Unexpected Lessons in Life // Taking One Hard Step Forward

One year ago today, I remember seeing the morning light peeking through our bedroom window. I noticed that Ronnie wasn’t next to me and had already left for work. I rubbed my eyes, turned on my side, and reached for my phone on the nightstand. 7:00 A.M. Out of habit, I laid in bed and got on Facebook to scroll through my news feed. The very first post I saw was from Cassie Green, a girl I didn’t know personally but knew through mutual friends. Her post said:

“How can one feel so numb and be in such agonizing pain at the same time”

I remember squinting my eyes trying to read everything correctly. I instantly started to make sense of the comments and my heart sank into the pit of my stomach. I knew that something terrible had happened to Spencer, her fiancé – the man she had devoted herself to for the past five years. I didn’t even know Cassie, I had never met her, nor had I ever talked with her – and tears flooded my eyes.

It wouldn’t be until later that morning that I would find out what exactly happened, but she was all I could think about all day, every day - for weeks. She’d probably be a little freaked out about how much I thought of her, actually. I just couldn’t even imagine the pain she was going through. Knowing that all you ever wanted for the rest of your life was standing right in front of you one day, and gone the next.

He was coming home from work, and sustained injuries in a car accident – a man ran a stop sign and collided with Spencer’s vehicle. A decision was made and Spencer was air-lifted to Rockford, where every effort was made to save his life. Those close to him waited anxiously in the emergency room to hear news that he would be okay.

Spencer had a much bigger purpose - to be the guardian angel of those he loved, and was taken by the hands of God several hours later.

These words are nothing that a fiancé or loved one should ever have to endure:

“Spencer James Atherton, 22, of Lanark died on Thursday, August 16, 2012, at Rockford Memorial Hospital.”

During the following months, Cassie would grow to be an incredible inspiration for everyone who knew of her story. I know she probably wouldn’t agree to this for every situation, but she was stronger than anyone I had ever known. She took the horrific card she was dealt, and turned it into something positive. The way that she handled everything from the day of the accident was so moving, and her words personally taught me lessons that I knew I needed to put forth into my own life. To take advantage of the presence of loved ones, argue less, and most importantly – love more. I still strongly feel that she needs to write a book about her life, but that’s an entirely different subject.

Cassie and Spencer were engaged in December of 2011, planning for a wedding on May 25th, 2013. Cassie had already purchased her dream dress – and she wasn’t sure exactly what she had planned on doing with it, but she knew she wanted it documented in some sort of way. In October 2012, she approached me with a question – to photograph her wearing her dress one last time. There are no words to describe the way I felt in that moment – I was sad because of this, but I felt so honored to have been asked to photograph this day in her life. There was no time to contemplate whether or not I wanted to do this. I needed to do this. For her.

The stars aligned and I would be leaving Texas and coming home for a two-week visit back to Illinois – and we arranged a morning to meet up.

I was scared I wouldn’t be able give her what she wanted though – terrified actually. How was I even going to present this in the best way possible? I couldn’t force her to smile – but she did, and she did it on her own. (Which was incredible if you ask me.) I wanted her to be herself – to let the emotions out and not be afraid to expose herself and her situation. Not for the sake of the images, but for her – almost as if it were some sort of healing session.

It was the first day I had met her, and I knew what type of person she was before the day even came. She trusted me so much with this moment and to me, that was more meaningful than most things I have encountered in my life. The fact that she trusted me, but didn’t even know who I was. She was vulnerable and I respected her so much for being open with me. The photos that I am so blessed to have taken appear here.

I would leave for Texas a few days after my session with her. We had talked about meeting up again whenever I was back and having a lunch date over sushi – (which I did eventually try with her – and it was awful I must say – never again. Sorry, Cassie.) ;) I finally met up with her again in March/April and we started going to the gym together, along with random trips to Rockford. I had finally gotten to know Cassie on a personal level as opposed to a social media friendship, and I am forever grateful for everything she has taught me in the past few months.

She is the definition of genuine. She constantly makes me want to improve myself.

She lights this spark in other people when she's around them and there are often times that I find myself just staring at her - wondering how on earth she can appear so strong on the outside.

I used to think she was always too strong - then I saw her cry. And I saw her cry again. One can't just throw all those memories in a box, lock it up, and throw the key away. Every time she speaks of Spencer - whether it's through a post on social media, or in private with me, I take it as such a blessing because she's so open and honest about her life with Spencer. I know there is so much pain she holds inside, but she carries herself with a smile and appreciates everything she has in life. She didn’t deserve this. Nobody ever deserves this. But she is strong enough to overcome it. To a certain extent, it will define who she is, but she is independent, she's a fighter, and she's determined to reach for countless goals in her life.

I know sometimes she feels as though she doesn’t have a plan – but I feel like that’s the best way to go about life. To be successful doesn’t mean that you have to have the fanciest house, the most luxurious car, or a six-figure salary. As long as you are happy with yourself and the people you surround yourself with, you will lead a successful life. I know she leads that kind of life.

One thing I love most about Cassie is her laugh. I was just speaking about this with her mom on Cassie's birthday two weeks ago. Her laugh. You can hear it from anywhere. It's so distinct. And it's such a lovely sound to hear. I can't help but smile when I hear it.

She’s his Sunday who stood through the storm.

When the wind didn’t go her way, she adjusted the sails.

And she did it with purpose and pure dignity.

As she takes one hard step forward and embarks on year number two without Spencer, please grace her with your love and support and uplift her spirit.

Spencer, I know that you have so much to do with the little signs that are so significant to Cassie. Thank you a million times over for that and for placing her in my life. Your precense is undeniable.

Cassie, I will be there for you throughout every step you have to take. Near or far, I'll be there for you. I love you and I am so thankful that you own a piece of my heart.

(Stolen from Cassie's Facebook) I love these photos.. His face on the right.. Sigh..

The photo on the left is my favorite from the session I had with her. I didn't know it at the time, but this is Cassie's smile. The trademark Cassie smile. I had asked her to walk away from me, then turn her head back towards me. This is what I got - and I just love how timeless and fleeting it is. Not to mention she's a tad bit too gorgeous for her own good. :)

You were born to be this woman with this story. You were meant to have this extraordinary ability to change someone's life - and you have changed so much more than that.