Julia Tapp exudes warmth and positivity. But hers is a story that would bring many to their knees. She shares her extraordinary journey with Jodi Bryant.
Julia Tapp was in the midst of painting an angel portrait for a father who'd lost his baby daughter when her own wee son drowned.
The kind-hearted multiple-award-winning Whangarei artist had answered his online plea for someone to paint his baby without the attached tubes when her own tragedy struck. The painting was put on hold and Julia, instead, turned to the father for support.
Later that year, by chance, she met another dad whose daughter had died at 38 weeks gestation and who only had one 'rather confronting' image of her.
"I must admit, I was taken aback a bit but I took a second look and saw that her eyes and ears, mouth and nose were all in the same place and it was only the deterioration. I said to the dad, 'I can do this for you, I can fix up her skin' so I restored all her skin and gave the painting to them."
Julia then finished off the first painting and did another ten Angel Portraits over the following year before she was able to paint her son Ezra; She got up at 4am and painted until 2pm that day.
Ezra, or 'Ezee-bear' as his family called him, was born with severe autism and always had an attraction to water. One day in 2014, the free-spirited three-year-old escaped out the front gate and travelled 200m before he was found by his dad Jason 27 minutes later in the Ohinemuri River.
Paramedics worked on him for half an hour but, as Julia and Jason held their son's little body on the river bank singing his favourite song: Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, the news was delivered that their boy would not be coming home.
"There are no words to describe those moments or how fast it happened," says Julia, 34. "Everyone tried their best to save him but he was already gone."
They returned to the house where Ezra's siblings had already heard the news via the gathering press.
The harrowing weeks that followed were every parent's nightmare, coupled with the fact the family were hounded by media. But rather than let the tragedy bring their family down, a strong and positive Julia had other plans.
"I know the death of a child destroys families so my husband and I made an agreement. We moved through our grief in different stages and we decided that we could have our space to grieve but not completely shut the other out. For example, you could shut yourself in a room and cry but not lock the door. If someone needed to take a walk, they had to take their phone with them and be contactable. The other rule was to always be truthful with our feelings, even if it hurts the other person.
"If anything, Jason and I are growing closer and, since losing our son, we always come back to that moment. Nothing could be as hard as that day. It becomes a new comparison in life."
And they've had a lot to compare it to – the couple are no strangers to adversity.
At 19, a newly-single Julia was living in Whangarei at the home she had shared with her boyfriend when her house burnt down.
"I had left the tv running for about three days for the comforting light and noise and was sleeping on the couch when the tv caught fire at 3am. I had an alarm but, being 19 and pretty silly, it didn't have batteries. It was actually my cat who woke me up.
"Being a free-spirited person, I thought 'Right, my house is gone, I've always wanted to live in Hamilton, there's nothing stopping me' so I put out my thumb and hitched to Hamilton," laughs the bubbly mum.
"That was the first time I've had to re-build my life … it's happened a few times."
It was there Julia found out she was pregnant. "I worked waiting tables and didn't have a bed so used to pile all my clothes by the fire and sleep on that while (baby) Zoe slept in a drawer."
Meanwhile, with a strong interest in performing arts, Julia started an entertainment company and trained and performed as a fire dancer, drummer and stilt walker and was joined by belly dancers and face painters and 'before we knew it, we had a circus'.
"We had this massive group of entertainers and travelled with the Waikato Chiefs and All Blacks. We did some amazing shows for the public but that all came to an end when I broke my leg."
Julia was 26 and performing when it happened but she picked herself up and finished the set before hopping off the stage and driving home.
"I went to bed and when I woke up it was huge."
Unbeknown to Julia, she had broken her leg four times since the age of 13 but, because they were internal fractures, they went undetected. Because she was dancing and stilt walking on multiple breaks, by the time they were discovered, she had stage four osteoarthritis. Multiple operations were unsuccessful.
By the time Julia met musician Jason she had a second child Liam and had been in an abusive relationship so was wary of men. But the couple soon became inseparable… and then Jason was diagnosed with stage four kidney cancer which had metastasized to his lungs and lymph nodes.
"It was called Wilms Tumor, which is a child cancer and he was 27. At that point Jason was one of the oldest people in the world to have it and they flew out teams to poke and prod and stare at him."
Jason's kidney – described as 'one giant tumor' – was removed, along with around 30 lymph nodes. His 12 lung tumors were treated with a mix of radiation, chemo and herbal treatments.
During this time, Ezra was born and, although he never spoke, to Julia and Jason, he was perfect.
"Zoe and Liam loved Ezra to bits – they were Ezra's little defense crew. All he could do was hum so they would lie there and hum together," says Julia, smiling at the memory.
Four years on from the tragedy, Ezra's name is mentioned every day and Julia is intent on preserving his memory by turning her boy into art. Because Ezra didn't talk, he would stand on his mum's feet to get her attention. Julia now has Ezra's baby footprints tattooed on her feet with a mix of ink and his ashes.
"Jason thought it was a bit weird at first but I explained that ashes are so grey and our boy was so beautiful."
In addition, Ezra's heart valves were donated to help young children suffering from severe heart defects.
"We lost our boy but could give the gift of life to two other families at least."
Before Ezra's death, Julia already believed in the after-life and more-so when well-known mediums Kelvin Cruickshank and Sue Nicholson passed on messages from her son. At one of Kelvin's shows, he spent an hour talking about Ezra and has written about him in two of his books.
Then there are the upside-down rainbows and the fantail which flies inside and perches on Jason's coffee cup and chirps while the couple have their breakfast.
And then came the birth of the couple's second son together Phoenix.
Complications entailed an early delivery, which happened to be a year to the day Ezra died.
"I said, no, not on the day Ezra died. It would have been unfair on Phoenix and unfair on Ezra," recalls Julia.
However, in what the Tapps are putting down to 'a bit of intervention from someone else', Phoenix arrived the day before Ezra's anniversary and at the same time of 3pm. Now aged two, Phoenix is almost identical to his older brother.
Wanting a fresh start, Julia and Jason moved to Whangarei last year with Zoe, now 15, Liam, 12, and Phoenix. And, so far, things are looking up: After seven years, Jason was declared cancer-free and is, once again, making music after a four-year grief-induced drought.
Whangarei surgeons carried out a successful knee replacement, which has made a vast improvement to Julia's mobility and quality of life. The couple purchased a home, the kids have settled into school and Julia's dream of opening an arts and grief centre has come to fruition.
Throughout their heartbreaks, Julia's art has evolved to reflect their journey and she has continued to study and gain qualifications in the arts and teaching fields.
She still puts her heart and soul and personal funds into painting an average of 50 Angel Portraits a year and is booked up until September. These are painted and donated free for families who have lost babies or children and often involves restoring colour, removing tubes or placing the child in the parent's arms.
"I figure, what am I giving up really? I am giving up about six hours of my time which I can certainly spare to help someone with their grief and give them a beautiful picture they can hang on their wall without fear of judgement."
Following Ezra's death, Julia began the New Zealand Child Loss Support Group page, which quickly gathered momentum with grieving families. She runs this and her Angel Portraits alongside her new arts and grief centre.
"After my son passed away, he really taught me just how precious life is and how you don't need to be able to talk or have the same abilities as everyone else to express yourself. My focus has now turned to, not just producing art, but teaching art and passing onto children and special needs and people going through grief. The art doesn't have to be good, you just have to get it out of your system.
"Since moving to Whangarei, we have totally re-built our lives. You reach a point where you go 'Gosh, so much has happened. I've really just learnt to laugh my way through life."