A hauntingly beautiful photo of a twin with his brother’s ashes has stolen the hearts of the world and won a prestigious international photography award. In just a single image, a New Zealand photographer has captured the heartbreak and the joy of one couple’s difficult journey.
At five-months-pregnant with twins, Cherie Ayrton’s world came crashing down. Mother’s instinct had been niggling at the mum-of-two, and her worst fears were realised. Through her story, she’s giving hope and comfort to other families struggling with the loss of a child.
‘I knew straight away we were having twins’
Cherie and her husband Hayden found out they were expecting not long after a getaway for the New Zealand mum’s 30th birthday. And that super strong mum’s instinct kicked in immediately.
“I knew straight away, before the first scan, that we were having twins,” Cherie told Mum’s Grapevine. “I had this strong feeling. My younger sisters are twins and I have a set of twin cousins, so twins run strong in our family. My youngest daughter was a twin pregnancy too, although we found out at our eight-week scan that her twin had no heartbeat. Finding out her twin hadn’t survived was emotional for me, but as we were only very early on when it happened I feel like I managed my grief a lot easier. By the time we had our 12-week scan, my body had absorbed her twin.
“We booked in our dating scan and joked that there was going to be two. Sure enough, there they were! Two little-flashing heartbeats. I couldn’t have been more proud or excited. My husband and I both looked and each other and laughed. Time to get a van!”
While the couple was thrilled, they kept their double joy quiet for the first three months, uneasy after their first twin loss. They booked their second scan for 14 weeks and breathed a sigh of relief to see their babies happy and healthy.
“Our sonographer told us that they were the healthiest twins she had ever scanned! They were both growing beautifully and they were pretty much the exact same size as each other. She also told us they were two little boys! As you can imagine, the excitement was unreal. Two boys to complete our little family! How lucky were we! Two healthy babies growing so perfectly.”
Cherie announced her news to the world and booked a maternity and newborn shoot with Sarah Simmons from Charlie Horse Photography. “With this being our last baby(s), I wanted to have all the memories I could get, and Sarah’s work is incredible, I knew I had to book with her!”
Cherie’s pregnancy ticked along uneventfully, and she booked her five-month anatomy scan for just after Christmas. The family counted down the days until they saw their boys again.
“On Christmas day I remember saying to my sister that I felt like something was wrong. I don’t know what it was, just a worry I had. I said to her I hoped they were both ok and I became nervous about the scan,” Cherie explains.
“A week or so prior, I remember waking up and saying to my husband that I felt like my tummy had shrunk. He looked at me and agreed. Although we didn’t think much of it at the time, I shrugged it off as my morning tum! My tummy was always a lot smaller in the mornings. Scan day came along. 27 December 2017. The day my heart broke. Our sonographer started scanning. She said she was going to work on one twin at a time. She started on Tiger. He was measuring just perfectly. Healthy, heart beating beautifully, wriggling around up on the screen. She then moved over to start scanning Johnny. Her whole face dropped and her eyes looked sad. I could tell straight away something wasn’t right. She went on to ask me questions like ‘Is this an IVF pregnancy? How have you been feeling? How did your last scan go? I replied with, no it’s not an IVF pregnancy, what’s wrong? Something’s wrong…
“She stopped scanning and said to us, ‘I’m so sorry’. Three words that completely broke my heart and changed my life forever. Johnny’s heartbeat was undetectable, and he was measuring slightly smaller than Tiger. My worst nightmare had become my reality.
“I had my husband and our two girls with us at our scan. I broke and curled up on the bed. I remember then looking up at the sonographer and she was also pregnant. She looked so upset for us. I remember thinking how horrible for her. Having to break that news to us. She left the room and gave us time to cry, cuddle and talk. I had to try to stay brave for my five-year-old. But in turn, it was the opposite. She stayed brave for me. I felt her little heartbreak. She was so looking forward to having little brothers. But all her little mind was worried about was me. My husband’s heart broke. Our lives were changed that day. The worst day of my entire life.
“We were sent over to the hospital to get more information about what was to happen next. I had so many questions. Do they take him out? Will I lose Tiger too? Leaving with worry, grief, anxiety, sadness, and worst of all a broken heart, we drove over to see the specialist. We were told that they couldn’t give us an answer as to why he had died. That we could have done testing if he was a single birth but with him being a twin we would risk losing Tiger. We were told that we were very lucky that they were fraternal twins, if they were identical we would have lost both. Because Johnny was in his own little sack, he wouldn’t poison Tiger once he starts ‘breaking down’. I had to continue my pregnancy until full term. The only reason they would induce me earlier would be if Johnny was to restrict Tigers growth or health.”
Heartbreak and joy
Over the next four months, as Tiger continued to grow, Cherie had to watch Johnny fading.
“I was scanned fortnightly. I had to slowly watch my son break down. First, his little eyes, nose and beautiful lips became harder to see. Then his tiny fingers and tiny toes started to look like they were fusing together. Finally, it got to the point where he lost all of his features. It was torture. I dreaded every single scan because I was scared of what I was going to see next. But on the other hand, I couldn’t wait until my next scan was booked so I could see him, and see his brother. Make sure Tiger was ok. Feelings of great sadness for my son, mixed with extreme happiness for my healthy growing baby, was a complete mind screw. I felt like a temporary coffin. Just waiting for the day to get him out so I could grieve. But then never wanting to give birth, because I knew once he was out he was gone forever. It was me keeping him here. My body. My womb. My broken heart.
“On 2 May 2018 at 38 weeks pregnant we gave birth to our two beautiful boys. We cried, we smiled, we loved, and we enjoyed one night with our two boys together and family surrounding us. Parts of Johnny had fused to Tigers placenta, so we decided to leave him on there and have both cremated together. The next morning came and Johnny was taken over to the funeral home to be cremated. We went home and I counted down the days to get him back with us. It felt like forever.”
The family picked up Johnny’s ashes a few days later and finally brought their son back home.
“The sense of relief for me was huge. But my heart was still shattered. I felt empty. I had my beautiful new baby, but there should have been two. Why did this horrible thing happen to us? It wasn’t fair. It’s still not fair.”
A moment in time
Photographer Sarah Simmons floated an idea with Cherie – a way to capture the boys in a photo together. What she created has resonated with parents around the world.
‘When Sarah sent me the photo she created, I was absolutely blown away. This picture means the world to us and we are just so happy that she is getting the recognition that she deserves. Sarah is extremely talented, and her picture speaks a thousand words. It’s strong, powerful, emotional. The bond she has created by using the cloth to represent an umbilical cord joining them together is just so creative, along with the bowls used to represent my womb. Everything was so well thought out and we will be forever grateful to her.”
Described as a ‘the most beautiful representation of life’, the image won the newborn category in the prestigious Portrait Masters in Las Vegas.
Sarah explained to Mum’s Grapevine that she wanted to come up with a way to photograph the brothers together and represent the bond they had in the womb.
“It was pretty emotional at the time but I was really determined to get the image for Cherie and her family. I knew it would be one of the most important images I would take. I just thought how much I would want that if I was in that position. It is an incredible honour to have the image shared all over the world, it means so much to me that Cherie is able to share her story with so many. I know it is resonating with so many and I know Cherie wants other people going through a similar grief to know they are not alone.”
Cherie says seeing her boys’ image being shared globally is an honour.
“I love the fact my son’s memory might help other families get through their own journeys. Since losing Johnny I’ve been trying to raise awareness … and the outcry in other women going through similar experiences is huge. In sharing my son’s story, hopefully, my hurt can help others heal. It’s a lonely journey if no one speaks up.
“I will always feel like I have something missing, and that’s my son. Johnny James Tiger Ayrton. I want people to speak his name. I want him to be acknowledged. He was created. I carried him. I birthed him. I love him. I am his mother, and I will always have an empty space in my heart for him. My life is forever changed. This is my reality, I hope and pray it will never be any of yours.”