No parent should have to bury their own child, yet, that is what Kathy Bianco found herself doing on the 13th of January 2009. Her daughter, Tamara, had died three days earlier from her six year battle with cancer. At the funeral, the grief was palpable. Tears fell from shadowed eyes, sobs echoed and tore at the hearts and ears of loved ones and friends in the hallowed space. Shades of lilac and turquoise clothed hunched and grief stricken figures, while the coffin sat on high, white roses spilling over its marbled sides to the cold floor. After the service, the coffin was placed in the hearse, and as it left the Albion Park church for the crematorium, butterflies were released into the crying crowd.
Six years later, Kathy entered the darkened room. A large wood framed bed dominated the space while a singer sewing machine, decorated with a music box, numerous chests, and candles sat off to the side. Before her, waiting, were two straight backed chairs, a young adult, and a microphone. The rich scents of cooking chicken, herbs and apricot wafted down the hall into the room before being abruptly shut out by the closing door. The 51 year old mother’s eyes were murky and framed by black glasses, she tucked a lock of chocolate brown hair behind an ear and cast a nervous glance at the microphone, her olive fingers plucked anxiously at the sleeves of her blue and white knit sweater. She shuffled over to the young man and sat across from him in the open seat, and waited for the interview to begin.
They started with her origins, she was raised in Australia but was Italian through and through. Her parents, Bruno Zucco from Monfalcone in northern Italy and Rita Guidice from Calabria in southern Italy, moved to Australia separately in the 50’s, fell in love, and had a spring wedding in September 1962. Kathy described her childhood as a typical one, filled with happy memories and loving parents who taught her their natural tongue as part of her heritage, which turned out to be a problem. Because she could only speak Italian, she couldn’t understand her teachers and had to learn English, making the start of her school life tough.
But it didn’t matter that she had a tough start, as she successfully completed her schooling at Corrimal public school, Tarrawanna public school, St Columkille’s school and Corrimal high school by 1980. Since then, she has worked at various delicatessens, an Italian Centre, the Unanderra Marco Polo nursing home, and St Joseph’s Catholic high school in the uniform shop. Kathy is currently unemployed but wants to get back into the workforce, she says she wouldn’t mind getting back into something with catering because she enjoys the type of work that is hands on.
Next they discussed her spouse. She first met her husband, Eddy Bianco, in January 1983. She was out with some friends at the Spanish club on a Saturday or Sunday night – she can’t remember which – when they were introduced to each other. Three years later in June 1986, she had a winter wedding. She said, “It was a full wog wedding! It was good!”
Kathy jumped in her chair, startled out of her reverie, as two men laughed boisterously, their feet thumping heavily on the wooden veranda as they walked past the bedroom window calling for beer. By this point, she was starting to get a little more nervous than she was before, she clasped her hands before focusing back on her interviewer, waiting for the next question. Did she have any children?
She did as it turns out, three in fact. Her first child, Adrian, was born in November 1989. Her second child, Tamara, was born in August 1992, and she was soon followed by Olivia 13 months later. Kathy described her time being pregnant as happy and exciting. “I enjoyed that stage of life,” she said, looking wistful, but also edgy.
Silence filled the room, seconds ticked by as the interviewer gave Kathy a few minutes to brace herself for the next question. “Did you ever think you would live to see one of your children pass away before you?” he asked. “No, no, nope, never,” Kathy said, “It’s just one of those things that happens in life which is hard to deal with. When she was first diagnosed I didn’t think of the worst case scenario to it, I thought she would have gotten better, gone beyond it, but it wasn’t meant to be.”
Kathy described Tamara as a fun loving person who cared for others deeply and enjoyed life, and even though she was sick, she didn’t let it stop her from having a good time. Tamara had a good network of friends she used to go out with and who all stuck by her and still do today says her mother. She also had a strong interest in dance and took part in interpretive storytelling dance called rocko doing tap, ballet, and jazz. Kathy said she used to dance as all different things, like a prisoner or cloud and would perform scenes from Monte Cristo and Moulin Rouge. She also used to like her art classes and photography. Kathy enjoyed art too and used to do folk art which she found very relaxing and allowed her to escape the stresses of life, if only for a few hours.
Kathy doesn’t understand why her daughter developed cancer. Growing up, all of her children were heathy, “and she was the healthiest of all three,” she said. The Bianco family first discovered Tamara had developed cancer after she had been complaining about her neck feeling stiff for a few days. Kathy looked at her neck and found a lump which turned out to be a swelled up lymph node. They had a scan done and were told it was viral, the doctor performed his tests but couldn’t find anything. In the end, it was a paediatric surgeon who discovered she had a mass growing inside of her abdominal region beneath one of her kidneys. Tamara was rushed to Sydney to have a CT scan performed, and that’s when the family discovered she had neuroblastoma, stage four.
“When they told us it was cancerous it was pretty distressing,” Kathy said, “it was full on then.” At the time, Tamara was given a 30% – 70% chance of survival because her cancer had progressed to stage four, the point that it had spread from its point of origin. Kathy said as soon as it was confirmed cancerous, they removed the lymph node, put in a central line and began chemotherapy all in the space of a week. Over the course of nearly a year, Kathy stayed with Tamara at the Sydney Children’s Hospital in Randwick for nine months of chemotherapy, one month of bone marrow transplant, and 21 days of radiotherapy. By the end of Tamara’s treatment, they reduced her tumour from the size of a grape fruit to that of a large egg, the tumour was named Fred, and placed in a jar by Tamara’s bed.
“We were really happy when she beat the cancer, because in her age group, not many kids do get through it. The older you are with neuroblastoma the less your chance of survival is, but she beat all the odds and was in remission for 2 and a half years,” Kathy said, her eyes slightly glistening in the dimly lit room, “but then it came back, and that’s when they couldn’t do anything for her.” She says this hit the family particularly hard knowing that Tamara had beaten all of the odds the first time round. Kathy was extremely upset when Tamara’s cancer returned, to think of all the treatment her child had endured only for it to return threw her for a six. Kathy and her family turned to Chinese herbal therapy and adopted an organic diet to fight the cancer, but in the end, it overpowered her daughter. “The Chinese herbal therapy did help her,” Kathy said, “you usually only survive between 3 weeks to 3 months if your cancer relapses, but Tamara went for a further 2 and a half years, so it did help her.”
“You don’t have to answer this question, but what were her last moments like?” the interviewer asked.
“Not good, she was in a lot of pain. I had a bit of an argument with her,” Kathy chuckled, “but not intentionally. She was getting frustrated and couldn’t get comfortable. I said to her, ‘you’re driving me insane, you’re just a bloody pain in the ass’, but not in a bad way. She was restless and didn’t say much. Not long after that, she was gone.” Kathy says she felt numb when Tamara did go. She wasn’t expecting her to be gone so quickly, but she feels it was a good thing that Tamara did go quickly instead of her suffering being dragged on for weeks. As a Catholic, Kathy found comfort and strength in praying to her God throughout the turmoil of her daughter’s uphill battle. When asked today about her feelings, she said she was mad because something like this isn’t meant to happen, and even though she believes in her faith, she questions if there is a real god because he shouldn’t be letting this happen.
Kathy believes that Tamara has impacted strongly on the lives of those around her and has changed Kathy herself for the better. She says that Tamara has had a big effect on her life and has taught her to forgive and to not be bitter, she thinks she has also learned to become more of a positive person. Kathy’s experiences with Tamara have also taught her to look at life differently, “Life is short so enjoy life,” she says.
But how do you cope with the loss of a daughter? “The pain doesn’t go away, but you learn to deal with it a little bit better then you do initially,” Kathy says, “I try to keep busy by doing things, distract myself, so I don’t have to think about it all the time, because if I do, it’ll drive me insane.” But this doesn’t mean that Kathy never thinks about her, she also has her quiet days when she likes to think about Tamara, and she also has a shrine in honour of her memory. Kathy says she keeps the shrine, along with Tamara’s ashes, in the family room so that her daughter can be around them. “Whenever I see the little table with photos of her and the little things people bring for her, I feel like she is around us,” Kathy says, “she’s watching over us all the time, what we’re doing, and I’m sure she tells us off whenever we do something that she doesn’t like. It’s hard but it’s good as well.”
After all Kathy Bianco has been through, she has become a great role model in several ways. She is a role model for other families who face similar circumstances, a role model to all of Tamara’s friends whom she has always welcomed into her home even after her daughter’s death, and a role model to all who are involved in her life for displaying deep compassion. This remarkable woman is loved by all of her family, friends, and community for her emotional and spiritual strength, the courage she has shown throughout a most difficult struggle, and the strength of her devotion and love only a mother can have for her child.