Standing in the departure lounge last September, Jess Brockie cradled her baby bump as she prepared for yet another long flight back to Australia. A precious piece of cargo was joining her on this journey.
As a mum-of-two, Jess already knew all children are special but this child in particular – Rixon James Arena – was a miracle. The much-longed-for baby she was selflessly carrying was for her dear friends Bec (30) and Gareth Arena (30).
But tragically, as surrogate mum Jess (30) was about to board her plane to Townsville, she received a dreadful, life-changing phone call. Bec, her childhood friend and the mother-to-be of the child she was carrying, had died.
As the Weekly speaks to Jess, back at home in Johannesburg with her husband Jeremy (30), a member of the New Zealand football team the All Whites, who are parents to two gorgeous children, Piper (5) and Oskar (3), it's hard not to be in awe of the strength she has possessed to get through one of the most challenging times of her life.
Jess smiles as she looks back on how she and her friend came up with the plan to make Bec a mum back in 2016. Bec, a friend of Jess' since the age of six, had cystic fibrosis – a life-threatening disease that severely damages the lungs.
"We were chatting one day and I could see she was just not having a great day," Jess recalls.
"The thing about Bec is that she never really had a down day. So I emailed her and asked, 'What's going on with you? You don't seem your normal self.' And she told me it's just now that she'd met Gareth, the idea they probably couldn't have
a family really got her down."
While Bec and Gareth would have been able to conceive, her body would not have been able to safely carry a baby to term due to her damaged lungs from the disease.
"Poor Jeremy," Jess laughs now. "I hadn't even talked to him and I said, 'Oh, I could probably carry the baby if that's all you needed.' I was lucky to have had really easy pregnancies and I'd known Bec a lifetime – I knew she'd be a great mum."
While Gareth and Bec were tentatively excited at the prospect of becoming parents, they didn't place any pressure on the couple. And, at first, Jeremy didn't warm to the idea. With their own little family and Jeremy's busy playing schedule in South Africa's Premier Division football to juggle, the logistics and timing of such an undertaking seemed overwhelming.
"We'd only just got our own lives back together because Oskar had just got out of that baby stage and wasn't needing all that attention," explains Jeremy.
"We were settling in to being able to go back out and do husband and wife things, like sharing a drink or dinner together.
"So when it first came around, I really didn't want to dive straight into it because I wanted to enjoy that peaceful time we had."
"And I'd pretty much been pregnant and breastfeeding for three years straight!" Jess laughs.
The couple, who have been married for six years, decided to park the issue for six months and revisit it down the track. But then Jess saw a moving video about a cystic fibrosis sufferer and showed it to Jeremy who, as it happened, had also been doing some thinking.
"What's 12 to 15 months of giving up our own time to give someone something that would last a lifetime," he reasoned.
"Knowing what it's like having our kids and being able to be a part of giving a baby to another family is very rewarding."
It was settled. The Brockies would be the "oven" and the "bun" would belong to the Arenas.
With both couples living on different continents, the logistical planning and complicated surrogacy process began – complicated being an understatement.
"People think they put the baby in you and that's the end, but it's not quite that simple," Jess tells as she details the process of being a gestational carrier.
"It's a very robust process."
As the surrogacy was to take place in Australia, the country's surrogacy law requires intensive psychological testing and counselling. It was in this forum the couples had to discuss their worst-case scenarios.
"You do talk about the tough stuff, such as someone dying, but you never think it will happen," admits Jess.
"And when we started, Bec's health was not in any way end-stage cystic fibrosis."
Legal contracts are drawn up and signed before the surrogacy goes to an ethics board for approval. Once it is approved, the embryo transfer is able to begin.
"I had to be put on a hormone replacement cycle to begin," tells Jess.
"I didn't respond well to the medication, so it took about four times the normal dose for my uterus to start responding. I was taking 22 tablets a day!"
Jess then flew to Australia in May 2017 for just a day to have the embryo transferred before flying back to Johannesburg. Then the anxious wait began – the first-time success rate is only about 30%. Weeks later and miles apart, Bec was nervously on the phone while the two pals watched as the pregnancy stick turned positive.
Jess laughs, remembering the moment. "She didn't believe it! We were both in disbelief."
But during the pregnancy, Bec's cystic fibrosis was flaring up. "Bec had a lifetime of being sick, she had a lifetime of having to take a lot of medication." But unlike other flare-ups, this time she wasn't recovering as well.
"We were in touch every day but she just kept saying, 'I'm just not improving like normal.' And then she just dramatically took a turn for the worse and her health deteriorated really quickly. None of us had anticipated this at all."
As Bec got worse, Jess moved her flights forward several times to make it back to Australia sooner, but tragically, Jess hadn't even boarded the flight before she got the call.
"I was due to come home for the 20-week scan, to help cheer Bec up. I moved my flights a week earlier because Bec was unwell, then I moved them forward again a few days because Gareth said I needed to get home. And then, I was at the airport waiting to board my flight when Gareth rang and told me that she'd died."
Jess pauses and adds quietly, "It was devastating. That was a horrible trip home alone. There was nothing we could do."
When Jess talks about this time, her voice doesn't falter, but the loss and heartache is evident. And despite the horror of the situation, Jess reveals the one shining light that occurred right before Bec's death.
"I had a scan before the flight to determine if I was fit to fly and accidentally found out the baby's gender at the scan while the sonographer was waving the paperwork in my face," she says.
It turned out to be a stroke of good luck.
"The morning that Bec died, Gareth rang before I went to the airport and asked, 'Did you by chance find out what the baby is?' And he got to tell Bec they were having a boy and she got to choose his name right before she died. That was so special," Jess says.
"I think she really did want a boy who would be just like Gareth because she loved him so much."
For the remainder of the pregnancy, Jess focused on keeping strong for those around her and delivering Rixon safely – something she had to do while Jeremy was on the other side of the world due to the very limited leave he is allowed as a professional footballer.
Jess says the couple knew this would be the case for them and would speak every day, despite the difficult time differences. But Jeremy admits it was hard being so far away.
"Seeing how strong Jess was while dealing with everything made my role pretty smooth. She's a very strong woman. But I felt so helpless not being there, especially in the birthing room. I knew how difficult that was.
"But to finally see Rixon in Gareth's arms and to know Jess had delivered safely was great."
Rixon James Arena was born in Townsville on January 20 following a long and difficult birth. "As soon as he was out, I'd forgotten how bad it was," Jess recalls. "I handed him to Gareth, who was there to cut the umbilical cord."
In the days following the birth, Jess caught up on sleep and enjoyed her visits with the precious boy she delivered.
"He's adorably cute and it's really special to think there's a part of Bec still in the world. And Gareth is doing a phenomenal job as a first-time mum and dad."
Both Jess and Jeremy agree that if they had their time over, they would do it again – but admit it was made easier by the close relationship they shared with Gareth and Bec.
"One thing I think people are so worried about is how you'll be handing over a baby," tells Jess. "But I felt really prepared for that. Rixon is exactly where he should be."
Jeremy nods. "We've both taken so many positives out of it. People think we're just giving up our lives for a year or 18 months, but we got a lot out of it as well. One thing we hope is that people are inspired to look into it through our story."
Jess says it will take her and Jeremy some time to process the journey that began two years ago. But when she reflects on the tragedy and how much she misses Bec, she reveals the source of her strength.
"She was a very strong person and dealt with a lot more than a normal person deals with in her everyday life. Every time I would feel down, I'd remember how excited she was every single step of the way and how much she wanted to be a mum.
"And then I also think about having a piece of Bec in this world," she continues.
"I think Gareth deserves that, their family deserves that and anyone who knew Bec would feel that way. You've got to keep the bigger picture in your mind and focus on the positives."