It was around Christmas 2010. One of those perfect summer days. I was down the south coast with my brother and nephew surfing one morning when I went under a right-hander and heard a terrific crack in my neck. Hearing the sound, especially under water, was surreal. I felt my neck freeze right up, pins and needles set in and I thought ‘Ah bugger, that’ll be a trip to the physio’.
For the next three months I had an incredible headache I just couldn’t shake. March approached, and I was about to head off overseas, to India on our fifth attempt to have a child through surrogacy. My wife Leonie and I had been through a lot over the previous years, but at that stage we had our sights firmly set on the future.
Despite my protests, my physio insisted I have an MRI before I left, to try and pinpoint why my neck was still so stiff and why that headache just wouldn’t go away despite treatment.
While I was in India the headache became unbearable, and I was quite literally tearing my hair out. So on the day of my return to Sydney I went straight to get the results of the MRI, thinking I’d try and get in to see the physio straight afterwards to finally get this neck right.
I was your typical bloke – I’d never really been one for doctors, pain and injury had always been more inconveniences than anything I worried too much about. I was strong, weighed about 115 kg and there wasn’t much I was scared of in this world. So on that morning of 11 March 2011, I headed into Bondi Junction to pick up the MRI images without much thought about it. After a long wait, I eventually saw a doctor I’d not met before, and she asked what the trouble was. I explained there wasn’t anything really wrong with me: I just had a headache and a stiff neck, my physio was all over it, I simply needed those MRI scans to work out how to free up my neck.
Of course the doctor took my assurances with a grain of salt and said she would take a quick look anyway. She pulled an A4 sheet of paper out of an envelope. It seemed an uncomfortable amount of time before she looked up, and even then she looked me in the eye for just a second before staring back at the sheet. In hindsight, I think I was being a bit rude, huffing and puffing about the time she seemed to be taking with all of this. Another pause. She took a deep breath, slowly lifted her eyes to meet mine and leaned in towards me, putting her hand on my knee. She then asked me something I will never forget: ‘Barry, do you have family?’
I forced a laugh – this must be a joke. ‘Sure I have, but what’s that got to do with anything – I just have a stiff neck and a headache?’
‘Barry’, she continued, ‘It’s not good. I’m afraid it’s a lot worse than a headache: you have a very aggressive tumour at the base of your skull. It’s huge and it has basically eaten the top of your spine.’
I remember every second of every hour of every day for weeks after that moment, in incredible detail. Not just what I did or said, but also the reactions and emotions of those around me. Holding my wife and trying to control her trembling when one specialist advised not to bother with surgery, the tumour was simply too aggressive. Feeling that I was going to let so many people down if I were to go now.
It was as if I stepped outside my body that day, and watched everything going on from a distance. It was like a film in slow-motion, and I noticed the detail of absolutely everything. The fabric of the cushion on a chair I was sitting in while telling a friend, the exact time of day things happened … every hug, every conversation with mates and loved ones …
It was hard for me to compute what was going on, and it was even harder still to watch people trying to contain themselves and to be brave in front of me, I still get upset when I think about that.
A lot has happened since then. Titanium now holds my head on, and radiation and drugs help fight the disease that lives on in my body. My angels, Bennet and Arabella, where born after two more attempts at surrogacy, and raising these beautiful kids with Leonie is now my life’s greatest fulfillment; I am involved in a TV show where, along with three amazing friends, I get to bring fun and know-how to many people every week; to say I am happy is the understatement of the century and my gratitude knows no end.
I see things so much more clearly these days. I see what’s important, what really makes a difference during our time on earth. And I hope I get to share that with as many people as possible so that they might experience the love and gratitude I am lucky to experience every day.
Many people have given me a lot of love and help over these past five years – especially my family and loved ones. And for this I want to thank them from the bottom of my heart.
You can’t control everything in this world but there are things you can do to give yourself the best chance of happiness. Taking care of yourself and others, and always doing the best you can, are important.
If you are down in the dumps, or feel you have seen better days, always remember that you are not alone; we all have a story and for most of us this story includes ups and downs, dark times as well as beautiful ones … you are the sum of every day and of all the experiences in your life, and if you invest in the people and things that make you happy it will pay incredible dividends.
Every day as I stop to kiss my wife and babies goodbye I take a moment to reflect on just how good my sum is.