She was the woman who gave Irene van Dyk everything. Her famously cheery disposition, her spirited determination and even the push to move to New Zealand for netball all came from Irene’s beloved mother, Irene Viljoen. So as the first Christmas without her mum approaches, New Zealand’s favourite netball star is at a loss.
It’s still business as usual, with the ham ordered, the tree decorated and the cheesy but compulsory Christmas compilation CD cranking at full volume. But Irene (40), husband Christie (41) and daughter Bianca (14) know full well that this year’s festivities will be marred by the absence of Irene’s mum, Irene senior, who passed away in July after a long battle with cancer.
“There’s definitely going to be a hole,” her talented daughter says, glancing at the lavishly decorated Christmas tree that’s just gone up in the lounge of her Wellington home. “Mum was everything to me, and Christmas is all about family. It’s always been family time. It’s going to be very different this year without her.”
But just how different she doesn’t know, because Irene hasn’t had time to stop and think about how her mum’s passing will affect her on Christmas Day – and the reminder of it now causes her famous grin to disappear.
“Honestly, with all the netball, I haven’t thought about it. “Christie asked me the other day, you know, ‘Are you okay?’ And I said, ‘To be quite honest, I don’t know. I’ve been too busy to think.’ But I know that it’s going to be hard.”
In true Irene style, however, she knows the show must go on. In the van Dyk household, that means family, food and fun at Christmas time – something Irene knows her mum would have wanted.
“We’ll just try and enjoy the day and hope she’s watching what we’re doing. As long as the Abba’s up loud enough, she’ll be saying, ‘Sweet, let’s party on!’” Irene says, her smile quickly returning.
As the legendary netballer and her family plan their typically Kiwi Christmas Day – a Champagne breakfast, a family jet-ski outing and a picnic somewhere in the Wellington hills are all on the agenda – she admits that moments of grief still sneak up on her.
“Bianca and I had a moment the other day,” she says. “You know that ad on the telly where the boobs rub together? The chafing one? Oh my gosh, every time that ad came on when Mum was here, she was in stitches – little things like that remind me of her. So we had a little moment where we both fell apart.
“I guess you go through days where everything is fine, and then you have these odd times where you think back and your whole world comes tumbling down again.”
Irene has always been a tower of strength – literally. Now that her own rock is gone, she’s left with an empty feeling of loss and she's realised no matter how old you are when you lose your parents, you still feel like an orphan.
“She was always there, and now she’s not,” says Irene, whose father Herman died in 1992 during a routine appendix operation. “You don’t get those little pearls of wisdom any more. I still try and call her, my hand will be on the phone, and I realise, oh, can’t do that.
“The other night Bianca had a sore tummy, and she’s saying to me, ‘Mum, you don’t know what to do!’ And I’m thinking, I just want to ring my mum and ask her. It stopped me in my tracks.”
It was the toughest week of her life, she says, when she was told that her mother was rapidly deteriorating back in their home town of Meyerton, South Africa. Her provincial team, the Waitako/Bay of Plenty Magic, was hours away from taking to the court during the ANZ Championships for their sudden death semi-final against the Northern Mystics, when her sister called to say Irene senior had passed away.
“I had two bags packed, one in case we won the game and I had to leave for Australia, and the other for if we lost and I had to go back to South Africa,” she remembers. “We won, so I stayed. It didn’t cross my mind at any point to leave my team. Mum was the reason I was here, playing at this level. She would have wanted me to see this thing through.”
That semi-final was an emotional game for Irene in every way, requiring a lot of blood, sweat and tears – and she’s convinced she had a little extra help to pull off the win. “There were rebounds that just came out of [Mystics and Silver Ferns defender] Anna Harrison’s hands, that just fell into mine,” she grins.
“Anna doesn’t miss those! And I’m just standing there with my hands outstretched with the ball. “I honestly think Mum had something to do with that. She wanted us to win as much as we did.”
Irene vowed to win the final against the Melbourne Vixens for her mother – and she did. “That was the best feeling in the whole world,” she smiles. “It was a huge win. The team played for Mum as well. It made everything worth it, putting off the funeral, the stress, everything.”
Hours after the final in Melbourne, Irene and Bianca jetted off to South Africa so they could finally say their goodbyes. “We had the funeral two weeks after she passed, and it was just lovely,” Irene smiles. “There wasn’t any of that raw sadness you normally have with funerals. Everyone was still sad, but it wasn’t raw. It was happy, and funny and beautiful.”
With one of the most successful years of netball in her 20-year career behind her, with the ANZ Championship, Constellation Cup and Fast5 titles added to her long list of achievements, now is the time to reflect on what’s been an incredibly testing time.
“There’s been ups and downs for sure this year,” she says. “But that’s life, isn’t it. I think it’s easy to get carried away when you’re at this sporting level; your life does revolve around your sport. But when you lose your mother, it brings things back into perspective. It’s only sport.”
And that newfound outlook, her mum's last gift to her, means this year Irene will be making the most of her time with Christie and Bianca before netball starts up again in January. “Just being with them is going to be special,” she laughs. “I just want to sit down and chill, with no braces, no strapping tape and no trainings to be at. Bring on the pav!
“We’re going to go camping too. That’s going to be a whole new experience for the van Dyk family,” she giggles. “But we’re stressing about the tent. We had to get a huge one to fit all of us in, and it looks bloody complicated. We’re just going to hope for the best, and if worst comes to worst, we’ll sleep in the ute.”
As far as presents go, Irene has Christie sorted. It just has to be hi-tech and he’ll be happy. Bianca’s in line for an iPad – but as usual, Irene can’t think of anything she wants for herself. “Maybe I’ll just get her a new vacuum cleaner,” yells Bianca from the kitchen. “She loves vacuuming!”
Irene will be cherishing this Christmas with Bianca and says her mother’s death has made her realise how precious time with her daughter is. “We need to enjoy every moment,” she says. “We have a really special relationship and if I can do half as good a job as Mum did with us, then I’ll be happy.”