When Sophia Perera and husband Cam Warren lost their three-year-old daughter Valentina in a 2014 driveway accident, their world fell apart. Drowning in tears, Sophia lost purpose and contemplated ending her life.
And while welcoming daughter Augustina, now five, "saved my life", Sophia was dealt another cruel blow last year when she learnt she has terminal cancer. "I was torn," the 45-year-old shares. "I'm happy to be reunited with my daughter in heaven, but my daughter here needs me too."
However, one year on from the shattering diagnosis, the Auckland mum's embracing the positives, like the beautiful memories she's creating for Augustina, and the unwavering community support that's "lifted" her through illness and grief.
It's a tragedy no parent ever wants to experience and for months following the accident – in which a devastated Cam accidentally hit Valentina with a 4WD ute as he pulled into the driveway – Sophia constantly replayed the morning's events.
"I thought, 'What if I hadn't told her to brush her teeth? What if I hadn't been making a smoothie?'" says Sophia. "But there was no blame. It was a tragic accident due to a culmination of factors on that particular morning – the type of driveway, visibility, timing, vehicle size, my daughter's height… Valentina never went on that driveway, but she thought her dad was leaving without saying goodbye, so she went to say goodbye."
The loss of Valentina, who warmed every room with "light and laughter", left Sophia sinking into the "deepest, darkest hole". She tells, "I'd waited so long to have her – at 35, after being told I didn't have many eggs left – so she was really precious. Losing her felt like my whole life had gone."
Feeling aimless, the couple consulted celebrity psychic Sue Nicholson, who raised details about Valentina's death and burial no one else could know. "She also conveyed Valentina saying there's no blame and she knows it was an accident. That gave us peace."
But for Sophia, the greatest healing came with welcoming Augustina. At 39, despite her grief, she knew time wasn't on her side and was about to commence fertility treatment when she became pregnant six months after Valentina's death.
"It gave us purpose and hope. If you have other children, you still have to get up, feed them and take them to school, but I had no reason to get up. Getting pregnant was the only way I could carry on."
It was a difficult pregnancy, with Sophia worrying her grief was impacting her baby, and the struggles continued after Augustina's birth. "When I was cuddling or feeding her, I'd think, 'This should've been Valentina.' I loved Augustina but felt torn between keeping Valentina's memory alive and feeling guilty for being happy."
Sophia now grapples with mixed feelings when celebrating milestones like "cheeky, sassy" Augustina starting school. "There's joy, but underneath I'm thinking, 'I didn't get to see Valentina go to school.'"
More heartbreaking, though, is the prospect of Valentina growing up without her mother. It was just over a year ago that Sophia began experiencing stomach pains and bloating, before doctors found a stomach tumour. She says, "I felt like it was my fault because I hadn't processed my grief – it sat in my stomach."
Sophia immediately started chemotherapy, then underwent surgery, which removed the tumour. After six weeks in hospital, she was distraught when her symptoms resumed and another tumour was discovered. Doctors later confirmed she has follicular dendritic cell sarcoma, a rare, incurable illness.
A round of chemo "10 times worse than the first" followed to buy Sophia time.
She admits, "I was at death's door. I thought, 'What's the point of being alive if you're nauseated, sore, fatigued and can't cuddle your daughter?'"
Sophia endured four rounds of the debilitating treatment, but the tumour continued growing, so in June, she commenced immunotherapy, paying $15,000 for the first round, before funding came through from the drug company.
The mass has now reduced and Sophia feels "more myself", but treatment won't cure her, just buy more time – which she's using to create precious family memories, like a recent getaway to the Bay of Islands. "I pushed through because I want Augustina to have reminders to cherish after I'm gone."
Sophia adds, "I also want to teach her morals, values and my life lessons – to be empathetic, happy and succeed at whatever she wants to do. I'd love to see her attend her school ball or walk down the aisle. It's devastating I might never do that."
Sophia credits Cam, 51, for being her "rock". The two met at a rugby club, where they danced to Barry White, before marrying at an Auckland vineyard in 2010.
"He's truly lived up to our vows 'in sickness and health'," smiles Sophia. "I've neglected Cam because I haven't had the energy to be there for him as well as Augustina. Hopefully immunotherapy enables us to have date nights as husband and wife, rather than feeling like caregiver and patient."
Heartbreakingly, Augustina recently asked Sophia, "Are you going to heaven like Valentina?" But the parents are still determined to keep their late daughter's memory alive by getting cake and singing on her birthday.
Sophia has also founded Valentina's Purple Hope Day, which benefits Foster Hope, a charity providing essentials and fun excursions for foster kids. She explains, "Valentina was the most loving, giving person, so I wanted to follow her footsteps by doing something for other children."
Meanwhile, the brave mum is also fundraising to help buy more time via Givealittle.co.nz and with an upcoming Sophia's Fight For Life charity dinner at Te Atatu's Delicious Bistro. The event will feature a performance from TrueBliss and an auction for experiences like a walk-on role on Shortland Street and a game of golf with Tana Umaga. (Go to iticket.co.nz for more info.)
Money raised will help Sophia continue treatments and therapies, enable her to make more bucket-list memories and ensure Augustina's financial security.
Sophia encourages women to listen to their bodies to ensure early detection of medical issues. "And don't wait for life-altering illness to do what makes you happy. Cancer's a driving force to live harder than ever. It's a kick up the arse to appreciate what and who I have."
If you would like to donate to Sophia's givealittle page, you can donate here
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