Real Life

Brave widow’s moving tribute

As her hubby Daniel Kopa lay dying, Calli Cleland fulfilled his last wish.
Calli Cleland, Daniel Kopa and their family.Woman's Day

Theirs was a love story straight from the pages of a romance novel.

Calli Cleland was just 15 when she met husband-to-be Daniel Kopa at the Papakura High School fifth form school ball. He was 17.

Over the next 17 years, they would date, marry, build their first home together and have four gorgeous little girls, Harper, five, Zoey, two, and eight-month-old twins Charli and Eden.

But heartbreakingly, the future they had planned was cut short when Dann was hit crossing Hobson Street in Auckland on the morning of June 7. Unresponsive, the 34-year-old went into cardiac arrest and was rushed to Auckland Hospital in a critical condition.

“I was told about 9.45 that morning,” Calli recalls, still struggling to come to terms with the loss of her beloved husband. “I was yelling and screaming. I called my mum who lives down the road. She was here within minutes. We threw the twins in the car seat and that was it …”

Dann and Calli were an item at high school.

It would be two days before Calli, a nurse and still on maternity leave after the birth of the twins last September, would make the agonising decision to turn off her soulmate’s life support. They were precious last days. The young mum lay beside her husband – “I just wanted to be close” – and his daughters were in his arms when he died.

At Calli’s request, a tattooist travelled to the hospital to ink a footprint of one of their daughters on Dann’s chest to go with one he already had, along with the names of the twins.

“The tattoos were for him and they were for the girls – to know they’re part of him forever,” explains Calli, 32.

She said it broke her heart trying to explain Dann’s death to Harper and Zoey. “We talk about Daddy every day and tell him the highs and lows of our day at dinner. They kiss his photo and hug it each night and tell him whatever they want to, and that they miss him and love him.”

Dann and Calli married in 2010.

Calli wants her daughters to know how much they meant to him. “It’s really important to me that the kids remember Dann,” she says through tears.

“I’m sad for us, but we’re going to be OK. I’m just really gutted for him – everything he wanted in life, he’s going to miss out on. I just really need them to know what he wanted for them and for the girls to know the person he was.”

Calli and Dann became teenage sweethearts after the school ball. Within a year, Dann, who had a disruptive early life, had moved into the Clelands’ spare room. The pair’s relationship blossomed. There were a number of clandestine meetings, “a bit of sneaking up and down the stairs”.

They became engaged in 2008 and married in 2010, building their first home in Papakura before shifting to Pukekohe in 2014.

“My mum and Dad sort of took him in,” tells Calli. “Dann had quite a tough childhood. But he always knew where he wanted to go in life. If he set his sights on something, he’d go for it. He didn’t always make the right decision, but he learned from the wrong ones. He knew he wanted more out of life than what he had growing up.”

Dann took on a variety of jobs, including working at Burger King, selling vacuum cleaners and, at 19, did a course in real estate. He became a qualified storeman, training up his younger brother Chris, 29, to follow in his footsteps, and then became a drain layer.

“He wanted to show Chris there was something else in life,” says Calli. “Dann shone a light for his family and he wanted the others to follow that. He was the eldest of seven siblings and he saw himself as not just the big brother, but their protector.”

He was the same with friends and it was testament to Dann’s generosity and loyalty that more than 100 of them turned up to the hospital to say their final farewells.

Together forever: Calli made sure Dann went to rest with the girls etched on his body.

“He was protective, caring and affectionate,” she says. “He had a smile and a laugh that was infectious, and a crazy sense of humour that both drove me nuts and made me laugh hysterically.

“We would talk for hours and hours. We had rough moments like anyone else but we always stuck by each other. Dann was my best friend, the person that was always in my corner.”

The birth of their eldest Harper – in the back of an ambulance in Drury on New Year’s Day 2012 – was a turning point. “When she was born, she didn’t cry,” recalls Calli. “She was quiet. And then Dann spoke and she looked straight at him. I remember him saying that was the moment his world changed.

“It was really important for him not only to be the dad he didn’t have but to be the best father he could be. And he was the best dad. He did everything to provide for me and the kids, and he did everything he could to be there for them. He changed nappies, he’d get up to them in the middle of the night.”

Calli’s girls (clockwise from top left) Zoey, Harper, Charli and Eden kiss their daddy’s photo every night.

Clutching a box of letters she and Dann wrote to each other as teens, the distraught mum hopes one day she’ll be able to enjoy sharing them with their beautiful daughters.

Dann had a rare blood disorder, haemoglobin manukau, which left him susceptible to infections, meaning the couple never considered life insurance. Friends have set up a Givealittle page for Calli and the girls, which has so far raised almost $135,000.

“It’s been really hard to wrap my head around it,” she acknowledges. “It’s somewhere I never thought I’d be and I really don’t know how to thank people. I don’t think there’ll ever be enough words.

“Right now, I feel like I’m living in two worlds – one where I know Dann’s dead – I saw that. But also there’s another one where I can’t believe that it’s going to be forever.”

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