No Honey Moon in New Zealand

South Island

January - March 2008

Dave and Jill


March 17, 2008: Long faces say it all after boarding our plane from Auckland, NZ.  After over 30 hours of travel Jill could look forward to battling cancer for the next year.  Happy honeymoon!

There was no need for explanations - even to the oldest and homeliest - as to why we would desire to spend the first year of our marriage living in New Zealand.  Unlike any place on Earth that I've heard of, outside of possibly Amsterdam, New Zealand has a reputation for churning out satisfied travelers.  In fact, I can't recall talking to anyone who has traveled to New Zealand and returned with anything less than an outstanding experience.  So, perhaps it's fitting that the people who wanted to visit the most - the couple who spent hundreds of dollars and deferred a year of work just for the chance to go to New Zealand - would return to America and honestly say, "that was the trip from hell."

It's supposed to work out.  For those intrepid souls who politely decline the path of least resistance and set off on a course all their own, in the process inviting a future of uncertainty... a future of true adventure.  It's supposed to work out.  Blazing their own trail, relying on their instincts and trusting that the world will conspire to give them the fulfillment they so desire.  Tales like these abound, even on this website.  However, sometimes it doesn't work out.  Sometimes even the best laid plans and best of intentions cannot overcome life's cruel twists and turns.  What follows is a recap of our dream trip - a 15 month trip to New Zealand - that turned into our worst nightmare.

October 24, 2007 - Fairmont, Minnesota

Only four days after being married we score teaching jobs at the same high school in Christchurch, New Zealand.  Can life get any better?  As it turned out, the answer to that question was "no."

November 2, 2007 - Everett, Washington

A mere four hours before we were to celebrate our marriage in front of my family and friends in the Pacific Northwest, the principal at the high school in New Zealand is forced to give Jill's job to someone else.  This move was a result of Jill's application being denied by some bureaucrat in NZ's Education Department who never bothered to fully explain why this decision was made.  We successfully tried to act happy at our wedding reception that evening.

January 20, 2008 - San Francisco, California

Missed our connecting flight to New Zealand, delayed for...  3 weeks!  "I'm sorry sir, the next seat we have available that would get you to Christchurch is February 13.  Will that work for you?"  No, that doesn't work for me you old hag.  We're not going to sit in the San Francisco airport for the next three weeks waiting for a flight.  Get me a flight NOW!  "I can't continue this conversation if you're going to speak with me in that tone of voice sir."

And so it went for the remainder of the day.  By a stroke of luck we did manage to get on standby and arrived in Christchurch the next afternoon.  Result = 24 hour delay.

January 25, 2008 - Christchurch, New Zealand

I had left home on Monday morning, and now, more than six days later my bags finally arrive on Saturday afternoon.  Not a big deal except that all I had packed on the plane was my camera and passport.  Meanwhile, while we lived in a cramped apartment with two complete strangers my underwear and socks were fermenting.  Our hospitable strangers from Minnesota were kindly understanding.

January 23 - January 30, 2008 - Christchurch, New Zealand

It's silly to spend too much time on hindsight.  However, if I knew then what I know now, we would have spent this week in a completely different manner.  The skies were clear and the breezes warm.  Summer in New Zealand.  Thinking we had the next 14 months to see the countryside we focused our time on establishing ourselves in Christchurch.  This turned into a frustrating task as we found everything in NZ to be both junkier and more $$ than the USA.  Instead of using what would be our only good chance to see NZ we spent countless hours shopping for apartments and finding the best deals on meaningless things like vacuum cleaners and silverware. 

Result = wasting of the only good week we'd have on our honeymoon.

January 31 - March 12, 2008 - Christchurch, New Zealand

I've worked a few crappy jobs, but this was the worst.  My job?  Teach science to 8th, 9th, 10th grade kids who had no incentive to learn.  After promising myself that I wouldn't fall into a pattern of anxiety and sleepless nights I did exactly that.  It's one thing to dislike a job - something like painting fences or stirring fries at McDonald's - but only those who have truly hated can understand the diress I was under.  At least we had the weekends right?  Yes, but the weather was on a cruel cycle of warm, sunny weekdays and cool, rainy weekends.  By the time early March had come I had already been informally accepted for two jobs in Wanaka for the NZ winter.  Was a change of plans at hand?

March 12, 2008 - Christchurch, New Zealand  "Day of Infamy"

Everyone hopes that days like this don't occur too often in the course of a lifetime.

I was aware that Jill was going in for results of a suspicious lump underneath her armpit.  I also knew that cancer was something that happened to old, frumpy people or if it did strike the young, you simply read about it in books.  After closing out another satisfying day of babysitting teenagers, I tried calling Jill from the school's one telephone.  No answer.  Finally after aimlessly busying myself an email from Jill showed up in my Hotmail inbox.  From this point forward the course of my life made a devastatingly quick turn.

"Honey, I got my results, but they're not good.  I'm okay, but please call immediately."  I loudly tossed a few obscenities out to the teacher workroom and bull-rushed the lone phone.  When I finally connected with Jill she could barely get the words out.  "I ... have.... cancer." 

I held Jill for hours not knowing what to say and putting my own tears on hold.  We examined the report "Adenocarsinoma (cancer) found at the lymph node and presumably metasticized."  Thanks to the internet we quickly became experts on cancer.  They say information is power, but in this case information became horror.  In cancer talk metastisize means the cancer has broken away from the original tumor and has likely has moved to other places in the body.  Our only question at this point was - would Jill live?

No words can describe the desperate loneliness we felt that night as we lay on our mouldy mattress an entire world away from home.    Laying in the darkness sobbing it was still hard to comprehend that cancer could happen to people so young and healthy.  That night we both slept in fits and starts, and no matter how hard we willed it away, each time we awoke to our nightmare.

March 13, 2008 - Christchurch, New Zealand  "More Bad News"

As much as I hated my job I did very much like my boss.  So, I drove in early, tried to make plans for my classes in my absence and told the principal our bad news.  That afternoon Jill underwent more testing - mammogram and ultrasound.  Deep down I harbored hopes that this was all some big mistake.  Perhaps, I thought, if the caliber of 9th graders in my classes were any indication of NZ doctors  these guys might have screwed up the cancer test.

My optimistic thoughts were quickly ruined.  Reports showed a second tumor in the opposite breast.  While we digested the latest finding the nurse handed us a box of tissues and suggested we take "a couple of minutes" by ourselves.  The radiologist, who is trained to say nothing suggested we fly home to our family immediately.  Was this their way of saying Jill had only months to live?  All we could do was wait for our meeting with the breast specialist the next day.

March 14, 2008 - Christchurch, New Zealand  "Yeah! It's only Breast Cancer"

Instead of allowing our thoughts to fester we decided to take advantage of our newfound freedom and do a long trail run on the Port Hills.  Apparently my work as supporting husband over the past couple of days had earned me the reputation as "the Rock."  I wasn't sure I was deserving, but I did know that I've always wanted to be called something tough, like Rock.  However, I didn't feel like much of a rock.  In fact, if anything, I felt like I had cancer too.  On our run I left Jill in the dust and after climbing nearly 1,000 vertical feet a special hormone cocktail brewed in my brain - one part endorphin and ten parts guy who needs to let some emotion out.  I found an overlook that afforded birds-eye views of the city to my left, ocean to the front and Littleton Harbor to my right.  And I let it out.

My sobs were so deep that it felt more like dry-heaves.  Sitting in the tussock and curled up in the fetal position I cried like I've never done before.  At this point the threat of losing Jill still seemed real.  It was apparent to me at this point, from a perch of crystal clear perspective, that Jill was by far the most important thing in my life and that I loved her in a way that I could not even comprehend.  I finally got up, and with the sure-footedness of a wobbly drunk ran back to the car.

"Yeah!  It's only breast cancer!"  We high-fived and generally celebrated after leaving our appointment with the breast specialist.  According to her intuition she believed that the original lump was NOT a lymph node and that the tumor in the opposite breast was non-invasive (had not spread yet).  Basically, she was almost certain that Jill's cancer was treatable and not nearly as horrific as first thought.  She recommended that we return to the USA immediately, assemble a team of doctors, and begin treatment.

March 17, 2008 - Minneapolis, Minnesota

After a frantic two days of packing and saying goodbye to our new friends we arrived to a warm reception of family and friends at the Minneapolis airport.  At this point there was no doubt that we had made the correct decision in coming home to deal with this on Jill's turf.


After reading about our honeymoon it is easy to see why it was the "trip from hell."  But was it?  I certainly feel cheated out of not seeing the New Zealand that I had come so far to experience.  Sure, I'd rather not do cancer at this moment in my life either.  Despite all that, I'm proud that we made an effort to live out a dream that's been mine (and ours) for almost ten years.  Aside from a gruesome death, nearly everything that could go wrong did.  Yeah, our trip sucked.  What was the alternative?  To me there was none.  We swung for the fences but struck out instead on three pitches.

Except for death or financial ruin we plan on returning next year to finish our trip.  I can assure you that the next time we won't spend our precious time finding bargains on cheese graters.  The honeymoon has been put on hold, but is not over!  Get well Jill.

-written March 2008