The Tea Curator's purpose is to make it easier for to improve your wellbeing every day, through the beautiful experience of specialty tea. There is a very personal reason why wellbeing is at the heart of The Tea Curator. Here, I share my story with you.
Please note, this is a very raw and honest account and may be distressing if you have personal experience with cancer or know or have known someone affected by cancer, or have experienced any other form of loss.
On Friday 2nd August 2013, my husband Andy was diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer. We were living in Melbourne at the time; I was seven-months pregnant with our first baby, and we were moving to Sydney the following day.
I remember that afternoon with acute clarity. I was at my desk at work, packing boxes to be shipped to the Sydney office. And I was preparing for our leaving party, which was to be at a city bar that evening. Andy rang me and asked me to come home. He said it was important but not to worry. I left immediately and remember sitting on the train thinking that this must be something bad – Andy was not a dramatic person and would never get me to leave work like that for a small reason – but I kept thinking ‘but he said not to worry, so maybe everything is ok?’.
When I got home, we sat down on the bed and he showed me the results of a recent CT scan he’d had because of persistent tummy trouble. They showed a large, primary tumour in his bowel and four lesions in his liver.
Everything after that was a blur. There were tears, incomprehension and disbelief from both of us. I said to Andy there was no way we could go to our leaving party that evening, but he wanted to. He said he couldn’t process this yet and needed to feel that everything was normal, even just for one night. We went, and somehow made it through, and didn’t tell anyone. We even went out for dinner afterwards with one of Andy's best mates Brad, who later said he knew something was going on.
The next morning sitting on the plane to Sydney, I kept my head turned away from Andy, hiding the tears that were streaming down my face. I felt that I should be being strong for Andy, supporting him with his grief, rather than crying myself. But I couldn’t stop thinking ‘I’m seven month’s pregnant and my husband is going to die’.
Because it was the weekend, we couldn’t see any specialists, so we were left reeling with the news for two days, strolling around Manly beach and other parts of Sydney, looking like any other happy couple with a baby on the way. We met with a colorectal surgeon on the Monday and everything moved swiftly from then.
In the 12 months after his diagnosis, Andy had two major surgeries (bowel and then liver resections), and a combined 12 rounds of debilitating chemotherapy. Our baby Vienna was born in the middle of all of this – Andy had his 4th round of chemotherapy the day we brought her home from hospital.
In July 2014, once all of Andy’s treatment had finished, we celebrated with champagne – consigning his cancer to history. But, after moving back to New Zealand in 2015 and having our second baby Lola in 2016, Andy’s routine scans showed troubling areas around his oesophagus. A biopsy in early 2017 confirmed this was the original bowel cancer returning, now with the diagnosis of it being ‘incurable’. A word that is forever etched in my mind.
At different stages over the next four years, Andy had six additional rounds of chemotherapy, 15 rounds of radiation, endless chemotherapy pills, two stents inserted into his oesophagus where one of his tumours stopped him being able to eat and often drink, injections into his vocal cords to combat the same tumour’s interference with his voice, different drug treatments with severe side effects as well as countless minor procedures, needles and blood tests. In the middle of all of this, in 2019, his mum died of a brain tumour and my dad died of cancer.
By mid-August 2020, we realised more treatment simply wasn’t an option, because, at best, it would only extend his life by a few months, and the gruelling side effects meant it just wasn’t worth it.
Andy left his job and from that time onwards, we had to make the painful, monumental shift from fighting his cancer to accepting that he was going to die from it. We spent the summer of '20/'21 spending time as a family with Vienna and Lola, going to Rainbow's End, heading to my mum’s bach at Waihi beach and other trips away – doing as much as Andy was physically able to while the girls were on school holiday.
Andy was admitted to Mercy Hospice right after the March 2021 lockdown in Auckland. He spent nine nights there where the incredible hospice team worked tirelessly to get his pain under control. I stayed with him for seven of them. With support from the hospice, my mum and sisters, he returned home on our wedding anniversary, 17th March, where I was able to care for him.
On the 5th April, in the quiet, early hours of that Easter Monday morning, Andy died with me by his side. He was 42 years old; I was 40 and our children Vienna and Lola were 7 and 4.
Andy’s final days were unbelievably tough. But he never complained. From the moment he was diagnosed in 2013, throughout the seven years and eight months of his illness to the day he died, he was never the victim. He accepted his illness and his impending death with a superhuman strength of will and endured more suffering than anyone I know.
Watching someone you know so deeply-well deteriorate is a profoundly distressing experience. I was by Andy’s side as he lost the ability to stand up by himself, to dress and wash himself, to move his legs in bed then his entire body. I watched him lose his voice and lose his sight. I supported him through hallucinations and extreme fear and anxiety as his brain was gripped by morphine and cancer-induced shutdown. It was impossible to bear witness to all of this, yet I did. The most important thing to me then was that Andy felt safe and cared for in the lead up to his death. It was the most vulnerable time in his life and, as his wife, it was so important to me that he felt safe and loved and to know that he was never alone.
Looking back on his death, I feel those final weeks, days and hours are the most important in a person's life and that they are sacred. That it is a reflection on and of our own humanity, how we look after a person who is dying. Once Andy lost the ability to care for himself, I felt - deep in my heart - the importance of maintaining his sense of dignity and self - to preserve this while everything felt like it was falling apart as his body and mind deteriorated. I fully and completely gave every inch of myself to him - to caring for him and easing his final experience at life as it transitioned towards death. It took all of my physical and mental strength to do this. It was the most important and most selfless role of my life.
In the days and weeks after his death, I realised that you can never really prepare yourself for the death of someone you love, or for what loss and grief feels like. I remember sitting alone in our living room the day after Andy’s funeral, crying and feeling such excruciating emotional pain and thinking ‘but I knew; I knew he was going to die, ‘how can it feel like this?”.
Then, I had to dust myself off, as it was Lola’s 5th birthday that same day. I picked her up from daycare and we went to the Sky Tower to celebrate.
Because, at the same time as all of this was happening, I was a mother of two young girls who needed me, a business owner and home owner who needed to keep things running. And, as everyone in New Zealand will acutely remember, we went into our longest ever lockdown in mid-August 2021, only four months after Andy died. So, I then had to navigate home-schooling, managing my business and running the house all on my own.
My life as a solo-mother, an entrepreneur and a grieving widow is relentlessly tough. But I am an incredibly resilient and resourceful person. Despite everything I have been through, and continue to go through, I am generally upbeat and happy. Some of this is a natural part of my personality, but a lot of it is because of what I have learnt over the past nine years.
My life and my business are both centred around putting wellbeing first. I know, with all my soul, how important it is for every one of us to prioritise our health. It’s not always easy, but everything in our lives gets better if we do this. And it gives us the strength to deal with the inevitable challenges and adversities that constantly come our way as a natural part of the human experience of life.
I also believe in the power of gaining meaning through our suffering. If we have the ability to take a little step back and observe what is happening to us and understand what we have learnt, this creates a powerful opportunity to strengthen ourselves intellectually and emotionally.
I have gained so much wisdom over the past nine years about how to strengthen my mind and body, reduce my stress levels, navigate grief and build my resilience. And I am still learning all of the time.
It creates more meaning in my life, and in Andy's death, to share what I have learnt with you. I do this through my monthly newsletter, sometimes on social media, media articles and by sending you beautiful tea that offers you the invitation to take time for yourself every day.
This has been a very difficult story for me to write, and to share. But, I hope my story and my messages encourage you to give yourself permission to put your own wellbeing at the top of your priority list. And that this gives you the strength to deal with the difficulties and hardships that may come your way, creating more meaning, and ultimately helping you to live a longer and more contented life.
My beautiful family on our last Christmas day together, 25 December 2020.