The odds are stacked against Jim Zetz living long enough to witness the wedding of his 11-year-old daughter, Josie. But that did not stop one photographer from making sure that the 62-year-old father, who has advanced pancreatic cancer, could walk Josie down the aisle.
A staged "wedding" in which Jim and Josie were pronounced "daddy and daughter" was the idea of Lindsey Villatoro. She met Jim and his wife, Grace, after snapping one of the family's last portraits together. Villatoro has been photographing terminally ill clients for two years. She did not charge the Zetzes for their photos.
"One day [you] wake up and realize you're given the opportunity to changes someone's life for the better," Villatoro wrote in a description of the slideshow from the ceremony on Vimeo. "You get an idea, don't think twice and Run with it."
About four days before the big event, Villatoro contacted Grace and told her about the plan. It was an idea that came to the mother of three after she walked by a rack of white dresses in the girls' section at Macy's.
"Josie said she was going to miss memories of her dad," Villatoro told us. "So when I told (Grace) my idea, she started crying."
Jim's wife was under the impression that there would simply be a cake and a dress from Macy's, with Villatoro doing Josie's makeup. But as soon as Villatoro hung up the phone, she thought, "Screw that, we can go way bigger than this."
The photographer began soliciting donations under the pretense that there would be a party for Josie's 11th birthday. Within 72 hours, she gathered a pastor, someone to do Josie's hair and makeup, a cake, a vintage set, caterers, and a designer dress — all at no charge. Josie even had her own gift table, laden with gifts that Villatoro said exceeded $2,000 in value.
On the night of March 13, less than 24 hours before the big day, Villatoro revealed the actual plan to her vendors in a group Facebook message. She also asked them to say a prayer for her the next morning — because she had never attempted to pull off such an elaborate surprise.
The ceremony went off better than anyone could have imagined. Josie gushed to her mother the next day that the wedding was "the best day of her life," and Jim also expressed his gratitude.
"You have no idea what this means to me," he told Villatoro. "I wish I could show you how much this has affected my life."
Now the story is affecting others.
"The response has been awesome," said Villatoro. "People want to see something warm and fuzzy. This is a positive story."
It was Grace's idea to share the story online so that family and friends who were not there could see it. They had no idea that so many people from around the globe would be moved by it.
"One lady called me yesterday; it sounded like she might have been in a car accident," recalled Villatoro. "She was hyperventilating and saying, 'Oh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh.' I said, 'Are you OK?' She said, 'I'm so sorry. That touched me in more ways in one. A piece of my heart walked down that aisle with Jim.'"
The woman, whom Villatoro did not know, had lost her father to pancreatic cancer and said she wished she had recorded a moment like this to share with loved ones.
Responses like this have encouraged the Zetzes to continue spreading their story.
"(Grace's) goal is to start or team with an organization to find a cure for this," Villatoro said. "She wants Jim's presence to be out there."
In the meantime, Villatoro is fielding nearly nonstop calls to her business, including calls from other people who want to book photo sessions for loved ones. As for the Zetzes, they are currently enjoying a vacation — their first together as a family.