It’s a day every little girl dreams of: her wedding day. But for 11-year-old Josie Zetz, her father’s pancreatic cancer could keep him from walking her down the aisle.
In October, Jim was diagnosed with an aggressive form of stage-4 pancreatic cancer, and doctors predict he will only live a few months longer. To address the memory they might have never shared, a photographer arranged to have Jim Zetz walk his daughter down the aisle on her 11th birthday.
“It was not easy to do, let me tell you, but I wouldn’t change it for the world,” Jim told ABC News. “In twenty years, when she really gets married, she’s going to be happy that happened.”
After receiving his diagnosis, Jim and his wife Grace Zetz reached out to Lindsey Villatoro, who specializes in photographing those who are terminally ill, to document some valuable memories in his last months.
“It’s been hard, his diagnosis was an aggressive one and things have gone by so quick,” Grace said. “We set goals to do so something every week.”
Villatoro’s first session with Jim was to photograph the 62-year-old and his wife, but after that she offered her services for free to photograph him with his daughter on her upcoming birthday. Rather than schedule a photo shoot in a park or her studio, she surprised the family by decorating their backyard for a faux wedding.
“I have an 11-year-old, so I basically just thought, if her dad wasn’t here, what would she want?” Villatoro told Today. “And I just thought about Josie being at her wedding in 20 years, and all of a sudden this video pops up and it’s this little girl in an oversized wedding dress [walking down the aisle] with her dad."
“We didn’t really know what was going to happen –- she put it all together in 72 hours,” Grace Zetz said. “She came in with three truckloads of decorations for my backyard!”
On her birthday, Villatoro surprised Josie and everyone else with a faux wedding so that father and daughter could share a special moment together–one they won’t be able to recreate on her real wedding day. During the emotional ceremony, Jim walked Josie down the aisle toward Gary Galbraith, the officiating pastor.
“Your dad may not get to see you get married, but he is here to walk you down the aisle today,” Galbraith told Josie. “The daddy and daughter relationship is one of the most special relationships in life.” He then pronounced them “daddy and daughter.”
“The therapists recommend we use big words and make her understand that none of this is her fault,” Grace said. “This is life and death and Jim has gotten a lot sicker over the past few weeks. She knows she has to be patient and it hurts.”
“Down the road this will mean a lot to her,” Jim told The Press-Enterprise after the ceremony. “She will always remember it.”
Villatora and her team from Love Song Photography put together this video from the ceremony: