"She's a tough cookie to impress but at my level of fitness and in this heat, she would say "yeah, you did okay for a part-time dad rider"

Papamoa builder James Gray has just completed a 300km bike ride from Auckland to Tauranga in just over 10 hours.

It's a big ride even by the high standards of his wife Jacinta, a former road cycling Olympian.

The couple's children Rory, five and Scarlett six are suitably impressed, jumping up and down and yelling "dad, dad" when they see him emerge from under the bridge, peddling the last kilometre around the bend of Te Puna Station Road which curves around the Wairoa River.

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MADE IT: James Gray is hugged by son Rory, five, at the entrance to Waipuna Hospice at the end of his 300km ride from Auckland. Photo/Jaden McLeod
MADE IT: James Gray is hugged by son Rory, five, at the entrance to Waipuna Hospice at the end of his 300km ride from Auckland. Photo/Jaden McLeod

Uncle Simon is in close pursuit in his car loaded with Lamingtons and protein bars.

James' wingman, Simon, looks more tired than his brother having trailed him all the way from Titirangi at 4am, handing out snacks, 10 litres of water and navigating the back roads.

"Good job, James."

Father-in-law Brian Coleman, waiting with the kids on the grassy verge is understated compared to a large contingency of locals clapping, and his grandkids' effusive shrieks.

DAD: Rory, five, greets dad James who has taken up Jacinta's passion for cycling. Photo/Jaden McLeod
DAD: Rory, five, greets dad James who has taken up Jacinta's passion for cycling. Photo/Jaden McLeod

The tears in Brian's eyes tell a different story.

It is a sticky hot day; you can feel humidity thick in the air. People's backs are sweating.

Traffic noise cedes to the crescendo of the crickets and the whir of James' spokes as he turns into a leafy driveway.

Tired, sweating, sun cream melting on his grinning face.

An orange monarch butterfly swoops over his front wheel, then soars off as Rory leaps to wrap James and the bike in a huge hug, tossing teddy to uncle Simon.

One person is missing from the welcome committee.

James wife, "the love of my life".

"Mummy" to Rory and Scarlett and 14-year-old Max.

Oldest daughter to Brian, "the most wonderful girl, kind and determined"

Jacinta Gray, nee Coleman, died eight months ago of bowel cancer.

She was 42.

James Gray who lost his wife Jacinta to cancer last year, holds the frame of Jacinta's last bike which he hopes to put on the wall of their home. Photo/ Andrew Warner
James Gray who lost his wife Jacinta to cancer last year, holds the frame of Jacinta's last bike which he hopes to put on the wall of their home. Photo/ Andrew Warner

Hospice "angels"

Those locals in the group clapping for James are nurses, doctors and others who cared for her in the last weeks of her life.

The leafy driveway marking the end of his journey is the entrance to Waipuna Hospice.

James planned the ride to raise funds for Waipuna, but also as a way to tell Jacinta's journey, "capturing people's imagination not just about her, but about their own lives."

The route for the ride started from where she was born in West Auckland and took the boys through the countryside of Waikato where she began to race and train. The finish at the Waipuna Hospice was where she left this earth.

"We learned as a family that the unexpected can happen."

It is also a cathartic pilgrimage for James, who took up Jacinta's passion, cycling when she fell ill.

FOCUS: James Gray says planning the ride became something to focus on in the blur of grief following his wife's death. Photo/ Jaden McLeod
FOCUS: James Gray says planning the ride became something to focus on in the blur of grief following his wife's death. Photo/ Jaden McLeod

First it was his way of coping, then training for the ride became something to focus on in the blur of grief.

"In those last months of her life, I got on the bike even though that was her thing and hadn't been on a bike since a teenager. I started to go for rides, getting longer and longer, riding was my way of coping."

On those back roads, he felt her presence,

"She was definitely riding with me. On the Kaimais I felt her there like an angel forcefield watching out for me. There were a few hairy moments when big logging trucks that almost suck you in."

Inside hospice, everything is hues of tranquil blues and greens. Iced water and apple juice awaits.

The kids settle down to play with a giant Minnie Mouse, puzzles and toy trains while dad chats to staff.

MISSING MUM: Rory five and Scarlett, six, miss mummy
MISSING MUM: Rory five and Scarlett, six, miss mummy "beyond words". They have received play therapy at Waipuna Hospice, one of its services to families. PHOTO/Jaden McLeod

Everyone asks about the traffic, the route, how long it took, the pit stops, the hardest parts (when Simon led them down a gravel path), the hills (not so bad, apart from the Kaimais which were "horrible").

The minutiae of the itinerary seem comforting detail to those who deal with the bigger passage of life and death every day.

It's the first time the family have been back in the hospice where they often came for sleepovers with Jacinta during the last five weeks of her life that she spent here,

"It doesn't feel sad here because I know she was happy and cared for here. We're grateful to these people...she felt safe here. She was sad to leave us, she wasn't in pain or scared, but surrounded by love."

An exceptional athlete

When James talks of Jacinta's life and achievements, his eyes brim with pride and tears.

Former Olympian and Commonwealth Games road cyclist, Jacinta Gray. Photo/ supplied
Former Olympian and Commonwealth Games road cyclist, Jacinta Gray. Photo/ supplied

A 2000 Sydney Olympian, finishing 18th in the Road Race, she also competed at the 1998 Kuala Lumpa Commonwealth Games, finishing 10th and was a member of the New Zealand team for six years and also competed professionally for US, German and French teams.

"She was an exceptional athlete…she rode in races that New Zealanders don't even know about, tougher routes than the Olympics. She was humble about her achievements."

Former Olympian and Commonwealth Games road cyclist, Jacinta Gray. Photo/ supplied
Former Olympian and Commonwealth Games road cyclist, Jacinta Gray. Photo/ supplied

The three children – older brother Max is with his father in Australia, miss their mum, "beyond words".

James feels shock and disbelief at how the illness took his wife, a previously healthy and fit woman, so quickly.

James Gray, wife Jacinta with children Scarlett and Rory at the top of the Mount, not long before Jacinta went to Waipuna Hospice. Photo/ supplied
James Gray, wife Jacinta with children Scarlett and Rory at the top of the Mount, not long before Jacinta went to Waipuna Hospice. Photo/ supplied

"I don't think we can stop this"

When doctors sat the couple down early in 2017 and told them her illness was terminal, neither of them believed it.

"The doctor said, 'I don't think we can stop this'. Jacinta being Jacinta, did her best to try and prove them wrong.".

Even when she went "really downhill", she set herself a goal, just like she did in her road races. That she would stay alive until August 22, Rory's fifth birthday, to see him to his first day of school.

"It became her focus. She was determined to be there."

Just like in her sport, not all races turn out how you dream of.

"She did her best to stop this; things didn't turn out the way we wanted but not through want of her trying."

Telling the kids that mummy was "really sick and not getting better", and was not going to be with them for much longer was "incredibly tough",

"It was the hardest thing I've done in my life. We didn't tell the kids till the end. For Rory especially it was hard to take in. They are only little, they always believed mummy would get better…when you are a kid, your mum, she's always there."

Jacinta never made it to the school gate with Rory, taking her last breath in the hospice two months short of her goal.

James spent the last three days with her and the whole family were with her when she passed.


Diagnosis

It was in 2016 when Jacinta first started feeling unwell. She went to the doctor with a pain in her left side and feeling tired, and was prescribed anti-anxiety medication.

When she started feeling bloated and with morning sickness, at first the couple thought "number four" was on the way

Instead of a beginning of a new life, it was the beginning of the end.

An ultrasound revealed a 21 cm tumour on her ovary.

Radical surgery followed – she had both ovaries removed and a hysterectomy. The cancer was in her lymph nodes, and had spread in her abdomen.

Surgeons removed what they could.

After rounds of chemotherapy, the couple were positive they would beat this.

"She was starting to feel pretty good, but then she got this really bad pain in her back."

Doctors told them the cancer was back . Not only that, it emerged what had been removed in surgery was secondary cancer; the primary cancer was in the bowel.

Another round of chemotherapy "really knocked her about" and she told her husband that she did not want to do more.

"It was a huge decision…life changing."

Things progressively got worse with Jacinta getting sicker and struggling to cope with pain, but trying to keep it as normal as possible for the kids.

"I was out of my depth doing meds, she could see the effect it was having on kids, and it was too much for us. She was in such bad pain in the night; I was trying to help her fumbling around for pills. We realised we couldn't cope alone and that is when she was referred to hospice"

James Gray who lost his wife Jacinta to cancer last year. Photo / Andrew Warner
James Gray who lost his wife Jacinta to cancer last year. Photo / Andrew Warner

Jacinta's last weeks

"It was a huge thing…because that is when it hit me, and we hadn't told the kids."

When she arrived in hospice, the whole family felt enveloped by its care,

"Things started to feel calmer…she wasn't in pain. She started to feel better, but we knew it would only be temporary because she knew it was time. I don't know what was going through her mind but what was clear to us she liked it here, she wanted to stay."

The children started to have play therapy at hospice, and visited mum every day. The family had sleepovers in Jacinta's room.

" I really don't think I could have coped without these people…I know people call them angels, and I would never have been a person to say anything like that…but that is how it feels…because they just took care of us all."

Jacinta's father Brian also takes comfort in knowing his daughter's final weeks on earth were "happy and peaceful", as well as in the happy memories of a family holiday he took the whole family on to Raratonga after Jacinta's surgery before she started chemotherapy.

"She said many a time to me in her final days how that holiday was the best time of her life. I hold on to that Rory is still talking about the sharks and whales."

Ironically, he had bought the holiday as he himself had been told he had not long to live after a diagnosis of Multiple Myeloma. Just months before they were due to depart, he learned the damning news of his daughter's cancer diagnosis.

Now in remission, it's a bitter sweet recovery for him,

FATHER:
FATHER: "Why am I still here and she has gone?...I am here for James and the kids". PHOTO/ Jaden McLeod

Life without Jacinta

"How can it be that I outlive my daughter, that I beat it and she doesn't? Why wasn't it the other way round.

"Her illness was traumatic for her and for us to see her go through it. To lose her a huge loss. We soldier on the best we can."

James said the grief gets harder as time goes on,

"At first it is a blur, then it sets in. Since Christmas it's been particularly hard. It's set in for me that she's not around anymore. She was always the common sense one, we would talk over everything, but now I have to make decisions alone. I don't have her to lean on."

James hasn't returned yet to full-time building work, wanting to be there for the kids.

He's been building a house in Papamoa with Brian, also a builder.

Brian's helping James with the practicalities of bringing up the kids picking and dropping from school, but also with their grief

"Scarlett gets comfort thinking mum is with the angels, she writes her notes and cards. Rory is of course missing her but we are all here…we cannot be mum, but we are all here for them."

James knees are sore from building and one is swollen from pedalling those hundreds of kilometres. He's tired.

But he is already thinking of his next ride – keeping turning the wheels

"That's what she would say. Ice your knees.

Then get back on the bike.

TO DONATE TO JAMES GRAY'S FUNDRAISER FOR WAIPUNA HOSPICE:

Click here: JacintaGrayGivealittle

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