Real Life

Solo mum-of-five Joanne’s heartbreaking loss: ‘He loved them more than anything’

Just over a year after welcoming quadruplets, Napier mum Joanne Wills is facing life as a solo mother of five after the death of her beloved husband Brett
Joanne with her five children sitting on a log beside her
Joanne with (from left) Peter, Esther, Jonathan, Lucy and Oliver.
Pictures: Eva Bradley

If Brett knew he was dying, he certainly didn’t let on to his family and friends. The devoted father of Napier’s one-year-old quadruplets, Jonathan, Oliver, Lucy and Esther, as well as three-year-old Peter, passed away at Hawke’s Bay Hospital a few weeks ago, with his wife Joanne Wills, his parents and his siblings at his side.

Just 42 when he died, Brett was a stay-at-home dad who loved God, trout fishing and his family. He had also had a congenital heart defect from birth.

Joanne speaks to Woman’s Day from the couple’s Napier home a week after Brett’s funeral. She says that although she was aware of her husband’s condition, she always imagined there would be more time.

“We had hoped for another 20 years – for him to be at the quads’ second birthday and Peter’s fifth birthday, and to see them through school,” tells the IT consultant, 37. “It’s only now that I reflect and think, ‘Yes, he was slowing down a lot.’

A family photo of Brett sitting on front of a light pink backdrop, with his five toddlers around him
Brett with his fantastic five.

“I look around our home and it’s immaculate – he’d developed it to be as low maintenance as possible. I wonder if that was for me and if Brett knew deep down that he didn’t have much longer to live.”

Joanne is telling her story to honour the man who was first a flatmate, then a partner, and finally a dedicated husband and father. His diagnosis had come as a teenager, Joanne says. It was devastating news for an otherwise-active Wairoa boy keen on duck shooting and getting outdoors.

At 18, Brett was given just six months to live. Then following further investigations to clarify the nature of his heart defect, his life expectancy jumped to 10 years. As he progressed, doctors continued to extend his timeline. However, there was always the knowledge that although Brett had a largely normal and healthy life, his heart was compromised.

So Brett made a bucket list. But instead of safaris, skydiving or trips to Disneyland, he had just three simple things in mind – a Subaru WRX (“a boy-racer car”, laughs Joanne), a wife and some children to dote on.

Joanne sitting on a patch of grass in front of a beach, with her children sitting around her
Joanne is determined to keep working because she wants her children to see their mum achieve things.

And Brett certainly got more than he might ever have dreamed of in the family department. One of eight children himself, Brett moved from Wairoa to Hastings as a young man and into a flat with a group of other Christians.

One of his three flatmates was Joanne and the pair got to know each other as friends, discovering many shared values.

But when Brett got a job back in Wairoa – almost two hours’ drive away – Joanne began to question why he didn’t move out. “He kept turning up at the weekend,” she says with a wide smile, remembering those romantic early days. “It took a while to figure out that he was coming back to see me.”

For Joanne and Brett, it wasn’t appropriate to live together if they were to become a couple, so Brett left the flat and the pair began to date.

Brett and Joanne on their wedding day

“I loved how laidback and easy-going Brett was,” recalls Joanne. “He was very funny and gentle, and he loved games – he’d have the whole flat playing [board game] Ticket to Ride. But he also knew how to challenge me. I could tell early on that he’d make an excellent father.”

Brett proposed by the stunning Maraetotara Falls, not far from Hastings. “It was a perfect spring day, and we were surrounded by all these flowers, butterflies and bees!” says Joanne, clearly delighted at the memory. The pair wed just six months later.

“Brett loved vehicles – of all types. He had his truck licence and could drive anything, so the only thing he had to organise for our wedding day was the vehicle we would leave the venue in. He chose three big John Deere tractors!”

Brett’s illness never held him back from the things he wanted to achieve in life, tells Joanne. He finally bought that Subaru at age 25, as well as marrying the girl of his dreams and having five beautiful children – four of them at once!

Joanne and her five kids standing with their backs to the camera, looking out to the beach

And he was always positive about the hand he’d been dealt. “He worked right up until Peter was born, driving loaders for a fertiliser company. When he wasn’t there, we loved to get outside and go for walks. It wasn’t always easy because his condition limited his physical abilities. We could do it with the help of a portable oxygen machine so long as we just took our time.

“You know, some people complain that their partner just sits on the couch and doesn’t do anything. Brett had every reason to plant himself on the sofa and do nothing – every excuse under the sun. But he was constantly down on the floor changing nappies or rough-and-tumbling with the children.

“He never shrank back. Although he struggled with the lifting and carrying, he was very active as a stay-at-home dad. He spent hours playing with them and taking them to all the local activities. They particularly loved the playgroup and [church music programme] Kanikani Kids. If Peter needed some one-on-one time, they’d go off and find a digger somewhere.”

Joanne sitting on a chair by herself, looking to the left

Yes, little Peter has inherited his dad’s obsession with vehicles, preferably the type that moves, lifts or carries dirt. After Brett’s funeral, where 300 friends and family members gathered to pay their respects and honour his unerring faith, the loving father was buried at Western Hills Cemetery, on the slopes overlooking Napier.

“There were some shovels available so Brett’s siblings could help cover the casket in earth. Someone had put a little spade out for Peter, so he joined in,” says Joanne. “Afterwards it was the only thing he wanted to talk about: ‘Daddy went in a hole in the ground and I got to throw flowers on him. I helped bury Dad.’ He even wanted to water his dad because he knows that when things go into the garden, that’s what you do.”

But there have been deeply sad moments in the weeks since Brett’s passing too. “Esther was a real daddy’s girl and is missing him terribly,” says Joanne. “She will bring me his socks or his shoe, then point to his picture and say, ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ She’s too little to communicate properly, but it’s clear she wants her father.”

Joanne sitting on a patch of grass in front of a beach, with her children sitting around her

For Joanne, the future is now unknown. She’s certain of one thing – and that is Brett is no longer in pain.

“He is with Jesus now,” she says – and that’s an enormous comfort. She has a beautiful recent memory of their last weekend away, just the two of them together, in Gisborne. “Although the weather was shocking and it bucketed down, it was a nice excuse to stay in and watch Netflix!”

She also has the ongoing support of extended family, work colleagues and her nanny Lucy, although the expense of live-in help is a burden. That’s why the local branch of the Multiples Association has set up a Givealittle page to help the Wills family get through.

“I did consider leaving my job to become a full-time mum,” says Joanne. She adds, “but I don’t think I would like being on a benefit when I enjoy working so much. I want my children to grow up knowing what a strong work ethic looks like. I want them to see Mum get out and do things.”

Joanne holding little Jonathan, eldest Peter standing beside them

So every cent donated will fund additional hours of care, she says, while her salary continues to pay for five sets of everything, “as well as all the food”. She adds, “It won’t be long before they’re eating me out of house and home!”

Joanne knows the waters ahead will not be smooth, but she is so grateful for the eight wonderful years she had with Brett and the example he set for his five adorable children.

“I hope they remember him as that dad who was always there for them and with them,” she smiles sadly. “He gave everything for them. I want them to remember how much he loved them and to understand how proud he would be of them.”

To donate to Joanne and her children, visit their Givealittle page.

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