The gift

Photographer Todd Hochberg, left, presents an album of photographs to Carolyn and Brian Schroeder and their son James, 10, center, at Children's Memorial Hospital. Hochberg photographed the Schroeder's daughter, Anna, who died 16 days after her birth from complications caused by a genetic abnormality. (Tribune photo by Michael Tercha / March 23, 2010)

Carolyn and Brian Schroeder never imagined this kind of baby photo album.

"Don't take this the wrong way," Brian said to photographer Todd Hochberg. "We want to see the pictures, but there's a part of me that doesn't want to see them."

Hochberg murmured reassurance. He handed over a black album. Carolyn took a steadying breath, and opened it. And then, in its pages, the couple's baby once again lived, and once again died.

In arresting black and white photographs as beautiful as they are heartbreaking, the Schroeders, of Palatine, cradle Anna, who was born with a genetic disorder and died after 16 days. Her brother Liam, 7, clutches her like he will never let her go.

"There's the blanket," Carolyn said. "I made that — a little pink blanket. I was making a bigger blanket for the stroller and car seat. But she didn't need that."

"And that's the little outfit. Remember? I didn't want her to die in the clothes from the hospital. We had so many pieces of clothing at home, but when we left for the hospital I forgot the bag. I was so mad. So we came in and drove around to find a baby shop."

She and her husband turned pages in silence broken by occasional sniffling. Their son James, 10, knelt on the floor of the meeting room at Children's Memorial Hospital. Carolyn put her arm around him.

"We're all doing this together, right?" she murmured.

She turned to Hochberg. "These are really amazing," she said.

And for the album they would have given anything not to receive, the Schroeders thanked him.

For more than 12 years, Hochberg, of Evanston, has been documenting the deaths of babies. He does so at the request of parents who learn of his services from chaplains, nurses and bereavement coordinators at area hospitals. As they hold, bathe and baptize their children, he quietly takes pictures. He sometimes returns several times over weeks or months to follow the unfolding story, which often ends when parents decide to remove their child from life support.

It may seem unbearably sad work. Hochberg has witnessed hundreds of babies' deaths, sometimes two or even three in a day.

But to Hochberg, 54, photographing babies who are stillborn or the short lives of those born with catastrophic medical problems is a way to help their suffering families and also an affirmation of life.

In the brief time parents have with their children — sacred time, one grieving mother calls it — he sees moments of deep connection.

"Grief has a way of breaking down everything else," he said. "Our humanity just shines."

For shattered parents, his photographs are treasure.

"When you go through a trauma like that, sometimes you look back and it's surreal," said Pamela Van Tassel, of Plainfield, whose daughter, Ava, died in 2007 within hours of her birth. "Did that really happen? And — yeah, I really did carry her. She kicked the crap out of me in the womb. And then I delivered her and she was gone the same night.

"But she was there."

So was Hochberg, with a manner parents describe as unobtrusive and comforting.