wiers with a CD of digital images and a DVD slide show, set to music, of the family’s brief time together-at no charge, all compliments of the organization and volunteer photographer.
“We do whatever we can to help them deal with their grief,” Hails says.
The Wiers say that the group’s gesture helped comfort their pain during the worst time of their lives. They also keep photos of Justin in their wallet or purse and when someone asks if they have any children, they proudly pull out the images.
“I tell them I have a son, and his name is Justin,” Jayme says, wiping tears from her eyes. “He once existed, and I have these wonderful photos to show it.”
The couple has no regrets of allowing Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep into their lives and urges other parents in similar situations to at least consider it. This is why they allowed the organization to reveal their story, which is more common than it seems, they say.
“There’s a huge need for this organization, but too many parents are unaware it exists,” Tim says.
Pereira says her group is working on compiling the total number of families it has photographed the past three years, but she figures it’s in the hundreds and growing quickly.
Four months after Justin’s death, the Wiers received surprising news. Jayme is pregnant again. The couple’s baby-their second child, not their first-is due near Justin’s birth date.
For more information on Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, to talk with a photographer or to become a volunteer photographer, visit nowilaymedown tosleep.org, or contact David Hails at (847) 541-9051 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Why the name of Justin Allen?
Jayme and Tim Wier named their baby Justin Allen just one day before his birth, knowing full well his fate-death, and his destination-heaven.
“We wanted to find the perfect name, something that proclaimed a message,” says Jayme, a devout believer.
The couple chose Justin, which means “just or righteous,” and Allen, Tim’s middle name, which means “precious,” they say.
“He is and always will be our precious and righteous son,” Tim says.
Jerry Davich is a Chicago area writer and dad of two.