Enduring her own sadness and health issues, 12-year-old thinks only of her heart-broken father.

"My dad loved my mum with all his heart. After she died he has not been the same; but he has been amazing looking after three young children and I think he should be recognised for his greatness."

These words, spoken by 12-year-old Milly Marshall-Kirkwood, are a heartrending tribute to her father Rob Kirkwood who, seven months on, is still coming to terms with the loss of his wife Paula Marshall.

Last July Paula lost her battle with bowel cancer, leaving Kirkwood with the responsibility of bringing up Milly, her sister Daisy (9) and brother Archie (8) by himself.

Despite her own grief and health challenges - she suffers from a rare genetic disorder known as Marfan syndrome and it was initially thought unlikely she'd live past two - Milly's heart has gone out to her father, nominating him for an ASB Good as Gold award.


"I am 12 and the oldest daughter; I don't know if there is any gift that could thank him enough," she wrote to the ASB.

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This week the bank was so touched by her words - and the predicament facing the family who live in the Taranaki town of Inglewood - it named Kirkwood as a Good as Gold recipient giving him $10,000 to take the kids on holiday.

"Losing a partner is one thing but to also become a single parent to three grieving children is another," says ASB lower North Island regional manager Barry Coffey. "It can't have been an easy seven months so we hope this money enables the family to have some quality time together while they're on holiday."

Admitting he was surprised to get the award - the ASB broke the news to him last week at Milly's 12th birthday party - Kirkwood says his daughter has been through "a hell of a lot" herself.

"Not only is she coping with Marfan (the condition affects tissue in the body which holds cells and organs together and occurs most commonly in the heart where it can rupture the inner layers of the aorta), but losing her mum too," he says. "Outwardly it (her grief) is not that obvious but she was very close to Paula.

"She is the first child and they spent a lot of time together going to hospital and doctor appointments, they were pretty tight. But she's really amazing and mature beyond her years."

Kirkwood says he is still experiencing an emotional rollercoaster over the loss of Paula: "Some days I think I can't be bothered to get out of bed, but then I realise the kids have got to go to school. If it wasn't for them I'd probably be in bed until 2 o'clock.


"All in all I'm okay. We've got an amazing network of friends and they help me get up.

Paula set up an amazing family and she taught me so much about how to bring up children."

He says Paula's diagnosis in November 2018 came as a shock. Complaining of ongoing stomach cramps, a golf ball-sized tumour was removed from her bowel following a CT scan.

"The cancer, which had spread to her liver, was stage four and not curable. She started on an aggressive chemotherapy which held the cancer at bay for five months, but on July 10 (2019) she lost her fight.

"We were together for 23 years," he says. "We met in 1996 when she came to Fox Glacier where I was working in the hope of getting a guiding job. When I saw her I immediately thought 'crikey, she's cute'."

Kirkwood says Paula's illness made him realise no one is immune. "It is no longer an old person's disease and I'd like to see the bowel screening programme start from 45 years old (currently it starts at 60). I also believe all cancer drugs need to be made available to all cancer patients regardless of their financial position.

"It was a bloody awful experience watching Paula, unconscious but breathing heavily and almost moaning. She was fighting and agitated to the end; death is not always peaceful, I will never forget that."

Now his priority is his three children, and especially Milly. Although living a full life her condition, which affects one in every 5000 New Zealanders, needs constant monitoring (while talking to Kirkwood for this story he was at Starship Hospital in Auckland where Milly was undergoing a regular MRI scan on her heart).

A health, safety and environmental manager for an engineering company, he has been working part time to be home for the children after school, although he is planning to employ an au pair so he can return to full-time hours.

"I have three wonderful children and Paula is always in the forefront of our minds and conversations; we talk about her every day."

Kirkwood says he will use the Good as Gold award for a trip to the United States in July.

While he plans to treat the children to a visit to Disneyland he will also attend a Marfan Foundation conference in Boston: "It's a no-brainer as you get to meet and hear from the best doctors on this condition."