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“Doing it on my own was not an option. Hopefully I can move on as Lee would have wanted.”

By John Odendaal

I met Lee on a blind date at my brother’s wedding in 1992. I was struck by her smiling face and beautiful sparkling eyes. I think for both of us it was love at first sight. We were married just over a year later.

Just three months after our wedding, we were transferred to Zimbabwe on a three-year work contract. Our two children, Jessica and Matthew, were born in quick succession and became the focus of our lives. On November 5, 2000, for the first time since having kids, we left them with friends and went off for a weekend on our own in the country. It was a well-deserved break for Lee. Jessica was four years old and Matt was two. On the Sunday morning, our lives were dramatically changed forever. In a freak accident, Lee—an experienced rider—fell off her horse after encountering a leopard and badly broke her spine badly. The accident took place in an inhospitable place deep in the bush, and it took hours to get her out. Three days later, she was operated on in Johannesburg. Though initially she was informed that the damage “wasn’t that bad,” ultimately she was told that she would not walk again.

Despite the obvious hardship for herself and the fact that our family lived a long way off in South Africa, Lee insisted that we continue our term in Zimbabwe. That was Lee.

Following Lee’s accident, she had many questions for God, like “why me?” and “why our perfect, happy family?” There were many tough years for all of us, although the kids were initially too young to understand. Lee quickly showed what she was made of when she chose to make the best of her situation. Independence was important to her, so we got her a modified car with hand controls and a wheelchair lift. In no time, she was lifting kids and getting right back into the swing of things again. Although the doctors had said Lee would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life, she always believed that she would walk again one day. She clung to this hope, but after about five years she came to accept her situation. During this time, Lee had two instances of deep vein thrombosis, which we were able to manage.

After returning to our hometown of Greytown in South Africa in 2014, we bought a small farm with a big, double-story house, installed a wheelchair lift, and adjusted to our new home, which Lee loved. She enjoyed sitting in bed, looking out the window at the beautiful view. After Matt completed his schooling in 2015, Lee and I entered the “boon years” that we had looked forward to, when we could travel and enjoy married life together.

Looking back, I am so pleased we did it, as it would be our last big family holiday together.

But in January 2016, Lee’s life took another turn. A friend had asked about a lump in Lee’s throat. After seeing an oncologist, we got the fright of our lives when he confirmed that Lee had thyroid cancer. Ten months, two operations, and two bouts of radiation treatment later, Lee was given the all-clear. It was November 2016. We took a family holiday to Zanzibar that December. It was one of the happiest trips we ever had. Looking back, I am so pleased we did it, as it would be our last big family holiday together.

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Matt noticed two bright stars shoot across the sky. We both knew what that meant.

Lee’s next check-up was on June 1, 2017. She was given the all-clear again. The night of Friday, June 2, was a cold winter’s evening and Matt was home on vacation. We spent a lovely evening together. I had a restless night and woke once or twice to check on Lee, as she had not been sleeping that well. I got up at about 3 a.m. and noticed that Lee was quiet and seemed to be in a deep sleep. But I soon realized that Lee was not breathing and that she was a little cold and had no heartbeat. My dear wife had passed away and left us. I panicked and called Matt. A short while later, we sat on the bed in shock, looking blindly out the window into the darkness, waiting for the doctor to arrive. Matt noticed two bright stars shoot across the sky. We both knew what that meant.

Lee died from an embolism. It was Saturday, June 3, 2017, the worst day of my life. Our happy, perfect family—which had no divorces and no deaths of any direct family members up until then—was suddenly shattered. And it had happened to us. But why?

Nearly 1,000 people attended Lee’s service, and we live in a remote country town. It was a testament to the high regard in which Lee was held and the respect that she had earned. Her attitude was that life is a matter of choice. Each day that you wake up, you choose whether you are going to have a good day or a bad day.

Eleven months later, I am well on the road to healing...I think. The first seven months were very tough. A turning point was a family holiday that Jess, Matt, and I took to Zimbabwe in January 2018. I had been dreading the memories that our old house and friends would evoke, but it turned out to be the best thing for us all. Today I am lucky to have Matt living with me and studying from home while we both heal. I am so proud of my Jessica, who persevered during those tough months and completed her degree and postgraduate marketing diploma.

New, true friendships are growing from there. These tight networks have been a godsend for me. 

So, what has helped me heal? For the first time in my life, I underwent counseling. My church pastor and family have helped a lot, too. I’ve been very fortunate to have had the support of Lee’s sister, Penny, and a core group of Lee’s best friends. Talking about Lee has been essential. In addition, I have found friends who have also lost a partner. Although my original intention was to help them, I have found that helping them has indirectly helped me. So, we help each other. New, true friendships are growing from there. These tight networks have been a godsend for me. Doing it on my own was not an option. Hopefully I can move on as Lee would have wanted.

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