Do we still consider ourselves in the midst of a pandemic? At the tail end? Does your cat’s tail shake oddly sometimes, too?
These are questions I ask myself. I just told someone this week my spirit animal is a squirrel. It feels accurate.
I love shooting engagement sessions. They are in a battle for first place with senior sessions because both are something I consider precious points in the lives of those I’m capturing. In the case of engagements, I get the opportunity to get to know a couple a bit better but also to see how they naturally love each other. Of course they are each unique in that display but I don’t often have to direct the affianced to hug or kiss more.
Meet Jake and Melissa. Jake is my second cousin and he hails from the Lansing area. Do people hail from there or Ann Arbor? #fightsongs I have to be honest in that I didn’t know either of them well outside of a family gathering here or there but it didn’t take long to see how clearly adorable they are. But they both shared that it felt entirely awkward to get cozy in front of a camera.
So, we worked on it one fall day in Hastings. And they fared just fine. I’d even say that by the end of the session that if they still felt awkward, it was much less apparent. They also had me giggling so I was thankful to see that Lowman humor alive and well. Well, we think we’re funny anyway.
Enter a pandemic. We’d done the engagement photos that fall day in 2019 and their planned May 2020 wedding was turning out to be a venue and attendance bust. They opted out of the formal affair but continued forward with their plans and got married in a small backyard ceremony having family in close proximity take photos. Thankfully, they decided to continue forward with a celebration this past May just shy of their one-year anniversary on a beautiful nature preserve inviting me to be a part of capturing that special day. I feel like the whole idea of celebrating a wedding twice is kind of fun; I mean, choosing the same person twice over the course of 2020 should be affirmation of a strong connection.
What I didn’t know in any capacity until just recently was just how much of a story they had to share. And I’m thankful that Melissa took the time this past week to let me in on how the trajectory of her life has changed since she started dating Jake.
First, Melissa and Jake. They met at Lansing Community College (LCC) in early 2014 in English class. Melissa didn’t notice Jake at first (sorry, Jake!) sitting next to her on the first day. Upon switching classrooms, there was the awkward ‘you go first’ as they both came to the door to make the transition. He intentionally found a spot near her and apparently flirted for a good long while until Melissa finally caught on. As the two got to know each other, he asked her to go see a band. She said she was surprised. I truly hope it’s because she was clueless because obviously, she’s a beautiful young woman. It wasn’t long before they made it official in April 2014 and she said, ‘from there, that was it.’ They talked marriage not more than a year later; Melissa was Jake’s first relationship so clearly the boy knew what he wanted.
Five years to the day that Jake and Melissa started dating, they became homeowners. I love that this had been a goal of theirs and on the day they moved in (Easter of 2019), Jake gifted Melissa with an Easter basket that included a golden egg with a scrap of paper inside asking the all important question – ‘Will you marry me?’ When she turned towards him, he was on bended knee in the middle of an empty living room with a ring. Could one actually say no to that? It feels like a rom com, honestly.
So because there was a first part of the story, there has to be a second. And that tracks back to 2016. Melissa has an identical twin, Morgan. The two had just come back from a Kalahari vacation and Morgan was nursing a sunburn while the two were also house sitting. Mom had always instilled the practice of self-examination with the two and Morgan found a lump that felt suspicious. In a whirlwind, Morgan called the doctor, had a biopsy and as the two sat together, received a call that she had breast cancer. They were 22.
Obviously fraught with all of the emotions and activity that would soon follow, Morgan would learn as well that she carries a gene known as BRCA2. If a carrier inherits the gene mutation, he or she is more susceptible to various forms of cancer. For women, this includes breast and ovarian cancers. And, because Morgan and Melissa are identical twins, that meant Melissa is a carrier as well.
Morgan moved forward with a single mastectomy and upon inspection, learned that the cancer had spread to some of her lymph nodes as well. Following the greater risk, the surgeon recommended removal of her second breast as well as chemotherapy and radiation. Not long after her treatments started, Morgan began losing her hair. The twins and a friend opted to shave her head and Melissa said that Morgan looked quite fabulous without her hair and opted for scarves instead of wigs. Thankfully, in 2017, she was considered ‘in remission,’ gained back her hair and moved forward with her intended marriage to her high school sweetheart, Clarence.
All the while, Melissa had some decisions to make for her own health. Given she carries the mutation as well, she could risk the chance of getting cancer at some point or opt to move forward with a double mastectomy to mitigate that risk. Not long after she and Jake got engaged, Melissa made the call to go ahead. Remember, this was in the midst of buying a new home, planning a wedding and becoming pet parents to Peanut, the dog. (Melissa had always wanted a cat. Jake won.) The procedure took a toll on Melissa as recovery is no small feat and several months later (after we did engagement photos), she went through the process of reconstruction.
At the same time, Morgan started dealing with some hip pain. The two have long been dancers and Morgan teaches the art. Knowing that it’s fairly common for dancers to experience this type of pain made it more challenging to connect that it was actually a recurrence of her cancer. She would learn that the cancer was also in her shoulders and in the front of her head.
Morgan insisted that plans for a bachelorette party continue despite the fact that she was formally diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. Because, as Melissa shared, “Morgan said, ‘why not?'”
Over this past year, Morgan has dealt with bouts of pain and learned of additional spots including the presence of her cancer in her bone marrow. She was able to pursue a new treatment that left her feeling hopeful as spots had shrunk, but a subsequent trial that she seemed to be a perfect candidate for actually left her with growth in these previously discovered progressions. She still battles pain and is currently on a new treatment. Additional scans are on the horizon but she’s also looking at alternative diets to better support her hormones as that is also a factor in the cancer’s progression.
I got teary talking to Melissa because it isn’t fair. Morgan is a beautiful young woman with so much life to live and yet, we don’t know how long she has. She’s chosen not to pursue a ‘timeframe.’ Melissa also shared that her faith is the only way she can remain positive. ‘Heaven is our home that we’re all looking for regardless of when. There will be no more pain.’ I couldn’t believe the perspective and wisdom coming from this woman as she mentioned others who ‘have it worse.’ She, and Morgan, are simply inspiring.
In looking back at photos, it reminded me that we rarely know what’s going on in the lives of those we encounter on a daily basis. And of that old quote, ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.’ Oh, and that Jake and Melissa are a blast to be around and not at all awkward.
Morgan – thank you for the opportunity to share your story. You are a testament to strength and courage in the face of the unknown. You are choosing to live and literally no one has a place to tell you to do otherwise. Your ‘why not?’ comment in reference to planning Melissa’s bachelorette party was absolutely everything. Keep on ‘lifing’ because why the heck not? I’m just so honored that I was able to spend those few moments with you.
Melissa – you are a gift. Welcome (again) to our crazy family.
Jake – you’re adorable. Love that woman hard forever and ever. Or, I’ll punch you in the face.