"I wanted to keep all the photos a surprise," says Tara Foley, who debuted the images at her wedding after her grandmother's death
Just a few weeks after Tara Foley bought her wedding dress, her 102-year-old grandmother began receiving hospice care.
Foley’s nana, Stasia Foley, told hospice workers in Naples, Florida that her goal was to attend her granddaughter’s wedding that summer.
“I knew she wouldn’t be able to make it back to Texas for my wedding,” Tara, a 37-year-old realtor, tells PEOPLE. “When I heard that, I said, ‘I have to go to her. I want her to see me in my dress. And I want to get as close as I can to giving her last wish.’”
On Jan. 28, Tara told her parents she was tagging along with her fiancé, 41-year-old Matt Bars, on a work trip to Miami. Instead, she flew into Fort Myers. (She didn’t bring her fiancé with her, because she didn’t want him to see the dress before the wedding.) Tara told her aunt and uncle that she wanted to ask her nana a few more questions for the legacy video she started making in September.
Tara waited outside her aunt and uncle’s condo with her hair and make-up done. Tara’s grandmother was told she had a visitor.
“She looked at me and said, ‘I thought it was going to be you,’” Tara remembers.
Inside the condo’s clubhouse, Tara put on her hastily altered Stella York wedding dress and surprised her Nana with a photoshoot.
“I wanted so badly for her to see me in my dress,” Tara says. “She just touched the fabric and touched the tulle of my dress. She kept looking at my dress and looking at me.”
She told Tara she was a beautiful bride.
“I got very teary-eyed,” Tara says. “She was never one to cry. She got teary-eyed as well.”
Even the photographer says she was choked up while taking the pictures.
“It was super precious,” says photographer Marie Kamp, who has studios in both Fort Myers and Knoxville, Tennessee. “It was very, very sweet.”
Kamp’s sister, make-up artist Michelle Weaver, started crying during her first phone call with Tara. It’s one of the most memorable photoshoots the sisters have done, she says.
“It will be in our hearts forever,” Weaver tells PEOPLE.
Afterwards, Tara put her hair in a ponytail and scrubbed off her bridal make-up. She swore her Nana to secrecy.
“I wanted to keep all the photos a surprise,” Tara says. “She put her finger to her chin, she looked out the window and said, ‘I’ll tell them we went dancing.’”
Tara’s Nana died less than a month later, on Feb. 23 — three months shy of her 103rd birthday. Still, Tara didn’t tell any of her family members about her photoshoot until her wedding day on June 1. “I’m really good at keeping secrets,” Tara says.
While she and her bridesmaids were having hair and make-up done at Hidden Falls Ranch in Spring Branch, Texas, Tara surprised her family with framed photographs from her secret shoot.
“My dad thought I had Photoshopped two pictures together. He was just very, very moved by the photo. He didn’t think it was real,” Tara says. “That’s when the tears just started falling. Everybody was just very overwhelmed with emotion and very surprised.”
Her wedding photographer captured the moment, which she says is out of the ordinary for most of her weddings.
“It’s more vulnerable and intimate,” says Austin photographer Misty McLendon. “The fact that she kept a secret that long — I could never do that.”
Tara’s photoshoot with her nana has gone viral, garnering more than 1.7 million likes and 578,000 shares.
“Everybody is just beyond touched by the photos. Everyone said the nicest, and kindest things,” Tara says. “In the crazy world of negativity on social media, people are letting me know how beautiful the world can be. Everybody is being incredibly kind. I’m loving everybody sharing their stories of their grandparents with me as well.”
Tara made one photo into a canvas print, but she can’t decide which of the others to frame for herself. “There’s just too many of them that I love,” she says.
Photographer Kamp is stunned her photos went viral. After her 2½-year-old daughter died because of a heart defect in 1994, Kamp understands how special it is to have photographs of a lost loved one.
“I love giving this to people,” Kamp says. “Pictures are very important. Sometimes, it’s the only thing you have left.”