Two little princesses in petal-pink gowns walk through a parking lot.
Lucy Gibson, 7, wears Superman flip-flops and her soccer shorts underneath her dress - she's a tomboy and she's doing this as a favor to her sisters, Ella, 5, and Ava Jane, who turns 3 in July, the girls' mom says. They are in their dress-up element.
The girls' parents, Steve and Rachele Gibson follow, Steve holding his third pink princess, Ava Jane.
The older sisters chat with photographer Heather Lickliter as they all cross a stone-walled bridge at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia. Now surrounded by flowers, it truly looks as though Lickliter has led the Gibsons into fairyland - the type of place where three little princesses belong.
Lickliter often photographs little girls in elaborate gowns in the garden as part of Stylized Portraiture's Fairytale Collection packages.
As one of the studio's giveaways, Lickliter asked for fairy godmothers to nominate a deserving child for a free session.
Ava Jane - who was born with a heart defect and has spent much of her life hospitalized - was the winner.
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In the winning essay, the Gibsons wrote about Ava Jane's many medical issues:
"As her parents, we realize that our times with her may be shorter than we wish, and we would treasure special pictures of her for our family."
The three girls choose a spot on a path to sit, their skirts, part of the costuming supplied by Lickliter, billow out in fluffy pools around them. Ava Jane's sisters lean in protectively around her.
When it's Ava Jane's turn to be photographed alone, her sisters end any of her sudden tears by singing and dancing and making bunny ears over Lickliter's head.
"They're so good to her," says Rachele, a lawyer and special assistant to the attorney general. "She loves them and they make her laugh like no one else. They're trying to get her to crawl by chasing them."
Ava Jane doesn't crawl, but she can scoot.
She eats through a tube that goes directly into her intestine, but she's starting to try baby food and biter biscuits. She doesn't talk, but she signs "thank you" with help from her father when someone compliments her sky-blue eyes.
"She is a happy, happy kid," says Steve, the human resources coordinator for the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of Georgia. "The nice thing is when she's not, we know something's up. It's pretty tangible. Even though she's not verbal, she's a very good communicator."
A few weeks ago, when Ava Jane let them know something wasn't quite right, she ended up being hospitalized again: she had ulcers in her colon, the result of the immunosuppressant medicines she needs to protect the heart transplant she received when she was 12 weeks old.
So, she's feeling better now that she's off of that medicine - but that's the medicine she needs, and the timing isn't right for another heart transplant.
"We're not sure where we are," Rachele says. But she and her husband say they stay strong and focus on the positives. "I married a great man; I got the best," Rachele says. They equally share the responsibility of raising all three children.
Steve talks about expanding their family, inspired by their youngest daughter. "We want to adopt a fourth down the road, when we get used to Ava's needs," he says. "It might even prepare us to adopt a special-needs child."
Days after the photo session, Rachele is frank about their expectations and difficulties.
When Ava Jane caught bacterial meningitis around Christmas in 2007, neurosurgeons had to place a shunt in her brain to relieve the pressure.
The Gibsons realized that "No matter how much we try to protect her, we can't really protect her from everything," Rachele says.
It's frustrating: Ava Jane is sociable girl who likes being around children, and her parents want her to have those experiences.
"How do we balance keeping her well versus letting her live?" Rachele asks.
She remembers when Ava Jane first had the transplant. They were told it might give her just five years. Rachele wondered what her child's quality of life would be like, "knowing I'd have to choose this, knowing I may have to let go."
It was the right decision.
"She's doing really well right now ... I also know this may end," she says. "There are nights when she's not feeling well and I think it's the beginning of her being sick and she can't recover.
"I wouldn't wish this on anyone," she adds. "But I don't wish it away. I'm grateful to have it. There are things I've only been able to see through this experience."
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During the photo session, the pink princesses sit on a low wall. Ava Jane isn't sure she likes it at first, and starts to cry. Ella and Lucy envelop her with arms and pink ruffles. Rachele and Steve beam. Lickliter snaps a picture.
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