A ter­mi­nal mum’s poignant farewell to her daugh­ters

Af­ter be­ing di­ag­nosed with metastatic breast can­cer, solo mum Ma­rina Charl­ton em­barked on a jour­ney to find a mother for her twin daugh­ters. In the weeks be­fore she died, Ma­rina shared her story with Karyn Henger

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THE THING IS I CAN FEEL IT IN MY BODY NOW. I AM TIRED AND KNOW I AM

AT THE END.

Ma­rina Charl­ton was di­ag­nosed with an ag­gres­sive form of breast can­cer six years ago, and the di­ag­no­sis saw the sin­gle mum em­bark on a roller­coaster ride to find a mother for her twin daugh­ters to ‘re­place’ her when she died. In 2015 Karyn Henger in­ter­viewed Ma­rina about that jour­ney for NEXT, and spoke to the friend Ma­rina had cho­sen. On Jan­uary 10 this year Ma­rina passed away. A lot had changed since her 2015 in­ter­view, and Karyn had in­ter­viewed Ma­rina for a fol­low-up story just weeks be­fore Ma­rina died. These are Ma­rina’s fi­nal words.

Ma­rina passed away peace­fully, a few weeks ear­lier than ex­pected. Her daugh­ters are safe in the care of a trusted le­gal guardian. May she rest in peace.

My name is Ma­rina and I’ve just spent my last Christ­mas with my daugh­ters. I have been bat­tling metastatic breast can­cer for the past six years but my on­col­o­gist has told me I only have a few weeks left to live. The thing is I can feel it in my body now. I am tired and know I am at the end.

When I was first di­ag­nosed I was given six months to two years to live, so I’ve al­ready ex­ceeded med­i­cal ex­pec­ta­tions. I’ve had more rounds of che­mother­apy than

my on­col­o­gist con­sid­ered hu­manly pos­si­ble, there have been ra­di­a­tion treat­ments, multiple op­er­a­tions in­clud­ing a mas­tec­tomy, and many other cour­ses of med­i­ca­tion.

At the mo­ment I’m on a course of a drug called Ibrance, which has re­cently been in the news. With the help of an amaz­ing in­surance pol­icy and an in­cred­i­ble on­col­ogy team I was able to buy five months’ worth of Ibrance for $30,000. Yep,

$30,000. Ibrance is the drug women are fight­ing to get funded in New Zealand due to its high suc­cess rate in halt­ing the pro­gres­sion of metastatic breast can­cer. As­sum­ing I re­spond to the drug (be­cause my last round of chemo failed), it will keep me alive un­til March. My twin daugh­ters Olivia and Ella turn eight in March and I will do any­thing it takes to make it to their birth­day.

CRUEL TWIST

Ibrance is ba­si­cally chemo with all the ef­fects of chemo, so man­ag­ing the nau­sea, pain and ex­haus­tion is chal­leng­ing. I do truly ap­pre­ci­ate, though, how priv­i­leged I am to be able to af­ford health in­surance which has che­mother­apy cover. I am also grate­ful to have an on­col­o­gist pre­pared to go the ex­tra mile for me.

There are an es­ti­mated 400 women in New Zealand who will die sooner than they would have be­cause they don’t have ac­cess to Ibrance and as a coun­try we should find this com­pletely un­ac­cept­able.

In my life I have al­ways worked hard and val­ued ed­u­ca­tion. I started my ca­reer as a nurse then later re­trained to be­come a teacher. In 2016 I grad­u­ated from Massey Uni­ver­sity with a post grad­u­ate diploma in Ed­u­ca­tion, which I was very proud to re­ceive in front of my daugh­ters, and that same year I re­ceived a Zonta New Zealand 50 Women of Achieve­ment award.

But to my mind my great­est achieve­ment has al­ways been my chil­dren. My daugh­ters are my world and the only rea­son I have fought so hard for so long to stay alive.

To say it was quite a jour­ney to con­ceive them would be an un­der­state­ment. I un­der­went seven years of IVF treat­ment, and in the end they were con­ceived us­ing a donor egg and donor sperm (the first in New Zealand). To have found out when they were not quite two that I had can­cer seemed a cruel twist of fate.

TIME TO STOP FIGHT­ING

I have strug­gled with ac­cep­tance – even though my liver is now rid­dled with tu­mours and my on­col­o­gist has told me it is time to find ac­cep­tance. A few weeks ago I sat next to a woman in the wait­ing room at

MY TWIN DAUGH­TERS OLIVIA AND ELLA TURN EIGHT IN MARCH AND I WILL DO ANY­THING IT TAKES TO MAKE

IT TO THEIR BIRTH­DAY.

the on­col­ogy unit and she shared with me that she only has a few months left too. She ap­peared so at peace with what lay ahead and I found her at­ti­tude con­fus­ing. I didn’t know if I was jeal­ous of her or an­gry or sad; she said her daugh­ter won’t ac­cept it and she found this frus­trat­ing and I wanted to say why did her daugh­ter need to ac­cept it?

Then I re­alised that she ac­cepted it. That night I lay in bed won­der­ing, how do you do that? How do you ac­cept that you need to stop fight­ing – and how can you stop fight­ing when your en­emy is so evil?

The girls have al­ways known about my ill­ness but they’ve seen me fight for so long… seen me lose my hair then grow my hair back… They don’t yet re­alise that this re­ally is the end now. They keep say­ing ‘next year at Christ­mas can we…’ and ‘when we do this again next year’, and it’s rip­ping my heart each time be­cause I know I won’t be part of their next Christ­mas.

A MOTHER’S FEAR

A big part of my jour­ney over the past six years has been find­ing some­one to re­place me. Not re­place me, but take over from where I left off. It has been a dif­fi­cult jour­ney, marked by many highs and lows.

I have al­ways raised them alone and the only ex­tended fam­ily I have haven’t been a part of my life. Fam­ily friends had of­fered to take the girls when they were tod­dlers and we in­vested a lot of time into build­ing me­mories to­gether. The cou­ple even had bed­rooms ready for them.

But I didn’t die when the doc­tors had pre­dicted I would, and over time our re­la­tion­ship be­came strained. It’s com­pli­cated. Where do the bound­aries fall be­tween a mother and some­one who is go­ing to be­come your chil­dren’s mother?

I met an­other cou­ple who of­fered to have the girls and for a while we pur­sued that, but that also fell through. I went on to re­con­nect with ex­tended fam­ily and they of­fered to take the girls. Life couldn’t have felt more per­fect. But our re­la­tion­ship broke down too.

What I have set­tled on is a le­gal guardian who in the past two years has be­come a trusted friend. I knew I had made the right de­ci­sion when one of my daugh­ters said: “One day we’re go­ing to love that man.”

Per­haps it was the fear of be­ing re­placed by an­other mother that had al­ways got in the way be­fore. It seems ironic that af­ter this six-year search for a ma­ter­nal fig­ure, what I’ve set­tled on is a pa­ter­nal fig­ure.

THE HARD­EST PART

The next part is the part I dread the most – say­ing good­bye. How does a mother say good­bye to her chil­dren? I don’t even know where to be­gin. I love my daugh­ters so much it ac­tu­ally hurts. I don’t want to leave them and I feel robbed of my time with them, but I’m also thank­ful for the seven pre­cious years we’ve had.

Con­sid­er­ing I’ve been ill for so much of that time we have packed a lot of liv­ing in. I’ve taken them to Paris and to Eng­land to see where my fam­ily are from. We’ve laughed to­gether, cried to­gether and al­ways, al­ways talked our heads off.

As a for­mer his­tory teacher I am a lit­tle ob­sessed with record­ing ev­ery­thing. I have doc­u­mented the girls’ en­tire lives in the form of photo al­bums, scrap­books and a Pan­dora bead col­lec­tion, with beads to rep­re­sent ev­ery spe­cial mo­ment we’ve ever shared. I have writ­ten the girls let­ters to open when they sit their first ex­ams, the night be­fore their wed­dings and to mark

A BIG PART OF MY JOUR­NEY OVER THE PAST SIX YEARS HAS BEEN FIND­ING SOME­ONE TO TAKE OVER FROM WHERE I LEFT OFF

the births of their chil­dren. I’ve even kept the clothes they have worn on spe­cial oc­ca­sions. My fas­tid­i­ous­ness has ac­tu­ally be­come a bit of an ‘in joke’ now, with the girls of­ten say­ing to me, ‘Oh, you’ll have to record that.’

I haven’t been a per­fect mum but I’ve done my best and I hope that was enough.

What I know is that my girls are amaz­ing lit­tle peo­ple who are go­ing to grow up to do amaz­ing things. They’re smart, they’re funny, they’re cu­ri­ous. They are, quite sim­ply, my ev­ery­thing.

*This story was com­pleted in De­cem­ber 2017 and pub­lished with per­mis­sion from Ma­rina’s next of kin.*

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