An Unexpected Journey

Roo and I have been back in England for a couple of weeks now, and I still haven’t managed to write anything about our month in Wanaka. I guess because the memory is still so sharp; our time there was, to misquote a popular novel, the best of times and the worst of times.

Well, mostly the worst.

As many of you may know, the reason that Roo and I changed our plans at the last minute and flew to New Zealand was because Chris, my sister Gill’s husband, was starting to lose the battle against pancreatic cancer.

Chris Ice CreamIt’s hard to believe that less than six months ago I was writing a book about his wedding; he wore blue, insisted that I wore blue too, and looked like the happiest man alive as he stood next to Gill in the gardens of Polquhorn Fort in Cornwall, and said “I do.”

Gills Wedding
Gill and Chris – as happy as I’ve ever seen either of them.

And now… well, six weeks ago we laid him to rest in a wickerwork casket, in a narrow plot in Wanaka cemetery. Chris passed away on the 29th of May, aged just 38 – leaving behind not just my sister, but their two beautiful daughters, Hazel and Holly, aged 18 months and two months.

Even now, as I sit here writing this, tears are falling freely onto my keyboard. That’s been happening a lot lately; I might have to invest in some kind of rain cover for my laptop…

Anyway, it’s not like me to be so doom-and-gloom, and I’ve always prided myself on finding the positive in every situation. And here in Wanaka, the positive is impossible to ignore – it’s all around me, everywhere I look.

Because Wanaka is, beyond shadow of a doubt, one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

Wanaka Beauty
It’s beautiful alright – this is the view from our hostel. Which is in the centre of town.

Even Chris has a spectacular view. If I had to spend eternity contemplating one particular vista, well, I could do a lot worse.

Graveyard View
We laid Chris to rest overlooking the town where his girls live, and the mountains he spent his life on.

We’ve visited Wanaka before, of course. Back then Hazel was just a baby, and Wanaka was in the grip of a deadly epidemic – of drive-by knitting?!?!!? It’s still the town’s biggest mystery – no-one knows who is responsible, or when they will strike.

Knitted Tree
Random bits of the town are regularly discovered wrapped in colourful knitting. Truth!

That kind of says it all about Wanaka. It’s a placid place, like something out of a fairy-tale; stupendous mountains, incredible scenery, friendly folk, healthy and wholesome almost to a fault. People here don’t lock their doors. Even when they go on holiday. It would be a thieves’ paradise… except, there aren’t any thieves. Which is ironic, really, as it’s one of the most expensive places on Earth to live!

And the only downside? Well, other than a loaf of bread costing $5? The town is the central hub for three of New Zealand’s most popular ski resorts. So every winter, scores of penniless ski bums just like Gill and Chris show up, taking jobs on the mountains and living anywhere they can – three to a room, sleeping on floors, in vans, in garden sheds… and the town becomes party central for the next six months solid.

So, you know, major bummer  🙂 

Wanaka Dawn
They get plenty of snow here – this is the view we woke up to on our second morning in Wanaka.

Yes, it’s fair to say, I like it here. As for Roo, well… if you’ve read anything about our time in Canada, you’ll know that anything even remotely involving snow turns Roo into an eight-year-old.

Roo Kissing Snowman
Obviously I wanted to make a giant sculpture of a penis, and leave it in the middle of the park – but Roo demanded we make something she could kiss.

Gill and Chris had just bought a new house when we arrived, so we moved into it on their behalf. Predictably, I broke at least one thing per day, so that by the time Gill set foot in the place there was already a lengthy maintenance list…

Broken Shower
Welcome to your new house Gill! Here’s your shower door handle…
Broken Knife
I have no idea how I broke this knife. Just don’t know my own strength, I guess…
Broken Table
And I’m sure this table isn’t supposed to look like that… I also broke a shelf in the fridge 🙁

I try to take something, some message or life-lesson, from everyone I know who passes on. From Chris, I have taken a timely reminder of something which is all too easy to forget, especially for a struggling, self-published author.

Chris wasn’t about money, not in the least. He was happiest fixing skis, barely scraping by, and many times stated that life was not about abstract concepts like success, or the accumulation of wealth.

It was about fun. That was why he left a promising career in genetics to spend his life ski-bumming around the world, earning sub-minimum wage, and loving his life in the snow, and his growing family.

So the next time I find myself obsessively checking my sales, or carefully weighing out the financial cost of an adventure, I’ll remember this: life is too damn short to be stingy.

You never know, ladies and gentlemen, whether or not you’ll live to spend it, so take a piece of advice from me, and – posthumously – from one of the cleverest people I’ve ever known: enjoy what you’ve got, while you’ve got it. Money is only as good as the enjoyment you can get out of it, so squeeze every last drop of fun from those pennies! Because you never know when it’ll be too late.

Mum Sky Dive
Grab life by the balls! This is my Mum, doing her first sky-dive – at 62 years old. Apparently, it’s never too late!

Anyway, to conclude the tale, we all retreated to England to spend some time together as a family, helping Gill with the girls and hopefully giving her a safe space to grieve. It was a fairly daunting prospect – taking one baby and one toddler on a series of long-haul flights totalling over 24 hours in the air – but amazingly, we came through it all unscathed. It wasn’t until after we’d landed in Heathrow Airport that Hazel decided to projectile-vomit, Exorcist style, emptying her stomach of everything she’d eaten since we left Singapore. Made a fair mess of the landing gate, I can tell you.

Happy Holly
Baby Holly, on the other hand, rather enjoyed the flight!

But we did it! And now here we are, in England! Facing the same journey back again in just over six weeks’ time… Like I said – life’s all about the fun  🙂

And while we’re on the subject of fun, I’d like to take this chance to invite everyone else who is in England to a ski-event we’re holding in Chris’s memory. It will be at Hemel Hempstead Snow Centre on the 29th August, from 8-10pm, and we’ll be raising money for pancreatic cancer research. The plan is to try and make 1977 runs down the ski slope (Chris’s birth year), so we’ll need all the help we can get. Entrance costs £40, including 2 hours on the slopes, ski/snowboard gear hire and a meal at the restaurant. Non-skiers are welcome, and there’ll be a sledging slope set up for a bit of fun. Let me know if you fancy coming along! And for anyone who’d like to contribute without getting their asses cold and wet*, Gill has set up a Just Giving page – all proceeds go directly to Pancreatic Cancer UK:

Hope to see you there!

*Snowboarders have to sit down at the top to fasten their boards on. This is why my ass gets wet, NOT because I’m so afraid that I pee myself – no matter what you may have heard.

30 thoughts on “An Unexpected Journey

  1. Tony,

    Thanks for writing this difficult post. Your gift to us is your talent to make us laugh at your adventures while introducing us in a personal manner to yourself, Roo, Gill, Mum & Dad, and of course, Chris.

    I was pleased when you told us that your precious sister found Chris, the partner she deserved! The picture you painted of him as a real sweetheart of a guy made us love him all the more for making Gill so happy. I hope he DID read that you described him as handsome, although you asked us not to tell him that you said so!

    He’s missed by people like me because of you. Thank you. God bless all of you, especially Gill and their babies.

    Bill Semk
    Santa Maria, California

    1. Thanks Bill! Yeah, it’s been a long time coming, this post, as I just couldn’t bear to write it. But now it’s done, it’s a little bit easier to move forwards. Luckily, as Gill needs all the help she can get!

  2. Dear Tony and Gill, Thanks for catching us up. Life is full of surprises and they are not all happy ones. But as they say, it’s not what happens to us, but how we handle what happens. I am sure Gill’s sister appreciated your changing your plans and just being there for her and the two little ones. My heart and prayers are with her. God bless you all and can’t wait to hear from you again. Maura Kennedy, NJ

    1. Yeah, we’re really lucky that way, in that neither Roo nor I have any major commitments that we can’t just drop at a moment’s notice. No jobs, no mortgage repayments to worry about… it does make it much easier to respond to this kind of thing. Although, inevitably we were on the exact opposite side of the planet when it happened… 🙂

  3. Ahhh Tony and Gill… my deepest condolences. I love words but they always fail me at times like these.
    I have shared your fund-raiser with a FB group I belong to, do.good as well as my personal crew. Hope it goes balistic and is a huge success.
    All the best in the healing process.

    1. Thanks Donnae! No-one loses with a donation to a cancer charity – you never know when a loved one could be in need of their help. It’s times like this I wish I could fund the search for a cancer cure entirely myself, so that no-one else has to go through this. As they say, there will be a last person to die from cancer eventually… an that day can’t come soon enough. As far as I can tell it seems to be on the rise in recent times – it seems like there’s always a friend of a friend or a distant relative who’s battling some form of it – bit worrying, that. Thanks so much for sharing!

  4. Such a nice tribute to Chris, Tony. I think of you all on a daily basis and wonder how you are doing. Remember, there is no timeline on grief.
    I have lost far to many family members and friends to some form of Cancer.
    A cure can’t come soon enough.
    Hats off to the knitter in Wanaka and that knife…they break like that all the time. It’s always lovely when they do it to a customer eating a steak in restaurant and you are their waitress.
    Blessings to everyone..

    1. I’m just glad there was no-one nearby when that knife broke, ’cause it went a fair way! We’ve had a few losses to cancer in our family, but never anyone this young before. And this unexpected. But there are so many charities doing research into it, surely the cure isn’t too far away now.

  5. Oh…..what a tough post to write… often seems unfair…but what would of been worse for you all was not having Chris in your lives at all….you are a strong family and your love and strength is shown in your writing. You write so well about your family that I feel I know them and when I heard the news I was actually so shocked I thought how will Jill cope…but she will cope because she has that amazing family round her to take strength from…..more tough times ahead but together you can all do this. Love and prayers.
    I completed the race for life last month (for the 2nd time) – I too have lost close family members to this dreadful disease – we need to stamp it out for good.

    1. Thanks Alison! We are a pretty tight family, so that’s the biggest help in this sort of situation. That’s why we’re all back together in England, instead of spread out all over the world like normal! We’ll get through it. And good on you for doing the run – I might take up something like that myself.

  6. Tony,
    Words are inadequate in any attempt to console you and your family on your sister’s loss.

    Thanks for Sharing during such a difficult time in your families life.

    Our thoughts are with you and Gil during this trying time.

    Mark latendresse, Blowing Rock, NC

  7. my thoughts and prayers are with you and your family,please tell your sister we are thinking of her and her children , you and Roo are the best uncle and aunt that there could be and that will be the best thing for them to hold onto during this ,thank you for sharing such a difficult post, love and prayers coming your way while you grieve and heal,
    peggy dorigatti garland utah USA

    1. Thanks Peggy! We’re trying – I think Roo makes a much better Aunty than I make an Uncle! I seem to do most of the telling-off, while she gets to sing songs and play with the baby… 🙂

  8. Oh, Tony…I think my keyboard needs some water proofing as well after reading this post. That picture of Holly in Roo’s arms on the plane…it just shreds me. Words fail at times like this but ultimately, those same words will also keep Chris’s spirit alive in your books forever. Hazel and Holly have that to look forward to! Everyone who has gotten to know you and your family thru your books has a heavy heart over Chris’s passing. We send our love and thoughts of peace for Gill and family. Hopefully our collective positive prayers will help her in some way. We look forward to seeing you in America when you are ready for your next adventure.
    My deepest condolences,

    1. Thanks Jessica! I’ll be there (in America) – just watch this space! I think I’ll dedicate my next book to Chris – not that it’ll do him much good, unfortunately, but I think Gill would be happy to see that. And we’re all starting on the road to recovery, though for Gill it will be a tough struggle yet – we’re about to return to New Zealand, and get started on the life of a single mum of two! But Roo and I are going with her, just in case 😉

  9. Thank you for sharing this personal journey Tony. Obviously living so close to Wanaka and reading the local paper, I became aware of Chris’s health issue a few months ago. There are tears for Gill, Hazel and Holly as I read your post and type my response, and tears for the wider family also. Perhaps my age has something to do with it as we know all too well that life can be so unfair at times, especially when young people are affected. I agree with another comment, great that Hazel and Holly will have the opportunity to know their Dad, not only from people talking about him so positively, but also from your observations in your writing. So happy that you have all been able to return to England for a period of grieving, all supporting one another. There is no end to grief, what changes is our ability to share and talk about it. One of the best testaments to Chris is to keep living life to the full and making the most of every opportunity presented to you, or in your situation, created by you. Blessings on you all and prayers for the future for Gill and her children, also for you and Roo for your journey in life.

    1. I think we’ve learnt that lesson several times over, but we always need reminding – to live life to the maximum, whenever and wherever we can! It’s so easy to get complacent, or worse – to get bogged down in small stresses and worries, and start to add them all up until it seems like this world is a struggle just to live in. But it takes something like this to make me realise how little that stuff really matters – and to remind me to go ahead and ignore it all, and enjoy my life while I’ve still got it 🙂

  10. Tony,
    As expressed earlier in various replies to your post, no words can ever provide consolation or comfort from grief caused to Gill and your family over this loss.
    Time heals and I hope the pain and grief will subdue soon as well as give Gill the strength to cope.
    Praying and thinking for Gill, you and your family.
    With condolences.

    1. Thanks Vinnie!
      We’re all turning a corner I think, although it will be tough for Gill when we go back to New Zealand, and she has to face the start of life as a single mum. But she’ll manage – and I’ll be there to support her every step of the way 🙂

  11. Hi Tony – I had of course “met” you on WLM and enjoyed your comments, but I so enjoyed getting to “know” you through this post (which I read in prep for your WLM spotlight tomorrow). I can’t believe you wrote so extensively about Wanaka (even though it was a sad occasion). My husband and I spend a winter there, or rather spring, in August of 1999, with a 2 year old and a 7 month old, having decided, a bit crazily, to go skiing there (we lived in Singapore at the time). And it was JUST like you described it. Such a quirky and warm place, so welcoming, so wholesome. We loved it so much there we seriously considered buying a piece of land right there on the lake, even though we would soon live on the other end of the world (U.S.). I vividly remember the movie theater there, totally relaxed, full service bar and food, old VW backseats as your armchairs, I forget the name but we had a great time. And the B&B we stayed at, such friendly people, they had a donkey on the propoerty but sadly I don’t remember the name of it. We did make it up to Cardrona (barely) to go skiing and put our 2 year old on skis as well, but put a quick end to it when it looked like he was going to be blown clear off the mountain. I guess there is nothing up there to break the wind blowing straight from Antarctica… What a great tribute to Chris you’ve written, and I totally will try to heed your advice to embrace life to the fullest.

    1. Hi Sine!
      Yeah, I love Wanaka – even though I’ve never had chance to get up on the mountains there myself. Gill and Chris did 2 seasons on Cardrona, but the wind there is pretty fierce! That cinema, the paradiso I think, is still there – I watched the new Avengers movie in it this time around! Such a cool, cooky experience, but then, that’s Wanaka all over! I’d live there myself, if it wasn’t so damn expensive…

  12. Hi Tony

    So sorry to hear the very sad news of Chris, please tell Gill she will be in my thoughts and prayers as will you all.

  13. Tony, Roo, Gill,
    I’ve become enchanted by your adventures and to hear of this heart wrenching occurrence has torn something out of me. My deep condolences to you all, especially Gill who is going to need so much help and understanding going forward. My best friend contracted pancreatic cancer three years ago and died within eight months of his diagnosis so I have some idea of what you went through and it is indeed a horrible disease. Thanks for sharing your life. Again, I am so sorry, Gill.

    1. So sorry to hear that, John. It does seem that Pancreatic Cancer is the worst one to get – because it hides so well, and the majority of people don’t know they have it until it’s way to late to do anything about it. Chris lasted 9 months, so it’s the same story, really – and a tragic one. I hope this hasn’t brought back too many unhappy memories for you. We’re trying to celebrate Chris, and be as positive as possible, not always easy, but you’ve got to start somewhere, eh!

  14. Dear Tony, Roo, and Gill, I was truly saddened to learn the news about Chris. Through your writing, Tony, it was so obvious that all of you had a precious and strong connection. His life style and philosophy were an inspiration, and I’m glad you shared that with us. My sincere condolences to you all.

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