Feeling love through tragedy

For high school sweethearts Bernice and Tony, love was like the feeling of home.

Bernice said, “I think love is really just enjoying a person – being able to rely on them, to support them and have that back in return. I could be myself with Tony. He was warm and energetic, full of a zest for life.”

The couple met while attending a Catholic school in Sydney. They were in the same homeroom in Years 11 and 12, and a friendship blossomed into a romance. They were married at 25 and later settled in Singleton for Tony’s work.

An avid sailor, Tony had always dreamed of participating in a leg of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht race, which he realised alongside mates in January 2020. Bernice flew to the isle state to meet him as he sailed into the harbour, and from there, they started an eight-day trip traversing the countryside together as part of her 40th birthday festivities. It was the first time they’d spent more than a weekend away from their three children, who were staying with Bernice's parents and sister.

Bernice reflects the getaway was full of great conversations, long walks and romantic dinners. However, it was after a dinner on their last night together in Tasmania a tragedy took place.

“I don't remember the accident at all. I’ve had to piece it back together from what I’ve been told,” Bernice said. “We were crossing the road at a pedestrian crossing as a car came through the red light. Unfortunately, it struck another car, which then hit us. Tony died instantly at the scene. My injuries were horrific; my pelvis was smashed. I've since been told by surgeons and doctors that things were so bad, I only had a 50 per cent chance of survival.” 

Doctors at the Launceston General Hospital built a frame to stabilise Bernice’s pelvis so that she could then be airlifted to The Alfred, in Melbourne, for specialised care and treatment.

“While this was unfolding, my parents got an early morning knock on the door from a police officer. Mum and Dad then had to go over to my sister’s home, where the kids were staying that night and tell them that their Dad had died and that I was in the hospital and they didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Bernice’s parents then flew to Melbourne while the children remained in the care of her sister. Bernice was hospitalised in Melbourne for a month, during which time she had four surgeries. Her parents did not leave her side during the stay, and her children came to visit twice, along with other family members and friends.

Bernice was then airlifted from Melbourne to the John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle, where she recovered for another month.

“All the time I was in hospital my sister, her partner and their two kids dropped everything in their lives and moved up from Sydney to Singleton so that my kids could have stability – their home, school, friends and everything they knew. Their support was just amazing,” Bernice said.

The grieving widow was adamant that his funeral be delayed until she could attend his farewell. Accordingly, while recuperating in the John Hunter Hospital, Bernice was granted a day of leave to attend Tony's funeral in Singleton.

“We are so lucky the funeral happened before all the COVID-19 lockdowns came into play. The church was over-flowing. It showed us how much Tony was loved.”

When Bernice eventually headed home, she remained in a wheelchair, so her sister’s family remained living with them to assist during the transition. This timing coincided with 2020's COVID-19 stay-at-home orders.

“In some ways the lockdown was nice, as we had quality time with the kids,” Bernice said, adding with a laugh “I guess it was the best time to be off my feet.”

Nearly two years on, Bernice still has significant nerve damage and no use of her quads. She's walking but occasionally requires a walking stick.

“There’s a lot I still can’t do, like walk distances or run, but I focus on what I can do. You learn how fragile life is. You do switch from just getting through to relishing what you have. You have to make the most of it.”

“I’m very conscious that I’m alive when I might not have been, and I'm here for the kids.”

The kids – Bayden 15, Elijah 12 and Gemma 9 are in Year 9, 6 and 3 at
St Catherine’s College in Singleton.

“We’ve had so much love and support. The love from the Singleton community and the St Catherine’s school community has been amazing. I still have people ringing me asking how they can help.

“I know we would have coped without support, but nowhere near as well. It’s like I could feel people’s arms wrapping around us. It’s inspired me and humbled me.”

Bernice’s strength and gratitude shine from within.

“I’ve felt blessed all my life. I met Tony so young, and I’m really grateful we got in as many years of love as we did,” she said.

“This journey is achingly sad at times, and tough, but there are so many things to look forward to, so many silver linings, so much to be grateful for and so much opportunity for growth.”

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