Island Life by David Slack


The worst that could happen

I only realised much later that I had been warned, as a child, of Stranger Danger. It was at our cubs group in the Kimbolton Hall.

If a man offers you some sweets to get in his car, tell him no, they said. I was skeptical. This was so completely implausible. Why on earth would a complete stranger want to share his sweets with me?

There was also a cub manual in which the message was reinforced with a picture of a grinning chap in a fedora leaning out of the car, Minties in his beckoning hand. Dib, dib, dib, Akela. We will do our best. We will read maps. We will not get in cars.

We went on a trip to Taupo and I wandered off from the pack. I had no idea where I was. A nice man asked me if I needed help. Yes please, I told him, I’m a cub. We’re on a trip and I’m lost.

Hop in my car and I’ll take you back , he said.

Do the mothers reading this passage flinch in apprehension more than the fathers, I wonder? It’s ridiculous to generalise. I have a sunny optimistic nature; Karren apprehends more hazards for our daughter than I do. They worry her.

When I was five years old, my dad had me steering the tractor as he walked behind feeding out hay. My mother -- the same one who would once, younger, walk across a railway viaduct on a dare -- was aghast when she saw the ridge we were driving along. Dad is a careful and cautious man, but he still took more latitude than people might approve of these days. So did all the farmers. Occasionally one would let their loose clothing get too near the PTO shaft of the tractor and there would be another funeral in the district.

I didn’t get molested that day in Taupo. I got delivered back to the scout hall. The tractor never tipped over.

What’s the worst that can happen? One day you have a healthy eight year old daughter, the next you’re in Starship learning about Ewing’s Sarcoma.

So many of our friends have spent anxious nights at Starship. They have mostly brought home their children safe and well. But some discover Ward 7. This is where the cancer kids go. This is where you discover that everything you took for granted about your child’s life has vapourised. This is where you are inducted into a new world of blinking monitors and wretched days of waiting.

It's not our eight year old daughter with the disease; it’s Finlee, the family friend of our daughter's friend Belle. Last weekend I read the narrative Belle's mother, Michelle Hancock, has compiled and photographed these past six months. It is sobering, it is anguished. A healthy, happy eight year old daughter disappears into a world of bone removal and therapy and a vast collection of beads and no sure promise that any of this will be enough. The screw turns a a little each day.

It wasn't our daughter it happened to; it wasn’t ever, I hope, yours. But it always could be. At Starship’s Oncology Ward -- Ward 7 -- it is cramped. You have four patients to a room, in pain, weak, vomitting. You have families, you have noise, you have anguish, and you find a corner to curl up in and sleep fitfully through the night with your child, attending to their meds and the equipment at half hour intervals.

Being able to wake up and discover it was a bad dream would be the preferable option, but a second best one would to be have more room: some space to retreat into, to cope with your grief; enough room for everyone to move.

Michelle Hancock is a photojournalist. She has taken remarkable pictures to accompany the narrative. It is being staged as an exhibition at Devonport’s Depot Artspace to raise funds towards the rebuilding of the Starship Oncology ward and it opens this weekend. It is a compelling documentary of a mother and daughter finding their way through.

Every bit helps. 28 Clarence St, Devonport, from this Sunday, April 20, for a week or so.

Why not take your daughter along, read the story, count your blessings, squeeze her hand, and leave some money?


If you'd like to support the Oncology Ward rebuild at Starship you can donate here. (Select Cancer Ward Appeal from the dropdown box.)

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