(KMSP) - When you're two years old, you are who you are--but when you're two years old and you have cancer, sometimes you need to dream beyond your two-year-old self.
The first time photographer Pam Dusbabek met Marlee May Erlandson, it was at Marlee's birthday party.
"I didn't know much about her. I knew that she had cancer and she was celebrating turning two," she said, seeing only a little girl who lived and loved freely, even in the face of a cruel fate. "I don't think anybody thought things would happen as quickly as they did."
"I had noticed her eye was kind of swollen," Marlee's mom Josie Erlandson said. "I'm like, 'Ok, she probably got a bug bite.' That night they took a CT scan and that's when they figured it was cancer."
In May 2017, Marlee was a year and a half old. Mom and dad, Josie and James, were forced on a journey no parents should have to take. Josie still can't believe how quickly it happened.
"It was a whirlwind because you go from thinking you'll need antibiotics to a possible tumor, which could or couldn't be cancerous, to it being cancer, and then she has a 10 percent chance [of survival]," she said.
Just eight months later, in February of 2018, more bad news. The tumor behind Marlee's eye had spread. She had months, maybe weeks to live. Josie couldn't just sit still.
"She has a whole life ahead of her," Josie said. "She's not gonna be able to do all the stuff. So I'm like, 'I gotta do something for her.' She has to live."
So Josie came up with a bucket list for her baby girl.
"I wanted her to experience like the simple joys that we might take for granted," she said.
"When I saw that bucket list and how simple those things on there were, I again reached out to her and said, 'That bucket list? I'm coming along to every single thing,'" Dusbabek said. "I'm bringing my camera. I'm documenting every moment."
So another journey began. This one by choice, and with purpose.
There was the school bus ride with mom. And watching a movie in the theater.
Marlee was finding joy. And with whatever time she had left she wanted to share it with others. Next up, bringing joy to residents at a senior living home.
"I thought with the age difference it's like two different worlds, but they're so similar," Josie said.
Dusbabek remembers asking Josie why she chose this particular bucket list item.
"She says that if my child is at the end of her life, maybe if she spent time with others that are at the end of theirs, she wouldn't be afraid when she gets to where she's going," she said.
Also bringing them comfort? People who knew Marlee. The community came together to cross off another item on the list--a daddy daughter dance.
And then there were those who didn't know Marlee. "Once she posted that bucket list, social media just showed up," Dusbabek said. "They had offers coming in for everything."
But there was one item that would pose a challenge: See the ocean.
So Dusbabek put out a special request on social media--help get Marlee to the ocean.
"I had somebody say, 'How far will 2000 get them? I'll write the check right now,'" Dusbabek said. "I had people say, "I have a beach house, they're welcome to it anytime.' I had businesses reaching out to say, 'What can we do?'"
But the months they thought they had quickly turned into weeks. And then days.
Pam recalls, "It was clear that she wasn't going to be able to fly. Mom said there's a lot of pressure in her head and she's sleeping a lot today. And your heart sinks."
Just a few weeks after Marlee started her bucket list, she started on another journey.
"Somebody that I don't know tagged me in a photo and it said, 'Since she couldn't get to the ocean I want to bring the ocean to her,'" Josie said. "They had written her name in the sand and sent me the photo."
And as Marlee peacefully drifted through her final days, she traveled far beyond her two year old self. One of the many notes from strangers on social media read, "I gathered sand and water from the ocean for her to hopefully put her sweet toes in."
"Although Marlee never made it there herself, her memory and her story made it to Costa Rica and Jamaica and North Carolina and Texas," Dusbabek said. "And it was so amazing. When we first started the project she said, 'If love could save that girl, she would live forever.' She's two and she has a vocabulary of less than 20 words. But through the pictures her story reached way beyond her and her town and her state. All the way to the ocean."