April 2, 2014 at 12:59 PM ET
A dying father has given his young daughter a memory to last a lifetime, ensuring he will be by her side when she walks down the aisle one day — even if he won't be able to stand next to her.
After Jim Zetz, 62, was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer last year, he reached out to photographer Lindsey Villatoro to make sure he and his family could capture some happy moments on film.
Villatoro, a professional lifestyle, family and wedding photographer based in Menifee, Calif., also specializes in photo sessions with people who are sick or have terminal illnesses, so they can create lasting memories with their loved ones.
She was inspired to do this two years ago, when a friend asked her to take photos of her last months with her husband who had been diagnosed with cancer. After the husband passed away, Villatoro said she realized she could give other families the same opportunity that had meant so much to her friend.
“I decided that I can give someone the gift that people don’t even think about,” she told TODAY.com. “ I wanted to not just photograph people for memories, but for lasting impressions.”
Zetz and his wife Grace met Villatoro for a photo session in February, and the photographer offered to return and give them a free sitting with their daughter Josie, who would be soon celebrating her 11th birthday.
As a mother of three girls, including one who is Josie’s age, Villatoro was especially moved that Josie would be losing her father so young, and wanted to do something special for her birthday. That's when she came up with an unusual but moving idea.
“I have an 11-year-old, so I basically just thought, if her dad wasn’t here, what would she want?” Villatoro said. “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.”
After getting the approval of Josie’s mother, Villatoro was able to organize the surprise event in three days, securing a designer gown, hair and makeup, flowers, catering and even a pastor on short notice for the mini-"wedding," which was held in the Zetzs’ backyard.
Josie was unaware of what had been planned for her until the day of the ceremony, which took place on March 28, the day after her birthday. When she was told that she’d have a chance to have her father walk her down the aisle, Villatoro said that Josie was initially overwhelmed, but ultimately wanted to do it because she knew how much it would mean to her dad.
For the special day, Josie wore a lacy white gown designed by Jaime Stephens of elyseREUBEN Couture. Villatoro specifically chose the bridal designer because Josie has taken sewing lessons from Stephens. Josie’s gown actually made its debut on the runway at 2014 L.A. Fashion Week, and Stephens had a staff member deliver it to Villatoro so Josie could wear it the very next day.
Pastor Gary Galbraith officiated the emotional "ceremony," and told Josie that “your dad may not get to see you get married, but he is here to walk you down the aisle today,” according to The Press-Enterprise, which had a reporter in attendance. “The daddy and daughter relationship is one of the most special relationships in life.”
After Jim Zetz gave his daughter a promise ring, Galbraith pronounced them “daddy and daughter.”
Villatoro produced a video of the day, with the intention that Josie could play it if and when she does eventually get married, so that it will feel like her dad is with her.
The ceremony was very emotional for the Zetz family and those in attendance, Villatoro said, with Josie clinging to her dad and both shedding tears. But she noted that the young girl also enjoyed her special day, saying she felt like a princess and and afterwards called it “the best day of my life.”
Jim Zetz also seemed happy to have had the chance to fulfill the cherished father-daughter tradition.
“Down the road this will mean a lot to her,” he told The Press-Enterprise after the ceremony. “She will always remember it.”
Villatoro says she was honored to have organized an occasion that celebrated Jim as well as Josie.
“No one ever thinks of the celebration of that person until they’ve died,” she noted. “These types of moments are just special moments with the family when that person is still there, and they get to enjoy these moments together.”