“Happy Daddy Day!” Those are the words that sprung from little Josie’s lips to awaken Shannon. This was the morning of the one-year anniversary of the day the Dell’s lives changed forever.
Shannon had contacted me in hopes we could schedule a session on their farm on the anniversary of Tommy’s tragic death. She wanted this day to commemorate Tommy’s life and celebrate the family they built together. I was eager to be a small piece of the healing process for this sweet family.
Tommy died on September 29 doing what he loved, farming. Lives for scores of people have felt the absence of Tommy’s famous grin and warm presence. Most importantly though, life for Shannon and the two children they poured their lives into, Grady and Josie, feel that stinging absence daily.
Something tells me Shannon and the kids spent the day just as Tommy would have chosen for them, with their family and running around their farm with Sadie by their side. These photos chronicle just a small piece of that day, but represent a larger sample than typically is posted in my blogs–to honor Tommy and his family.
The Dells are a 4th generation farming family. When driving through Carroll County you’ve probably passed at least one field of grain or cattle that’s connected to one of the Dell farmers. The day of the accident Tommy was trying to drain water off a tarp on the bed of a grain trailer. He accidently lifted the bed of the trailer into overhead power lines. Tommy’s life was lost when he remained in contact with the truck while stepping down to the ground. That accident took the life of a man who grabbed hold of life with a gusto that energized everyone around him.
Life for the Dells changed forever in an instant. Your world will be rocked to its core when you consider how frail the line is that separates your life into categories we just take for granted. It’s one second that separates “wife” from “widow”, “fathered” to “fatherless”, “together” to “alone”, “joyful” to “desperate”.
Life is full of unfair tragedies that make your heart feel like 1000-pound weight right in the middle of your chest. Most wives have had those momentary fears when they get a feeling that their lives may have just turned upside down in loss. However, 99.9% of the time those fears are irrational and unfounded.
When the fears are founded, there are no words. Life just continues to whirl around you as break neck pace, seemingly unmindful to the gut wrenching loss you are standing neck deep in. No matter the amount of wishing and praying, time reverses for no one.
Time, while it won’t reverse, does provide a bit of healing day by day. Resilience is birthed and strength to face each day builds one tiny step at a time. You begin to realize a strength within yourself that you never knew was there.
I learned of the Dell’s loss through my twins who were in first grade with precious little Josie. Those guys are dear little friends. William would regularly come home with stories about Josie and invitations to come play on her farm. I’d met Josie several times in class and was always taken in by her quick smile and overall adorableness.
The stories changed last fall though after her dad’s death. “Josie got a little sad today and started tearing up during class. She needed to step out in the hall and Grady came out to help her not feel sad,” William shared with me one day. I felt like someone had just punched me in the gut.
This is Grady though, I learned this day. My, oh my, wouldn’t Tommy be proud to see how he looks after his little sister. (and by “little” I mean she’s in 2nd grade and he’s in third!) Grady is wise beyond his years. He was so eager to share all aspects of his beloved farm life with me on this day. Farming runs deep in the veins of this little guy. It’s clear the passion Tommy had for farm life is something he passed on to his son.
Grady showed me how to operate equipment 100x his size and was bursting with quiet pride when he informed me he drove this equipment—even on the road! Most little boys his age would jump into one of these tractors and start jamming every lever and button within reach. Not Grady, he was very careful with the machinery that is his family’s livelihood.
Grady’s big brother watchfulness for his little sister is sure to cause some friction when Josie’s of dating age, and I imagine that’s just how Tommy would have it!
Along with watching out for Josie, Grady was quick to discourage her from playing on the farm equipment and to respect the crops. It was ok to pull down a head of corn to show me the differences in corn, but not to just pull them down.
Grady also showed me the pumpkins and popcorn corn he’d grown this year. He told me about the differences between popcorn corn, feed corn, table corn….he was just a wealth of knowledge!
Shannon watched her son and daughter race about the farm, showing off the inner workings, with pride. I imagine there’s a solace and a pain from watching her son don his father’s hat in the fields. When I shared with a friend how impressed I was by Grady’s care of the farm she said, ‘everything you are saying that impressed you about Grady, that was Tommy. Grady’s just like his dad.”
A dear friend of the family since high school, Jill Jackson told me how Tommy had been voted “biggest flirt” in the yearbook. Jill remembers how that all changed when he met Shannon. When Tommy talked about Shannon, it wasn’t like any other girl he had told her about in the past. She knew the flirting days were over; his heart belonged to Shannon. He was also a matchmaker for loads of friends, some who are married today like Dave and Kristi Polischeck!
Grady rode us all over their farm that afternoon. One of our stops was this creek nestled back in the woods. Grady and Josie swung on a rope and had fun creek stomping.
The family all gathered together then to look at their “Daddy Book” and talk about the memories they’d made as a family over all the years Tommy was with them. Everyone shared their favorite photos of Daddy.
At the end of our session Grady went off to be with his uncle to ride in the big tractors and work the farm. Pretty fitting, when I arrived he was pushing poo with the skid loader! I thought we were done, but as almost always happens, there was a little more magic to pull from this day (also why I won’t ever schedule back to back family sessions).
Josie wanted me to come see her special spot on their farm. This was her little hideaway. She showed me all the “rooms” in her hideaway and then saved the most special spot for last—“Mommy doesn’t even know about this, but look—it’s a T for Daddy,” she told me as she traced over and over that T and told me about plans to bring chalk down to color it.
Grady was back to work on the farm so Josie ended our time by releasing one goodbye/hello balloon up to her Daddy….I’m pretty sure Tommy’s smiling on his family today!
What an honor to be allowed in on such precious time. Your words were so fitting and the moments you captured were heart piercing and breathtaking. Beautiful tribute to their dad, family and that sacred day.
Thank you for the memories and tribute… Tommy wouldn't have wanted this day to be any different and I'm sure he was grinning from ear to ear!! Your photography speaks words, even without the captions!!!
~Jan Stambaugh (MeMaw)
WOW! These pictures take my breath away! Absolutely beautiful.
What a wonderful tribute. The pictures are beautiful!!!! What a great secret Josie has in her special spot.
Jen, you made me feel as though I knew this family personally, and brought me to tears.. You have done well in honoring their father, his life and the entire family.
I don't know the family personally but I remember the accident like it was yesterday This was a beautiful tribute. Thank you for sharing it brought tears to my eyes.