Ben Nunery made a promise.
His wife, Ali, was slowly dying of sarcomatoid carcinoma, a rare form of lung cancer.
“Promise me,” she said, “that you will never let Olivia forget me.”
In the two years after he made the promise, a lot changed. The cancer drained the life from Ali, a 2002 Xavier graduate. Olivia, their daughter, grew into an energetic 3-year-old. And the home they bought together, fixed up and started their family in, was now sold and about to become a memory.
Now, as Ben sits in his car in the driveway for the last time, he finally begins to feel at peace. He knows how he will keep his promise.
Ali’s younger sister, Melanie Pace, joins him. A professional photographer, Pace used the house as a backdrop for their wedding photos four years earlier. She wanted the photos to have a personal touch, so she staged the couple in various places throughout the home—on the stairs, behind the pocket doors, in front of the living room window. The gleaming yellow wood of the floors, the freshly painted cream-colored walls, the lone chandelier were perfect backdrops for her camera lens.
Ben’s idea: recreate some of the original photos. “I knew I wanted to do something in the house to serve as bookends of me and Ali living there,” he says.
Pace places Ben and Olivia in some of the same spots as the wedding photos. Olivia is in a pink-flowered dress, white tights and pink patent leather shoes. Ali would approve.
The two play on the stairs, stand by the pocket doors and pose in front of the window, just like he and Ali. Olivia grabs her mother’s curling iron and pretends to curl her hair with it. Then she finds the angel, a glass statuette she calls “Mommy.” She and her dad talk to Mommy every day, as a way to help Olivia remember. Pace catches a couple shots of Olivia clutching the statue, gazing at it.
It’s all innocent, just intended to be a family memory and fulfill a promise. But it turns out to be a whole lot more.
On Dec. 9, Pace posts the photos on her business website, loft3photography.com. She pulls up one of the original wedding photos to compare and immediately sees how powerful they are. She pulls up more and posts them side-by-side. When Nunery sees them, he is blown away.
“It took my breath away,” he says. “I knew it would get a lot of attention because so many people were following our story.”
Not only does it get a lot of attention, it goes viral. Pace’s blog ends up getting 12 million hits in one day, crashing 600 other sites located on her hosting company’s server. It’s the “Today Show’s” “most social story of the year,” with 5 million page views and more than 300,000 likes. Thousands of other sites around the world pick up the photos. A German company sends a crew to do an interview. Even the Weather Channel is on board.
See Pace’s original blog post (with a reflection by Ben)
View a timeline on how the story went viral
See Pace’s blog showing a compilation of the websites that picked up the story.
See new photos of Ben and Olivia
The story has clearly pulled a heartstring. Pace says it’s because people yearn to see how others can “keep living gracefully after a devastating loss.”
“I thought I understood that Ali served her purpose in her 31 years,” Pace says. “But now I see that this is her purpose, reaching out to the entire world and giving out as much from the heart, and that surely there is new hope.”
Nunery received messages on his own blog from hundreds of widows and widowers who were inspired by the photos and found hope in them.
“It’s a very lonely thing to be widowed,” he says. “But now a lot of people have asked for advice from me. All I have is my story and that’s the value—the sharing of my story.”
And a promise fulfilled.
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THE X FACTOR
Ali Nunery became best friends with a group of women from Brockman Hall her freshman year. They were always together at Xavier—get one of us and you get all of us, they liked to say—and stayed best friends after graduating, even getting together for monthly “Thirsty Thursday” gatherings. Read how the friends struggled through Ali’s illness and dealt with her death.