The thing about experiencing a life-altering event like we did, is that life continues to go on. The other thing is that the age old adage that “there’s always someone worse off than you”, becomes very relevant.
There are two things that I believe are worse than what our girls have endured. Firstly, having to experience the death of a child, and secondly, dying before your children are grown. Unfortunately, we had friends in that very predicament, and it made us realise how lucky we were that our girls were safe and healthy and that we were here to support them for the forseeable future.
To back track a little. On the day that our After began, I needed to find somewhere for Grace to go so that she didn’t have to deal with the police. I called a great friend, Veronica and asked her if she could come and get Grace. At the time, I didn’t offer any more details, but she knew that something terrible was happening. She didn’t hesitate.
Veronica and her husband, Sam, were known to us through the kids school. They were just wonderful people. Hard working, fun loving, fit and active, they were born and bred locally and had an extensive network of family and friends, and they let us tag along with them to various things. Sam and I would go and swim laps at the local pool, until my own health got in the way for a little while. I remember saying to him that I liked swimming laps as it was really hard to cry and swim at the same time.
They became an important part of the journey over the next few years, offering support and friendship, even when we became reclusive.
They were also experiencing their own heartbreaking sadness, watching their beautiful nephew’s struggle cancer, that would eventually take his life, at the age of 22. The day before Leon was arrested, Veronica called me to tell me that her nephew, who I had known for a long time, had been declared terminally ill after battling cancer since he was 19. He was a very special young man, who showed the most dignity and grace, courage and strength, up until the very last. He had the love of an amazing family and his friends were so incredibly humbled by his positive attitude, even at the end of his short life.
I was very privileged to be asked by his family to be part of his funeral service. Veronica and Sam were concerned that it may have been too much, given what we were experiencing at the time. The reality was though, that watching them and their family live with this grief was a vivid reminder of all that we were blessed to have. Our children, though struggling, were alive. We were the lucky ones.
I mentioned above that I swam with Sam. He was part of an adult swimming group and invited me along when I mentioned that I liked swimming “back in the day”. It was here that I met Karen. She was a one-of-a-kind individual, with the subtlety of a sledgehammer and the most vivacious personality. You couldn’t not like Karen.
After a couple of sessions, Karen and I had established that we had children the same age, who participated in the same sports, but had never come across one another. Karen became my first real “coffee friend”…you know the one that just rocks up at anytime without notice, doesn’t care what state your house is in, makes themselves at home and makes you laugh for the entirety of the visit. She was terrific.
Karen was in remission from cancer when I met her. She had been through Chemo, was growing her hair back and had an unnatural desire to want to learn how to swim butterfly (in her 40s). She also became one of Ruby’s favourite people and offered to mind her once a week for a couple of hours when I had to work.
Then her cancer returned.
I’ve never seen a person so determined to fight the Big C as Karen. She tried everything. She, like Veronica and Sam, had an extensive network of family and friends and they rallied to help Karen and her husband Rhys, do whatever they could to not only beat this thing, but also to support their four young children, during this horrible time.
Karen insisted on continuing to look after Ruby. She pointed out that it was often Ruby who was looking after her. They had a very special bond.
Karen managed to reach remission again in 2013 after stem cell treatment. I still can’t believe what she went through to get to that state, but things were looking up for her and her family.
In those early weeks After, Karen knew something was “off” with me. She was persistently asking if we were okay. She knew something was going on, but I wasn’t in a position to share anything with her at that stage. During a coffee visit in November 2013, Karen told me the same story three times in thirty minutes. When I pointed it out to her, she shook her head and said “that’s not good is it?” She took herself off to the hospital that afternoon.
The next day, the Detective called me to say that Leon had finally been arrested. Ten minutes later Karen phoned and told me she was terminal; the cancer had got to her brain. Our struggle was again put in perspective. We would see our kids grow up.
Karen continued to be a wonderful friend as she attempted to come to terms with her diagnosis. She did not want to leave her family behind. It continues to baffle me why bad things happen to such good people. She eventually found out what was going on with us. She stood in my kitchen, mad as hell that my little people had been through this and she made sure that when she was gone, her own family would be there to support us. She really was an incredible woman.
Karen lost her battle two days after Veronica and Sam’s nephew. Our life was put into perspective by the loss of these beautiful people.