Saturday 21 July 2012

The Big C

It was the sort of email no traveller wants to get. Its stark simplicity told me something was seriously wrong.

Howard on board the Tern (1973). The yacht was jointly owned by us -
21 feet of rotting plywood and tired sails. We sailed her around the
Hauraki Gulf and to Great Barrier Island. It was on the Barrier trip
this photo was taken. The return passage took us 39 hours to cover the 
50 miles as we lay becalmed and then struggled with head winds.
“Hi, Need to catch up with you on the phone, what is the best time to call.” It was signed Howard, who is my oldest and best mate.

When he rang the next day it was to deliver terrible news – he has cancer of the pancreas and has only months to live. There is no hope.
My first reaction – as I struggled not to burst into tears - was to tell him I would leap on the first flight back to New Zealand. I instantly imagined sharing some of his last  days with him – maybe sailing peacefully in the Hauraki Gulf, a quiet anchorage, a beer (or something stronger) in one hand and Howard with a cigarette in the other. But he read my mind and said don’t come back. He really wasn’t up to doing much these days. He was on morphine to help ease the pain and needed a “Nana nap” every afternoon. He would rather we kept travelling, and on our return visit his wife and two adult sons.

Howard (left) plotting in the flat we shared in
Stoke Newington, London, in 1975.
It was a heart breaking conversation – but for me, it was nothing compared to the anguish Howard and his family are going through. He has been a tower of strength to them - always there, always caring and always striving to do his best for them.
But this is not an obituary. Howard’s not dead yet and as they say, where there’s life there’s hope.
His email coincided with one from my daughter, Merran, announcing to her family and friends that she was taking part in something called “Dry July” – giving up booze for a month to help raise funds for adults living with cancer. It seems like an excellent idea, and it didn’t take me long to contribute.
Howard is not the only one with cancer, most of us know someone who has fought this dreadful disease and won or lost. Another member of our wider family is battling it right now, but fortunately his prospects are looking good. And since we left New Zealand a partner at Judy’s old law firm, Mike Cormack, has died of cancer.
So “Dry July” might be a small way in which we can help those suffering. The website to make a contribution is  My daughter has her own fundraising page on the website
One of the reasons Judy and I embarked on this cycling trip was to do it while we still could – before infirmity or illness overwhelmed one or both of us. We’re lucky, unbelievably fortunate.
As for Howard,  like us in his early 60s, he and his wife should be looking forward to many more years together and the opportunity to relax a little and perhaps pursue some of their own dreams. That’s looking unlikely.

Howard helming his yacht Tender Foot on a passage
to Great Barrier in 2005.
If the worst happens, I’m going to miss him more than I care to admit. We grew up together – at boarding school, drinking, flatting, partying, sailing, travelling and socialising with our families. For a time we drifted apart as our lives became busy with the pressure of careers, but then we picked up the old friendship and nothing had changed. My only wish is that this old friendship could last forever. 



  1. Great blog Dad and awesome photos of Howard (how did you find these on your travels)?? Heading to see H & G with mum in next couple of weeks. Lots of love xx

  2. How did you get those photos? And where was that shot from Stoke Newington - were you sitting outside?? Hope your weather is fine and your travels peaceful.
    Jen and Paul


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