The focus of Jessica Sowards' portraits are usually warm fuzzies — baby bumps, birthdays and other family milestones.
So it was with great irony and pain this week that the Arkansas photographer snapped the saddest image her lens has ever captured.
The photo is of her close friend April Smith lying in a hospital bed. Smith’s face is swollen and battered. Two broken legs and a fractured pelvis will keep her from walking for months.
But even worse, the tornado also claimed the lives of her two children, 9-year-old Cameron and 7-year-old Tyler.
The whole family, along with husband and dad Daniel Smith, were beneath a mattress in a bathtub last Sunday evening when the violent twister obliterated their Vilonia, Ark., home. Daniel suffered head trauma and is recovering at a separate Little Rock hospital from his wife.
Cameron and Tyler were among eight Vilonia residents who died on Sunday. The Arkansas tornado, which packed wind speeds of up to 200 mph, killed 15 people in all. The Smiths' home was wiped from its foundation. Their church has set up a fund for the family.
Sowards sobbed for two days imagining that her friend and fellow church member would never be the same.
“But within 10 minutes of arriving at the hospital, I realized she was the same strong person, even stronger,” Sowards told Yahoo News. “She said, ‘I’m going to miss them so bad, but I know that they’re OK. I don’t understand this, but I trust God.’ ”
Don’t confuse Smith’s faith for a lack of suffering. Sowards, 28, spent part of her visit lying next to her friend, as the two cried.
“She is in a tremendous amount of emotional pain,” Sowards said. “But she is not in despair. There's a difference, and the difference is Christ.”
Before leaving, Sowards asked Smith, 28, if she wanted her to take her photo in case she someday wanted to go public with how she persevered. The grieving mother agreed with one stipulation.
“Show them now,” Smith said from her hospital bed. “Show them what my God can overcome. Show them now.”
The selfless gesture inspired Sowards who — with Smith’s blessing — went home and blogged about her friend’s incredible optimism in the face of adversity. The story, published to Sowards' personal blog where she infrequently journals about parenting and faith, included the photo from the hospital and details of her bedside visit.
For those of you who have been worried about April and Daniel, worried that they would not be the same, that they could not carry on past this loss, please don’t worry any more. I have seen her hope. It is anchored in eternity. It is the kind of hope that saves people. And that’s not just the optimist in me talking. For those of you wondering how a mother could serve a God that might allow this, understand that Tyler and Cameron knew Jesus.
“Her faith just lifted this huge weight of pain off of me, and I knew that I couldn’t keep that to myself,” she said.
More likely, the amazing tale of her friend’s fortitude inspired others to share her story. Sowards put a link to her blog post on her Facebook wall. Within an hour, the story had 7,000 page views. In two hours, it was 21,000. By the end of the day, it had grown to 400,000. As of Friday morning, the post had been viewed more than 1.5 million times.
“I thought I was writing for my friend to feel some relief,” Sowards said.
Instead she said she’s getting inundated with messages from people who say the story has inspired them to make or renew their own spiritual connections. She said that April, who leads her church’s deaf ministry, cried tears of joy in her hospital bed Thursday night.
Scott Harness, the Smiths' pastor at ThatChurch.com in Sherwood, Ark., said he knows April’s spiritual strength “sounds sensational, but it’s not, I’m just telling you.”
Harness, who will officiate at the boys’ funeral next week, said he has seen April show her unwavering faith to all who have visited the hospital this week.
“You can’t fake that when you are faced with a tragedy that not only affects one child, but both of your children,” he said. “Not only that, but she’s in a bed and her body is broken and in pain. Yet she still has this inextinguishable hope.”
Follow Jason Sickles on Twitter (@jasonsickles).