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In Alumna’s Film, a Mother’s Love Lights a Dark Place

Tricia Gonnella Russo ’03 wanted to have a child, and she wasn’t about to let Stage 4 cancer stand in her way. That’s the inspiring storyline of Love Always, Mom, a 90-minute documentary that Russo produced and co-directed that is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Grayson Russo celebrates his third birthday with his parents and his grandmothers

Russo, whose husband and Vassar classmate Greg wrote the screenplay for the recently released action thriller Mortal Kombat, said the couple decided to try to have a child in 2013. That was shortly after Tricia had undergone surgery for a brain tumor, the result of metastatic breast cancer. She had been working in the film industry, most recently with the Walt Disney Company, when her cancer was diagnosed.

Russo had been receiving treatment at the Roy and Patricia Disney Cancer Center in Los Angeles but continued to work “because I wanted to maintain normalcy; I didn’t want to be just a cancer patient,” she said. But she stopped working and began to plan the film shortly after she and Greg decided to try to have a child, starting with a search for an egg donor and surrogate. “I knew I couldn’t be the carrier or use my eggs, but we wanted to use Greg’s DNA,” she said. “When we started the film, I had been in a very dark tunnel. I didn’t know what my life expectancy would be, but I wanted the camera to be a flashlight that would shine some light for anyone else in the same dark place.”

On November 14, 2016, Grayson Russo was born. “Seeing Grayson was the most magical thing ever in my life,” said Tricia, who viewed the birth from an adjoining room. “When they took him out, I started bawling—and that scene is in the film.”

Since Grayson’s birth, the Russos have been active in raising money and awareness about cancer, and all proceeds from the film are being donated to metastatic breast cancer research. Tricia said she has spoken to other women with breast cancer about what she went through to have a child. “Some of them say, ‘What if I die?’ and I respond, ‘But what if you end up living and didn’t make that choice?’” she said.

Where it all began: Greg Russo and Tricia Gonnella at Vassar Commencement in 2003.

Like other parents, the Russos have been helping Grayson navigate the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Tricia says he is looking forward to returning to school full-time in the fall. “When we started the film,” she said, “we didn’t know if the story would be about me dying or about us starting a family. But I hope the message of Love Always, Mom is that no matter what the challenges, life is being affirmed.”