Toni Street's new book tells the story of the grief and suffering that has marked her life. Together with mum Wendy, she tells Greg Bruce how she got through it.
Toni Street was 18 months old on the morning her mother Wendy brought her out of her cot, put her into bed next to her twin brother Lance, got in beside them - husband Geoff on the other side - and cuddled up close as Lance died of the leukaemia he had been diagnosed with months earlier. It was every parent's worst nightmare and it was about to get worse.
A few months later, Wendy became pregnant again. Almost immediately, she began bleeding. Although she suspected something was wrong, her GP told her not to worry, that everything was fine. She did worry, so she returned to the GP, over and over. Eventually, he told her she was being paranoid because of what had happened with Lance. When baby Tracy was born, at 3.6kg, with a hearty scream, Wendy believed maybe he was right. But then Tracy went first white, then blue. She was rushed into intensive care and placed on a ventilator. Doctors discovered she had no kidneys. She died 14 hours after she was born.
Wendy became pregnant again a few months later and, after a straightforward pregnancy, she and Geoff had a healthy baby boy. They named him Stephen. They were happy. It felt like a new beginning. Two years later, they had a girl, Kirsty. After the pain of their two losses, the Streets had a full house and were starting again.
In her new book, Lost and Found, Toni portrays the next few years, growing up on a Taranaki farm with her brother and sister, as idyllic. She had been too young to remember the deaths of Lance and Tracy, and her parents were loving and supportive. By the time she started primary school, she felt the family had healed. In her teenage years, she played netball for Taranaki and cricket for Central Districts, drank RTDs at hall parties and was made head girl of New Plymouth Girls' High. That was the last year in which her life would feel like it always had. The next year, she writes, it would split in two.
At about 6am on January 7, 2002, Geoff Street woke his son Stephen, 14, to help him with the milking. Stephen had hurt his foot the night before and his mother didn't want him to go out that morning to the shed, but he and his dad wanted to play golf later, so they were determined to get their jobs done quickly. While Geoff was doing the milking, he asked Stephen to take the quad bike out to do some fencing in a nearby paddock. When Stephen didn't come back, Geoff went to look for him. He found him under the quad bike, which had flipped on its back. He was dead.
Geoff carried him back to the house and laid him on the back lawn, then yelled for Wendy, who was still asleep inside. Upon seeing her son, she ran back inside to call an ambulance.
Toni writes, of that moment: "The operator had difficulty understanding what she was saying. Then Mum said 'Don't worry, it's hopeless, he's dead,' and threw the phone down before running back outside. She was angry now because Stephen was covered in mud and cow s***, which he would have hated. For a country boy, he had a surprisingly low tolerance for dirt."
Lost and Found is Toni's story. She is the famous Street: one of the nation's most-recognisable and beloved faces from her time on Breakfast, Seven Sharp and as one of the country's best sports broadcasters. The star of the book, though, is Wendy, whose suffering has been so great as to appear at times unsurvivable. She has not just survived, but has pulled her family through it with her. She comes across as a figure of incredible strength.
I cried more than once during the reading of the book, and I cried again last week, soon after Wendy and Toni appeared alongside each other in separate windows on my computer screen, Toni trying to explain to her mother, hundreds of kilometres away, using Zoom for the first time, how to get the lighting right.
Wendy says that when Toni sent her the proof copy of the book, prior to publication, she read the first chapter, which plunges straight into the deaths of Stephen and Lance, then couldn't take any more. "I was like, 'I can't do this. I can't read this.' And Toni rang me about a week later and said, 'How are you going, Mum?' And I said, 'Really good! I'm getting there.' And I was like, 'Okay, put your big girl pants on.'"
Then she sat down with a box of tissues and read nearly the whole thing in a single sitting. She says it got easier.
Many of the complex ways we deal with grief are on display in Lost and Found. The Streets struggled in their different ways to carry on in the wake of all the death. On the morning Toni's twin Lance died, Wendy came out of the bedroom to find her father-in-law staring out the window. He said: "Well, there's a lot of work needs doing on this farm. The best thing you can do is get out and get stuck in."
Wendy wanted to go to bed and never get up but couldn't, because she had Toni. Geoff threw himself into his farm work, refusing to let guilt be part of the grieving process. He said: "We've just got to get on with things. If I go down, we'll all go down."
Of her own grief, Toni writes in chapter four, "Broken": "In those initial weeks after Stephen died I vowed that for the rest of my life I would do everything I could to make Mum and Dad happy. I would never, ever do anything that might make their lives harder … I knew it was up to me (and Kirst, but she was still young) to bring joy back into their lives and to somehow redress the imbalance."
On Zoom, Wendy says: "For myself, I feel like I only carried on because of my kids."
The book is not a grief memoir. Toni says she wrote it mostly to share her surrogacy story because, when she and her best friend Sophie Braggins made the decision four years ago that Sophie would act as surrogate for Toni's third baby, they could find only one book on surrogacy written by a New Zealander, and that woman had done it in Canada. Toni knew, though, that the book would also have to deal with the great pain of her family's losses.
"The hardest day was when [ghost writer] Sophie Neville, Mum and I sat down, and we literally were down in my rumpus room for an entire day almost, going back through all of that, the history and the grief that Mum and Dad have endured, and I found it quite harrowing, to be honest. Like, it was one of those situations where I kind of didn't want to be in the room, but I also wanted to be in the room.
"It's not something you want to ask your parents when they've lost three children: 'Oh, let's go back over all that again; that would be a great time.'"
Wendy says: "I think we are a close family because of what happened to us." She says: "We do have a lot of joy and I think that comes from a lot of suffering."
But how much suffering can a mother take? In 2015, weeks after the birth of Toni's second daughter Mackenzie, Toni became sick with what would, much, much later be diagnosed as rare autoimmune disorder Churg-Strauss syndrome. On Zoom, Wendy tells Toni she thinks she put too much of a positive spin on her illness in the book: "It's very, very mild compared to what you actually went through," Wendy says, "because it was not a fun time."
In the book, Toni writes: "I felt as if I was dying and I was all alone. I was starting to lose the plot emotionally, with a loop going around inside my head saying, 'You're going to die and your babies will be left without a mum.'"
Toni's body was attacking itself and her internal organs were in serious danger of failing. Of eight markers for Churg-Strauss, Toni had seven. Just in time, she had what she calls the "sliding-door" moment of finding gastroenterologist Dr Ali Jafar, who was able to diagnose the illness when no one else could. His intervention saved her life.
Three years later, still on medication but officially in remission, with her best friend seven months pregnant with her third child, because Churg-Strauss had prevented her from carrying it herself, Toni had an allergic reaction to an antibiotic, which began destroying her liver. There was no treatment and she couldn't take painkillers because of the risk they would cause further damage. All she could do was suffer, and hope her liver could repair itself. For weeks she was terribly sick, so lethargic she could barely move and so itchy she scratched herself raw. The itch was especially unbearable. She describes it in the book as feeling like an army of spiders loose beneath her skin. She was too sick to watch television or look at her phone. All she could do was stare into space. She began losing the will to live. She asked to be put into an induced coma. "I think I said to Mum and Dad at one point, 'I feel like jumping off the harbour bridge' - and I kind of felt serious."
Of that time, her mother says: "It took the light out of your eyes. At least with Churg, you knew that if you did the treatment, hopefully it would put you in remission, whereas with this there was no light at the end of the tunnel. There wasn't any light."
Each day, Toni would make a two-hour round trip to Auckland Hospital for a blood test, after which the doctor would call to update her with the levels of bilirubin in her blood. A normal level is 25. When she was first diagnosed, hers was 118 and rising. It would eventually reach 227. She says the illness was one of the worst things she has ever been through; she thought she was never going to get better. Then, after eight weeks, her bilirubin levels began dropping. Her liver was repairing itself. Ten days after that, it was like she had never been sick. A few weeks later, at North Shore Hospital, her best friend Sophie gave birth to her baby, Lachie.
Lachie is now 3. Unlike his two older sisters, he has olive skin and big brown eyes. Both Toni and Wendy say how much he is like Stephen, and not just in appearance.
In Lost and Found, Toni writes: "In Mum's eyes, Lachie is a gift from Stephen, and a sign that he's there and he's waiting for her."
Wendy says: "Stephen would have loved him. I don't feel like Stephen's living through him, or anything like that, but I feel like somehow Stephen knows that Lachie's here."
She says it hits her sometimes how unlikely it was that Lachie would come into the world: "He was meant to be. He was always meant to be here. I feel like, for some reason, he was given to us. He is a gift."
Lost and Found, by Toni Street (Allen & Unwin, $37) is available from Tuesday.