It’s nearly twelve months since my Mum died from cancer and yesterday I farewelled another very special woman, who also died from cancer. Karen.
You may have met Karen and her husband, Chris, from the episode Romance. It’s probably the Stories of Bike episode that has touched people the most. It’s not surprising as it is a simple and beautiful story of two people deeply in love.
I first heard of Chris and Karen through the affable Steve Broholm, whom you met in my early Stories of Bike episode; Bridges. It was during the shooting of that episode that Steve asked me if I knew who else I was going to feature in future videos. When I answered, “whoever’s interested”, Steve said I should get in touch with Chris and Karen Atkinson. When I asked who they were, Steve was a little sheepish. “You didn’t hear this from me,” he said, “But Karen has breast cancer, and I heard that she told Mark (Hawwa) that if anything ever happens to her, she made Mark promise to make sure that Chris never stops riding.”
With that simple story, I was hooked. I wanted to know more. I wanted to meet them both.
But at the same time I was scared to intrude on Chris and Karen’s struggle. It wasn’t until nearly 9 months later that I felt I was ready to make contact. My mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which was incredibly terrifying and stressful, but at the same time I felt I had something that I could now relate to with Chris and Karen.
And so we met and shot Romance.
To this day, the making of Romance was one of the most enriching and memorable experiences of both my career and personal life. I spent about 4 days with Chris and Karen around their country property north of Sydney and we quickly became good friends. The editing of their episode also proved to be one of the most difficult episodes to complete. Initially the emotion of watching the raw interview footage was too intense. It was too close to home. However, by the end I almost became desensitised to it. It wasn’t until I played it for the first time with music that I saw it with fresh eyes.
I sobbed uncontrollably.
And nearly every time I have watched it since I have a strong emotional reaction. Despite Karen’s illness, she and Chris had hope and, therefore, anyone who watched it was hopeful as well. We all believed, wanted to believe, that Karen would continue to beat the cancer. So watching Romance was always a positive experience.
Shortly before Karen’s death in her home, surrounded by Chris and her sons Tom and Josh, Chris had asked if I would mind if they played Romance at the funeral. While I said I would be honoured, I had never considered that the day would come when I would have to watch Romance at Karen’s memorial service.
Leading up to it, I was worried the meaning of Romance was going to change for me. Instead of the sense of hope and love that I felt watching it before Karen’s death, I became worried that watching Romance was now going to feel tragic and leave me with a deep sadness.
I was right in that the meaning of Romance did change for me. But I was wrong about what I would feel.
The absolute fucked thing about cancer is that it’s not quick and it’s not merciful. It’s slow and it will strip your loved one away bit by bit until you barely recognise and remember who they were. Chris had said that they are so grateful to have Romance. He told me that, through her last weeks, he watched it often, to remind himself of what Karen was like when she was happy and healthy. So, for Chris, Tom, Josh and anyone who knew Karen, Romance became the memory of Karen we wanted to have. To remember her as a woman of joy; laughing and, as ever, full of love.
And so, fears of the meaning of Romance for me being twisted into something dark and introspective were misguided. As the images of Chris and Karen played above Karen’s casket after hearing the wonderful stories about her from her sons and sister-in-law, Sue, I felt an intense feeling of both happiness and love for the woman we knew. For the first time I knew it wasn’t going to be a romance farewelled.
It would be Romance Forever.