John Raines’ family had never had an easy go of it. From health problems to family trouble, they’d seen their fair share of struggle, but they always came out the other end a little bit stronger. Then John started experiencing some strange symptoms.

When the symptoms didn’t go away, he reached out to his doctor; it wasn’t encouraging. But John knew he couldn’t let the worst news of his life stop him from achieving a huge milestone, so he reached out to his loved ones with one heartbreaking request.

In 2020, John’s son Blake was looking forward to getting high school over with and moving on to his bright future. The senior didn’t know exactly what lay beyond life at West High in Billings, Montana, but he did know his graduation could be complicated.

Nobody was more in Blake’s corner than his father, John. Despite serious problems of his own, he was always there for his boy. It was John’s greatest pleasure in life, especially since Blake barely made it to his first birthday.

Billings Gazette / Mike Clark

Born five months premature, Blake had everyone seriously worried. A few doctors on staff doubted whether he’d ever be able to breathe on his own, but John’s faith in his son never wavered.

Fortunately, Blake’s health turned around. He grew up into a happy and healthy boy, and John swelled with pride at the thought of him becoming a man. Of course, life doesn’t often go as planned.

When Blake reached his teens, John started experiencing unusual symptoms. The 49-year-old hoped they’d go away on their own, but the father only got weaker and weaker. By the time he got an official diagnosis, the outlook was bleak.

In 2018, doctors told John he was suffering from terminal brain cancer. He had perhaps 18 months to live, though even that wasn’t guaranteed. Like such a good father, John’s first thoughts weren’t about his own well-being, but about his family’s.

Without a miracle, he wouldn’t be around for most of Blake’s adult life. Even Blake’s graduation, which the kid was so eagerly awaiting, might be beyond John’s reach. He wasn’t sure what to do. But someone else was willing to lend a hand.

Billings Gazette / Hannah Potes

Pam Rudolph, Blake’s mom and John’s ex-wife, was as heartbroken as anybody about John’s diagnosis. Maybe they weren’t married anymore, but she and John would always be bonded by their son. Pam treasured that more than anything.

Billings Gazette / Mike Clark

With Blake’s cooperation, Pam reached out to her ailing ex-husband. He confided his fear about not lasting until their boy’s May 2020 graduation. That would be the ultimate defeat in his eyes, but Pam promised him that wouldn’t happen.

Billings Gazette / Mike Clark

That big moment couldn’t be taken away from John, Pam thought, because she and Blake had a big surprise in store. They made arrangements for the loving dad to visit West High that January, ostensibly to meet with their son after an exam.

Billings Gazette / Mike Clark

Pam moved fast, getting dozens of friends and family together. Because she’d worked for years as a nurse, she knew there was no time to waste in making John’s dream a reality. Already on borrowed time, John was confused as he entered the school auditorium.

Billings Gazette / Mike Clark

Shaking off the January cold, the father noticed little cards folded on each seat. They explained that a special graduation ceremony was taking place today. John barely had time to process this news before a band started playing.

Billings Gazette / Mike Clark

In full cap and gown, Blake strode down the aisle. Tears rolled down John’s face — he was getting to see his son graduate from high school! In that very moment, his entire life was perfect.

Billings Gazette / Mike Clark

The West High principal handed Blake his diploma with a smile. He pointed out to everyone in attendance that they were recognizing one of the school’s brightest students and invited various teachers to say a few words about Blake’s achievements.

Billings Gazette / Mike Clark

Every compliment filled John’s heart with joy. They held his boy’s work ethic and character in high regard. “If he has to stay late to get something done, he stays late,” said one teacher. Another commended him for always “treating people with respect.”

Billings Gazette / Mike Clark

However, Blake wasn’t the only star of the ceremony. The principal asked John to stand up, and the proud dad received a huge round of applause. He thanked everyone and made a beeline for his son.

Billings Gazette / Mike Clark

The two men embraced in what Blake described as “probably the best hug he’s ever given me.” It was a true sign that they were there for each other, no matter what happened.

Billings Gazette / Mike Clark

Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when John realized his goal. But there was nothing but hope behind them. Reflecting on the monumental surprise, the father said, “People will make you happy. Real happy.”

Blake knew he would never forget this day. It was a true testament to his courage that he was able to balance growing up and dealing with a medical crisis. Sometimes circumstances can demand so much of teenagers like him.

Billings Gazette / Mike Clark

Fortunately, he could take comfort in hearing about other young people’s miraculous battles. Kaylee Halbert, for instance, wearing her white gown alongside her sister Ashlee. They were just 18 and 16 years old. But, like Blake, they had a plan.

But there they were, standing together in gorgeous wedding dresses with perfectly curled hair and bittersweet expressions. An admittedly unusual sight, it wouldn’t take long for those walking by to notice that something huge was missing.

Chubbycheeksphotography/Nicole Clowson Halbert/Facebook

Kaylee and Ashlee weren’t waiting anxiously for their grooms. In fact, for this event, they didn’t need grooms at all. “We create memories, we recreate them, why not PRE-create a moment?” the girls’ mother, Nicole, later wrote of the odd event.

When the doors to the venue opened and a well-dressed man entered, the guests couldn’t help but cheer. The only man the girls wanted to see had arrived, and the “pre-created” moment could finally begin.

But the moment the sisters’ father Jason arrived was not only filled with smiles. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house — after all, this groom-less event would prove to be more tear-jerking than an actual wedding could ever be.

Chubbycheeksphotography/Facebook

This non-wedding was dedicated to one thing: the traditional father/daughter dance. When Jason saw his girls as “brides” it brought to mind their childhood milestones, from their first steps to their first dances. It also reminded him of what he would miss. 

Chubbycheekphotography/Nicole Clowson Halbert/Facebook

See, the Halberts didn’t hire a photographer and rent out a venue just for kicks. It was a necessity for the sisters, who were told mere months before that the father/daughter dance at their weddings wouldn’t just be a long-shot — it would be impossible.

Michael LaFrance

The whole idea began with a dreaded phone call back in April from Jason’s neurosurgeon, who said he had news… urgent news. “That was the day we heard ‘brain tumor in the brain stem,'” Nicole explained on Facebook — the day their “world changed.”

Pray for J/Facebook

Jason was a “superhero” during months of chemo and radiation, even when the family received the worst news of all. “Your heart stops, you can’t hear, your breath becomes shallow,” was the heartbreaking way Nicole described the moment they received his bleak prognosis.

He had 2-3 months to live. “We have raised two daddy’s girls and I was about the break their hearts,” Nicole wrote. Suddenly, the family was faced with an unanswerable question: “How were we supposed to plan our futures?”

Ashlee Halbert/Facebook

What immediately came to mind was the girls’ future wedding days. This was meant to be one of the most important days of their lives — how could they walk down the aisle and twirl about the dance floor without their father?

Kaylee Halbert/Facebook

Nicole’s heart was broken. “The dreams they had of their daddy walking them down the aisle had come to a screeching halt,” she wrote. In seconds, the girls’ dream of dancing “in the arms of the first man they ever loved” was shattered.

Laura Babb/Boho Weddings

But the girls weren’t ready to give up. It didn’t matter that they were years from getting married. “You will have your dance!” Nicole told her daughters. They were in a race against time — and they needed all the help they could get.

When the Halberts’ story spread, dozens of people were quick to offer up their services. The girls borrowed the perfect dresses and friends volunteered to help with makeup and hair. All they needed was someone to capture the day forever.

Jason Halbert/Facebook

Thankfully, a dear friend of Nicole’s just happened to be a photographer and was honored to shoot the event. “These people didn’t just make this happen, they made it perfect,” Nicole wrote. There was just one thing left to do…

Jason Halbert/Facebook

Dance. When Jason danced with his daughters, he caught a glimpse of a future he wouldn’t get to see. Still, the trio twirled, capturing the moment in their hearts. Sure, some people might have thought this morbid, but the Halberts saw it differently.

Chubbycheeksphotography/Nicole Clowson Halbert/Facebook

Bringing their wedding days to life helped them to accept their reality. “What we’ve been doing through this whole journey [is] trying to find the light among the darkness,” Nicole wrote. After all, it’s so easy to give in to the darkness.

Chubbycheeksphotography/Nicole Clowson Halbert/Facebook

But Nicole believes that pre-creating this one-of-a-kind moment helped transform something tragic into something beautiful. “When our girls look back on this chapter, I want them to remember not a journey of death, but a journey of life,” she wrote. 

Chubbycheeksphotography/Nicole Clowson Halbert/Facebook

Forced to fit a lifetime of milestones into mere months, the Halberts hope that anyone who reads their story follows their advice: “Take the trip, snap the pictures, eat dessert first…make your days matter!” Then, Nicole asked her Facebook friends for one last favor.

Chubbycheeksphotography/Nicole Clowson Halbert/Facebook

“[We] ask that anyone reading this researches Glioblastoma Multiforme and Leptomeningeal Disease,” she wrote. Nicole hopes that having more allies in the war against cancer will make pre-creating moments a necessity of the past.

Pray for J/Facebook

The Halbert family believes that “life is learning to dance in the rain,” a reminder that good things can come from even the most tragic situations. Though Ashlee and Kaylee “danced in the rain” while their father was alive, the Goralski family wasn’t so lucky.

The Goralski’s family life probably looked a lot like yours: they bonded over breakfasts, cheered on the Chicago Cubs, and hung out together in the evening. But beneath the surface was a different situation entirely.

Bethany Goralski/Love What Matters

Other dads would play outside with their kids and even bring them to Take Your Child To Work Day, but Mark Goralski couldn’t do these things. The reason why impacted his children, Josh, Bethany, and Hannah, well into adulthood.

Hannah Goralski/Instagram

A painful combination of Crohn’s Disease and Kidney Disease prevented Mark from doing what other dads could. “A lot of my childhood memories are of him being in and out of the hospital,” Bethany said. Every day, Mark had to fight just to be there for his kids.

Bethany Goralski/Love What Matters

Most people would be incredibly frustrated in Mark’s shoes, but he always advised his children to treat people with kindness and understanding. Mark was truly a fighter — and in more ways than one.

Goralski Family/Good Morning America

When Mark discovered that he needed a kidney transplant in 2011, his son Josh took a page from his father’s book and donated his kidney to him. Mark’s health improved, and things turned around. For awhile.

Josh Goralski/LinkedIn

Despite his illnesses, he always put his children first. He and Josh attended Cubs games, and he still treated his kids to breakfast each morning after church. He maintained a close-knit relationship with his kids, which made what happened next all the more devastating.

Hannah Goralski/Facebook

In 2018, the Goralskis were given horrible news: Mark needed another kidney, but he was too ill this time to undergo the transplant surgery. He didn’t have months — he had days.

CNN

“I watched him lay there and breathe, in and out, wondering when he was going to take his last breath,” Bethany said.  On September 2018, Mark Goralski passed away. The Goralski sisters struggled with their grief — until they remembered their father’s uplifting advice.

Mark’s lesson to always make someone else’s day better came rushing back. Though most people would be too devastated to do so, one month after their father’s death, Bethany and Hannah came to a difficult decision.

“My dad was always giving, he was always helping others,” Hannah said. So she and Bethany wanted to do just that, specifically at the hospital their father had been in.

Northwestern Memorial Hospital

They considered donating a kidney to someone on the transplant list. They knew organ transplants are complicated procedures that can result in a myriad of complications, from hypertension to preeclampsia. Anybody would be intimidated by those odds.

Amazing Science News

Even more intimidating were the statistics: 3,894 Americans died while awaiting a kidney transplant in 2018, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. But the sisters understood what they had to do.

Refusing to wallow in their grief, they went through with their plan and had transplant surgeries one day apart. Still, they wondered how their father would’ve reacted to their decision.

Bethany Goralski/Love What Matters

The morning of Bethany’s surgery, she said she “could definitely feel [her] dad’s presence in the room.” Hannah thought the surgeries were “a great way to honor him.” They each donated anonymously — but the anonymity was short-lived.

Bethany Goralski/Love What Matters

For the people on the transplant list, life was all about waiting. They waited for news about their illness and news about their long-awaited kidney. What they didn’t often receive was good news…until Hannah and Bethany’s story went viral.

CBS Evening News

The sisters’ selflessness kicked off a chain reaction of giving. Friends and family of the sisters all donated kidneys, resulting in numerous lives being saved and the sisters’ story becoming public. Such an unlikely turn of events was rare for those on the transplant list, and they had a message for Hannah and Bethany.

Melanie Mavec/Facebook

“It’s a gift,” said kidney recipient Julia Bauchwitz. “It’s unbelievable. I hope they know how special they are.” It isn’t customary for kidney recipients to personally thank their donors, but the recipients knew they had to thank the sisters in person.

Chicago Tribune

Ten organ donors got the unique opportunity to meet up face to face with the recipients of their kidneys. “We just want to make sure two less families have to go through what we went through,” Bethany said.

On a day filled with laughter and tears, the grateful survivors got to thank Hannah and Bethany for kicking off the chain reaction of kidney donations. “We’re alive again,” kidney recipient Christopher Heinz said simply.

CBS Evening News

Their brave act allowed Heinz to do what Mark never could: Play outside with his children. “The biggest smile on my 10-year-old’s face was for me to go back in the yard and play catch with him,” Heinz recalled.

Football Scoop

What began as a touching tribute to their father’s memory ended up saving numerous lives, and the donation chain is still going strong. “When I look down at my scars, I feel him nearby,” Bethany said. “This is for you, dad.”

Goralski Family/Good Morning America

Years earlier, not so far away from the Cubs-loving Goralskis, 34-year-old Darreld Peterson of Mason City, Iowa, was about to start a painful medical journey of his own. And just as Mark had done, he made sure to keep his son, Camden, a priority.

Darreld Peterson / Facebook

Pictures of the father and his 4-year-old son decorated his social media profiles. In each one, the duo wore huge smiles across their faces, whether they were at a school event with inflatable slides or just in the car.

Darreld Peterson / Facebook

But that Darreld could smile at all was particularly impressive. For years, he’d been dealing with an issue the preschool-aged Camden could never quite understand, and it was an issue few people could ever smile through.

In 2010, just a few years before Camden was born, doctors diagnosed Darreld with Berger’s disease. Antibodies called IgA, the experts said, were building up in his kidneys, and slowly destroying the organs…

In other words, Darreld was on the fast track to renal kidney failure, a condition in which his deteriorated kidneys would no longer filter all the toxins out of his bloodstream. When that set in, he would die — leaving Camden behind.

So after Camden was born in 2012, Darreld raised him knowing a fatal diagnosis was just one doctor’s visit away. And in January 2016, the Sword of Damocles finally fell: his kidneys failed. He needed a transplant ASAP.

While doctors placed him on a kidney donor list, he also sought out donors himself. “I had friends and family come forward who wanted to donate,” he said, “but these didn’t work out, for medical reasons or other reasons.” In the meantime, he started up dialysis.

Darreld Peterson / Facebook

The 34-year-old spent 4 hours three days per week hooked up to a machine that filtered his blood, during which he no doubt thought of little else but Camden. And for the four-year-old, even with his dad on dialysis, life continued…

Five days a week, he attended Washington Charlie Brown Preschool & Childcare and learned to count and read and draw. As his dad’s condition worsened, he fell into depression — which, luckily, someone special noticed.

Some time in early 2016, 54-year-old preschool teacher Nancy Bleuer — or Miss Nancy if you asked her class — noticed a down-trodden Camden among her students. So she pulled him aside one day and asked what was bothering him.

Camden told her all about his dad, about how he might die. Heartbroken for her student, she called Darreld to check up on him. Sure enough, the dad confirmed what his child said: his kidneys were only functioning at about 20 percent capacity.

For some time, Nancy dwelled on this news, as well as the memory of an old co-worker. This co-worker “had donated a kidney to someone in her church,” Nancy remembered, and “it was an important part of her life’s journey, and that was inspirational to me.”

Matt Rose / Carolina Public Press

So Nancy thought and thought and thought some more, and eventually, she spoke with Darreld. She told him she — a stranger, for the most part — would donate a kidney, provided they were a blood type match! But the father refused.

Asking someone he barely knew to cut a piece of her body out for him — and a vital organ, no less — sounded like too much, like he’d owe a debt he could never repay or that she would, years later, regret it. But the teacher insisted.

So Miss Nancy submitted herself to blood, heart, and psychological tests to see if her kidney was a match for the ailing father. One afternoon when Darreld visited her classroom to pick up a sleepy-eyed, post-naptime Camden, Nancy shared the results.

Hieu Nguyen / The Daily Iowan

She was a match! “He looked stunned at first,” Nancy recalled, laughing. “It took a minute to sink in, but then he hugged me and I knew: OK, he gets it!” Tears in his eyes, the father immediately turned to his son and scooped him up in a massive hug.

Darreld Peterson / Facebook

How much exactly Camden knew about kidneys, dialysis, and donors is unclear; it’s impossible to know how he saw his father’s struggle. But chances are, wrapped in his father’s tearful embrace, the four-year-old likely knew one thing: his dad was going to live.

WHO TV

The day before the June 1, 2017, surgery, Darreld and Camden took Nancy out to lunch, where she told them, “If this would ever be my child that needed something, I’m right there; I’m in your shoes, I understand.”

Darreld Peterson / Facebook

The next day, Darreld and Nancy underwent their respective kidney surgeries performed by a team of doctors and nurses. It went perfectly, and less than one week later, both patients were back home where they belonged.

In the end, Darreld struggled to thank Nancy. “How do you ever thank someone for saving your life?” He asked. So he made a promise — a promise to make her donation, her sacrifice worth it. He promised to live a good life.

University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital / Facebook

And come Father’s Day, he spent the day with his son, doing whatever the young boy wanted. He did, after all, save his dad’s life by telling Miss Nancy about him in the first place! And of course, during the day, they took plenty of pictures, both wearing huge smiles across their faces!

Darreld Peterson / Facebook