I rarely shoot weddings anymore, but I'm convinced that if I never shoot another one again, it's all good- because of this couple. A quick backstory: I met Dan and Amanda through my dad. He's one of the funeral directors at Morrisette Funeral Home, and was asked to do the funeral for their son, Ryan, who tragically passed away last January from SIDS. When they told him that they were planning a summer wedding and were still looking for a photographer, my dad gave Amanda my contact info. She and I hit it off instantly and began planning for their engagement session later in the Spring.
But what I couldn't tell you in their engagement session post, was that I had been let in on some exciting news. A week before we did their session at Maymont, Amanda texted to tell me that she was pregnant. After losing Ryan, her oldest son, Mason, began asking if there would ever be another baby. It was early, but her ultrasound looked good and if all went well, by the time of their wedding, she would be far enough along to announce it at the reception. So we did a few announcement pictures at the end of their session- one of which would be included in a slide show during their reception. (Which meant that no one other than the three of them, myself, and Amanda's best friend would know about this little secret until then. Pressure! ;-) ) . And yet, the timing of it couldn't have been more perfect or poignant. On the day of the wedding, I think I was just as nervous and excited as they were. I was so afraid of saying anything that would give it away. To make matters more "tricky," Amanda was also dealing with some bouts of nausea, so we did our best to make sure she was able to keep something on her stomach.
A little later in the morning, I drove over to where Dan and Mason were getting ready. Mason is Amanda's son from her first marriage, but the way that Dan loves him like his own is such a beautiful thing to watch. And Mason adores him, too. In fact, I don't think anyone was more excited for this wedding to happen than this seven year-old.
Later, as their families and close friends arrived at my parents' house, so did the billowing storm clouds. We all watched the radar closely and kept our fingers crossed that we would at least be able to get through the ceremony before the rain started, but it was going to be a close call.
While everyone was hugging and greeting each other, and as last minute preparations were made, I kept noticing that the same dragonfly was circling the chairs. It landed on several of them and stayed a particularly long time at this one.
It was so important to Dan and Amanda that their sweet Ryan was included in the ceremony, and that his memory was honored. They printed a picture of him that they wanted my Dad to place on the first chair to the left in the front row before the ceremony began. It wasn't until I got home and uploaded all of the images that I realized his picture sat on the same chair that the dragonfly had stayed on for so long.
How can anyone reconcile such a devastating loss? How do we even make sense of it? I don't know, and I won't even pretend to think I have the answer. But I will say that there was something beautifully redemptive to watch two souls promise "for better or for worse," knowing full well that they'd already experienced the latter, to watch them laugh and cry, and bear witness to both the depth of their love- and their loss. When we talk about "sacred ground," I have to believe this is what we mean.
Dan and Amanda had mixed in some of Ryan's ashes with the sand that they poured.
The forecast called for strong thunderstorms later in the day (and they were right. We all had to practically swim to get to the reception site an hour later). But thankfully, we were at least able to get all of the family pictures finished outside before the first drops fell.
After the toasts, they cut the cake, and then Dan and Amanda told their guests that they wanted to do a quick slide show a few of their favorites from their engagement session. They purposely didn't show any of their family members the pictures I took until that day, so they'd be able to make the announcement.
(Just look at Mason and how excited he is for the due date picture to pop up on the screen!)
I kept stealing glances over at Amanda and Dan. Finally, when the picture with the announcement popped up, Mason couldn't contain his excitement and yelled out, "My Mommy is pregnant!!!!!"
You guys, the faces around that table.
Even though I managed to snap their expressions during those first few seconds, I can tell you right now that none of these pictures do it justice. The gasps, the screeching of wooden chair legs against the floor as their family and friends went to throw their arms around them- it was all so beautifully chaotic and raw.
As I watched the onset of happy tears (all the while crying my own river), I wondered if maybe it felt shocking to them- or even foreign- only because grief has a way of making us believe we might never be able to smile or belly laugh or be in awe of something ever again.
But that's a lie.
Because sometimes, on the other side of those nearly suffocating clouds of grief- dark and thick like the ones that blew in on that Saturday in early June- we find that there's a rainbow after all.
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In memory of Ryan Patrick Mullaney