Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Woman Makes Portraits of Dying Newborns

The Key has offered a number of stories over the years about Alexandra's House, a perinatal hospice in Kansas City providing support to families facing the birth of a terminally ill child. A new aspect of this service came to light recently and Marty Denzer explains the quiet ministry of a woman who makes baby portraits for the families of the dying children. The story appears in the next issue of The Catholic Key.

Local artist draws poignant portraits for grieving parents

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter

KANSAS CITY — She spent many minutes huddled over a photograph of an infant, tears welling in her eyes and blurring her vision. No, she didn’t know the baby, but Maureen Noonan knew that somewhere a family was grieving over similar photos of a baby that had died at or soon after birth.
Her gift to that family would be a drawing of the baby, a keepsake embodying the memories of his or her brief life. Noonan shook her head to clear her eyes and began drawing.
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She has created about 60 portraits of infants over the past years, working from photographs forwarded to her from Alexandra’s House. The perinatal hospice provides emotional, spiritual and logistical support services for families facing a pregnancy of a child that won’t survive.
“My sister in New Jersey has a niece who lost her baby at birth,” Noonan recalled. “She wanted a portrait of the baby, and my sister sent me a photograph. That first one was very hard — a dead baby, oh, that was hard. But after a while, I got past the photo and the artist in me took over.
“Sometimes photographs are too graphic, but a portrait can be displayed,” she said.
Noonan has been teaching kindergarten at Visitation School for 10 years. While in college working toward a degree in elementary education, she took life-drawing classes, and discovered she could draw.
“I was in college during the touchy-feely days of the 1970s, when ‘experts’ said if you were going to teach art to kindergarteners, you had to do art yourself. I was a little surprised to discover I could draw and I liked to draw. Then I married George, who has 6,000 relatives,” she said with a grin, “and because back then we had no money I started doing line drawings of their houses for Christmas gifts.
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“After I did the portrait for my sister’s niece, I wanted to do more, but I didn’t know who to contact. Who would want this kind of ministry? Then George told me he had met Patti Lewis of Alexandra’s House and she was going to send me a photograph of an infant, and well, I’m working on five portraits now.”
Noonan can’t be matter-of-fact about her ministry. She can’t just shove it under the rug saying, “oh those poor parents” and then forget about it.
“These people have lost their child. I don’t know the parents but I’m torn between wanting to be true to the photograph and wanting to pretty things up. But this is the little face parents see. I’ve cried buckets, sometimes I’m crying while I’m drawing,” she said.
“You have to go into artist mode. With the first one, I made myself push through it to draw the portrait.”
Now she puts a CD in the player, often Jon Bon Jovi, and lets herself cry a while. Then with the music soothing and energizing her at the same time, she takes a deep breath, picks up her conte pencil and begins to draw.
Noonan mattes each portrait and decorates two corners with rosebuds. The rosebuds symbolize the child: beautiful but too fragile to reach his or her full potential.
The rosebud portrait Noonan created for Johnny and Susan Hart of baby Andrew is a treasured keepsake.
There was both sadness and beauty to the journey, Johnny remembered. The Harts, who were living in Washington State at the time, were looking forward to bringing home a new brother or sister for sons Luke and William, buying little outfits, and talking a lot about the baby. Then an ultrasound exam at 20 weeks showed an anomaly that could not be denied: a probable severe chromosome disorder.
The doctor offered several options, Johnny remembered, one, offered reluctantly, was terminating the pregnancy. Believing strongly in the sanctity of life, neither of the Harts would consider that option.
“Susan went through a whole box of Kleenex,” her husband said, “but in the end we were determined to carry this child to term. The doctor was a spiritual leader for us through the ordeal.”
The Harts decided to move back to Kansas City, where Johnny grew up and still has family here. The last few months of Susan’s pregnancy were hectic, with trying to sell their house in Washington, finding a place to live in Kansas City, keeping up with two small, active boys, all the while knowing that in the fall, the baby she carried would very likely die shortly after birth. An amniocentesis at 35 weeks showed the baby had trisomy 13, where there are three copies of chromosome 13 that usually results in mental retardation and often fatal defects to the central nervous system and heart. There would be no emergency treatment, only comfort care, as the life expectancy of infants with trisomy 13 was very low.
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Johnny’s mother, Helen, had met Patti Lewis at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church some time ago, and enthusiastically connected her son and daughter-in-law to Alexandra’s House.
“The family and Patti Lewis helped keep us strong,” Susan said. “Just entering Alexandra’s House you know a great many blessings are showered on you.”
The birth was very hard, she recalled. “Knowing the baby was not going to live very long was hard enough, but labor and delivery were difficult. William and Luke were there with us so they got to see and hold Andrew when he was born.”
He lived long enough to be baptized, Johnny said. That was a great comfort.
Andrew’s pregnancy and birth and death taught us compassion, Susan said.
The rosebud portrait Noonan created of Andrew lay on the coffee table. Susan, who is joyfully three months pregnant, picked it up and cradled it with tears in her eyes and a small, trembling smile.
“He was so gorgeous,” she said, “and we are grateful to God for letting us meet him. We have a beautiful advocate in heaven.
“And the portrait is a beautiful reminder of how special he was and still is,” Susan said. “I want to give the artist a big hug.”