I’m out of the right words to say how I feel about finally being able to share this session – and this family – with you. All the usual ones – excited, proud, honored – don’t seem to say it right or enough. So, I’m not going to try. Hopefully these paragraphs will speak for themselves.
The Butler Family won my Our Story competition last August and were chosen by me and my family to receive the complete Our Story experience for free. There were so many deserving stories that you all shared with me and it was hard to pick just one but the Butler’s stood out for so many reasons that will become clear as you watch the above video and read on.
For the last 5 years, Lisa Butler has been battling stage 4, metastatic melanoma. It began when she found a lump in her neck and progressed later to her brain and then her ovaries. (Yes, it’s news to me too that melanoma isn’t just skin cancer.) Her cancer is a-typical and fast-growing, meaning that almost every time that surgeons have gone in to remove tumors, they’ve been too late to stop its spread. Lisa has undergone multiple surgeries, gruelling cancer treatments and even more procedures to deal with the negative impacts on her body that these treatments leave behind. She’s so young, a mother of 3 children, and wife to her teenage sweetheart, Gary. She has a lot of reasons to stick around and she’s fighting hard with admirable grace despite setback after setback.
As if this wasn’t enough, the Butler family deals with Autism in their eldest, Sensory Processing Disorder in their youngest, and Gary (an Iraq war veteran) deals with PTSD after being seriously injured by an IED in combat. To top the list of things that make their life less than easy, the family also has serious gluten, dairy and peanut allergies that they have to work around every day.
And yet, they are some of the most positive, loving, joyful and just “real” people I have ever met. It sounds like a cliche, I know – grace in the face of pain and challenge – but this family live out that reality every day and in every interaction I have had with them. Before I even picked-up a camera, I met them at their home in Roseville and chatted with them for 2 hours, getting to know each of them and their story.
Lisa and Gary say things like “I wouldn’t change anything, not even the cancer, because it has brought us closer together.” And “Because of the cancer, Gary has become a better father and I have learned to enjoy the little, simple moments more.” And you can tell that they mean them with every fiber of their being when they say it. Their laughter is whole-hearted and full-bodied. Lisa, especially, has this amazing chuckle that consumes her whole face and that goes on and on until you have no choice but to join her. As a family, they find humor in even the toughest conversations. Talking about deceased pets and cancer and autism, the tone is positive and interlaced with self-deprecating jokes. I’m certain there are many moments when darker emotions take over but their attitude to the tough stuff is humbling at the least.
Theirs is a love story that began when Gary saw Lisa walking across a deserted church courtyard when he was just 17. He was too shy to talk. She was too shy to even assume his interest. He wrote her poems instead. But even then it took Gary months to pluck up the courage to speak to her and even longer to get a date. But all the time Gary was certain she was the woman he was going to marry. When he asked Lisa’s parents for her hand in marriage, her father agreed but her mother outlined a list of 7 hurdles he had to jump over before she would give her blessing, figuring the young couple would drift apart in the time between. Gary went away in earnest and conquered every single one of them, joining the army to provide financial stability for his bride-to-be, and then returning to claim her hand in marriage finally. It’s truly a beautiful story that I don’t have the time or space to do justice here; this is only a vastly oversimplified snippet. Needless to say, Gary and Lisa are deeply in love in a way that is inspiring to see and experience.
After 6 months of working on their project, I finally got to present their full image gallery and 35 page leather album to them last night. My family and I hosted them at our home and I cooked an allergy-free mea for them while their kids and my little one raced around our back yard. The squeals of joy even caught the attention of some children in the yard behind who were visiting their grandparents, and before we knew it they were climbing over the back fence to join in. My husband and I shook our heads with the absurdity of it all. Our neighborhood is almost always deathly quiet but on this evening it was alive with the sound of children laughing and playing. It reminded me that when you invite love and joy in, it’s contagious.
It was wonderful to be beside Lisa and Gary as they watched an extended version of the above video on my TV set, to see Lisa’s tears of happiness at the moments I captured, and to hear her gratitude for the little details that even I hadn’t realized I’d immortalized but that meant so much to her. Details like her daughter’s messy hair, tangled from her devoted cat Po who sleeps in it every night; her youngest’s precious pillow pressed against his cheek lovingly and the way he wears his shirts with one collar up; and her eldest’s hands, long fingers so interesting, wrapped around the spine of a book. These are the things seen only through a parent’s eyes. To the rest of us they go almost unnoticed or dismissed as accident or commonplace but, to mom and dad, they are the small pieces of each child that add-up to make them each remarkable, beautiful and theirs.
The sad conclusion to the night was a conversation I had with Lisa when she gave me an update on her progress. She’s not been tolerating the most recent treatments well and so they’re changing-up her drugs this coming week. But more worrying is a recent scan that showed 2-3mm nodules in her lungs. They could be from an immune response from the treatment she’s been on, a chest cold, or could be melanoma tumors growing in her lungs. She’ll find out in around 6 weeks when she returns for a follow-up scan. If it is the latter, the prognosis is not good.
Despite her positivity – she refuses to give into worry or anxiety in case it robs her of any quality time she has left – I could sense the weariness underneath the determination, the heaviness that wasn’t there when I met them first last October. She has already been through so much and having to gear-up for another potential fight when the last one has not yet been properly announced as won, is a daunting prospect.
If you would like to follow Lisa’s progress, she has a journal on the Caringbridge.com site. You need to have an account to join but it’s free to sign-up. You can also donate to the Butler family and, if you are financially able, I would love it if you could show your support by doing so. Not only are Lisa’s cancer treatments physically difficult, they force the family to max-out their annual deductible every year, and then there is the strain of trying to manage a family of 5 on one income while one parent is often too sick to participate. To donate, click here.
Finally, I’ll sign off with a last-but-not-least shout-out to singer/songwriter Elizabeth Ann Mall who answered my Craigslist ad for someone to write a love song for my clients for free. Her song, Deep in Love, is the second song on the video and I am so grateful for her time, her generosity and her talent. I love the song and I love that we were able to give Gary and Lisa something truly unique, something inspired-by and for them only. Please visit Elizabeth’s website to learn more about her and/or Like her Facebook page. While you’re there, let her know I sent you. She’s incredibly talented and I’m lucky to have found her: elizabethannemall.com and facebook.com/elizabethannemall
Please watch the above video to see some of the images from our session and to hear Elizabeth’s song. Below are a couple of photos of the leather album I created for the family too.
Thank you for listening and please keep Lisa, Gary and their children in your prayers.