Judah Alexander Vega was born with a cap of black hair.
The baby boy weighed 6 pounds and 3 ounces, delivered by C-section on Sept. 6, 2014, a week after his due date.
He was beautiful.
Jolie Vega still remembers the feeling when she saw him, so small and still. So precious and perfect.
“That same proud mommy moment as moms have with their live babies.”
Her pregnancy had been normal -- although her blood pressure had started to rise, and then suddenly spiked the night before Judah’s birth.
By the time they arrived at the hospital the baby’s heart had stopped beating.
“I’ve never questioned why,” his mother says. “It happens to some people, it happened to me.”
It happened and Judah’s parents’ grief was as bottomless as their love for him, overlaid by a blur of visiting family and sympathetic friends, a memorial service and then, suddenly, the two of them alone to carry on, not knowing how.
“The world keeps going and you’re stuck where you’re at.”
The idea for an organization to support other bereaved parents grew from Judah’s loss, and a miscarriage that followed.
No Footprint Too Small Birth and Bereavement Services launched in late April, a registered non-profit with a board of directors, a website and Facebook page, and two mental health professionals who provide free counseling to parents.
So far, 13 families have received care packages and support from the group.
The supplies are stored in a basement office at Jolie and Charlie’s house -- books on grieving, and kits for making molds of a baby’s feet, gift cards to restaurants, baby powder-scented candles, handmade picture frames, journals, hand-knitted angel wings.
All of it free, each package customized to the family receiving it. Delivered in person, if the parents are willing.
Jillian and Mackenzie Hemje were willing. The couple lost twin girls, Thea and Claire, on May 13, nine days after their premature births.
Jolie mailed them a care package and later came to visit, listening while the couple shared their feelings, a swirl of emotions.
“We didn’t know anyone else who had a loss like ours, and so it was like she legitimized how we felt,” Mackenzie said. “It made us feel like we were normal.”
Jolie gave them two small bears filled with rice, each the precise weight of Thea and Claire.
The memory bears are custom made, free to any grieving parent.
In those dark weeks after Judah died, Jolie felt a heavy weight on her chest and she woke in pain at night, struggling to breathe. She went to the emergency room once, afraid she was having a heart attack.
The doctor checked her over, ruling out a physical cause for her distress, then he began to ask questions. She told him about Judah.
He looked at her with sympathetic eyes. I’m sorry, he told her, but I think it’s just grief.
A friend gave her a memory bear, 6 pounds and 3 ounces. And one night her grief heavy, Jolie went to Judah's nursery and wrapped the bear in hospital blanket and held it in her arms.
In that moment, for that moment, it eased the pain of her journey.
“After a loss, a mother’s heart and arms literally ache to hold her baby.”
And Charlie ached for his son, too, although he tried to be strong. “It’s harder for the dad because we’re not used to showing emotions.”
No Footprint Too Small was Jolie’s passion, he says.
“She has like a big heart, and when she has an idea in her head, she does it.”
The couple met while both served in the Air National Guard -- Jolie in Nebraska, Charlie back in Rhode Island, father of a young son.
Jolie worked as a civilian for the Nebraska Army National Guard in suicide prevention; this summer she began a new job as the bereavement and volunteer coordinator at HoriSun Hospice.
After losing Judah, she’d begun training as a doula, assisting laboring mothers -- specializing in infant loss -- and the idea for No Footprint grew.
One in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage or infant death, she says, 30,000 babies a year are born still in the United States, 90,000 babies die before their first birthday.
And the subject remains so taboo.
“Our society is so uncomfortable with death anyway and when it’s a baby it’s even more so, because a baby isn’t supposed to die.”
Often, people don’t talk about the loss, not knowing what to say, says Vanessa Neuhaus, a licensed mental health counselor who volunteers her services to the nonprofit. And that means parents are left alone in their sorrow.
The marriage and family therapist had already been offering free bereavement counseling before meeting Jolie and was happy to team up with No Footprint.
And with Jolie.
“To have a loss like Judah, to be 41 weeks pregnant and have a stillbirth and to take the isolation and confusion she experienced and say, ‘I’m not going to let this happen to anybody else,’ is amazing.”
The need is there, the counselor said.
“I’ve been praying, please let somebody sponsor the organization -- she’s been digging it out of her own pocket.”
The group’s first fundraiser is Thursday at James Arthur Vineyard with wine and a chocolate fountain, live music and a silent auction.
Jolie has been busy gathering donations, she’s been busy working, she’s been busy taking care of Aviana Elise, now 9 months old.
A beautiful baby girl born with a cap of black hair, just like her brother Judah, the baby boy her mother loved from the first time she heard his heart beat.
And will love always.