Toddler Hine-Titama Standen Boynton-Rameka tosses her curls and giggles mischievously. The gorgeous wee girl with the striking green eyes is the centre of attention, playing peekaboo under a chair at her grandparents’ house.
Yet despite being surrounded by the love of her extended whanau, Hine-Titama pines for her parents and cries for them at night. “Mum gone. Dad gone,” she says matter-of-factly. Tragically, Hine-Titama – also known as “Pop” – was orphaned before her second birthday.
Her mum Stacey Gent died in July from a rare form of cancer. Stacey’s partner Tawhiri Boynton-Rameka had supported her through a brave two-and-a-half-year battle for life, juggling school exams and sporting commitments to be by her side.
A top league player with a development contract with Sydney NRL club Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, Tawhiri doted on his sick partner and little girl. “He would push Stace around in a wheelchair and whenever my family said, ‘You are amazing, bro,’ he’d say, ‘Why? I love her,’” recalls Stacey’s father Josh Standen, 37.
But shockingly, Tawhiri died at age 17 of a suspected suicide when Stacey’s prognosis became terminal. A heartbroken Stacey would tragically pass away just six weeks later. The couple’s families are now forever entwined through their love for little Hine-Titama and their shared grief. They are still struggling to understand Tawhiri’s death, which police believe was self-inflicted.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” says Josh. Tawhiri’s father John Rameka, 49, adds, “I still think, ‘Why?’ It’s such a waste.” Bravely, the family wants to share the story in the hope it will start conversations about suicide and save someone else from a senseless death.
Devoted mum Stacey was an “outgoing, strong-willed and hard-working” young woman, says her mum Tanz, 38. She was working at a McDonald’s in Taupo when she met Tawhiri. She was 18 and he was 15.
“He came in one day with the munchies – and the rest is history,” laughs Tawhiri’s mum Daphne Boynton, 46.
Tawhiri was a high-achieving student at Te Aute College in Hawke’s Bay. He played for Taupo Phoenix Rugby League, had been a Wai-Coa-Bay Stallions rep since he was 13 and had his eye on a professional league career in Australia.
“Tawhiri was humble – a quiet achiever,” reflects Daphne. “He had mana.”
The young couple became inseparable – and she soon fell pregnant. Stacey was 19 and Tawhiri was 16 when Hine-Titama was born. “Tawh and Stacey proved us all wrong,” admits Josh. “They were young, but they were great parents.”
The couple had plans for Tawhiri to finish school before they would move to Sydney as a family. But when Hine-Titama was four months old, Stacey complained of a sore back. Dad Josh twice took her to the GP and at first it was thought she’d injured her back lifting a heavy box at work.
But six days after first telling her parents she was in pain, Stacey collapsed in the shower. “She couldn’t walk,” recalls Josh. “She could wriggle her toes but had no feeling in her legs.” The young mother was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a cancer that causes tumours in bones and soft tissue in the spine.
Despite the devastating news, Stacey stayed strong. “She was young and she had good support,” tells Josh. “We were determined to beat the cancer together.” The family rallied around and partner Tawhiri became her number-one supporter. “Tawhiri rolled with it. Nothing was an issue,” recalls Daphne. Stacey embarked on a gruelling nine months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
Accompanied by her mum Tanz and baby Hine-Titama, she spent three months at the Auckland Spinal Rehabilitation Unit in Otara, learning how to balance, stand and take steps with a walker.
Tawhiri transferred to Taupo-nui-a-Tia College and was a constant at Stacey’s bedside, along with baby Hine-Titama. “He just loved Stace,” says Daphne quietly. “You couldn’t keep him away.”
By the following summer, there was hope. Stacey was in remission and celebrated her 21st birthday on December 6. “She walked into her own party and she was so happy,” tells Josh.
But within a month, Stacey’s pain returned. “She knew,” Josh says simply. In late January, doctors told Stacey and her family the cancer was back – and it had spread to her brain, liver and lungs. This time around, any treatment would be about prolonging her life.
Although Stacey had her dark days, she was determined to spend as much time as she could with Tawhiri and their gorgeous baby girl. While everyone knew Tawhiri felt under pressure at that time, there were no concerns about his wellbeing and he didn’t have any history of depression or mental illness.
“Tawhiri always seemed so strong,” recalls mum Daphne.
Nevertheless, his parents told him to put his plans for a league career on hold and instead spend time with Stacey. His father John even talked to Tawhiri openly about suicide and the risks with young people. “He said, ‘Nah, doubt it.’ We all thought he was in a good place,” tells John.
In May this year, Stacey took a turn for the worse. She spent two weeks battling pneumonia in intensive care at Rotorua Hospital. “We nearly lost her,” says Josh.
Around her hospital bed, Stacey’s parents and Tawhiri were forced to confront her impending death. “We were all in tears,” recalls Josh. “I look back now and think about how much that may have affected Tawhiri.”
Miraculously, Stacey made it home from the hospital. But tragically, a week later, Tawhiri was dead.
The Saturday he passed away began like any other – playing a game of league for his beloved club Phoenix. “He played better than ever that day,” smiles Daphne. After the game, Tawhiri went into town with his teammates to celebrate their success on the field. His friends say he seemed happy. But Stacey woke up on Sunday morning alone in their bed.
Struggling to make sense of his suspected suicide, Tawhiri’s parents believe alcohol played a major part in the tragedy. “That and a really bad decision,” reflects Daphne.
Despite the heartbreak of Stacey’s cancer, Tawhiri had plenty of support and a bright future ahead of him. After his death, Stacey tried to rally for Hine-Titama, but it was clear for all to see that she had been left broken-hearted by the loss of Tawhiri. “The cancer took her faster than we had thought it would,” says Josh.
Stacey passed away at home on July 2, 2016, with her young daughter and loving whanau by her side. And although both families are grieving for the young parents, little Hine-Titama is a constant source of joy. Together, they are fundraising to safeguard her future, including at a special league game to be held at Tawhiri’s home ground in Taupo on August 27.
The wee girl – who lives with her maternal grandparents in Taupo – turns two this week. Josh says she is doing well on the whole but still struggles at times. The whanau often takes Hine-Titama to visit her parents’ grave at Waipahihi Cemetery, on a peaceful hill above Lake Taupo. Tawhiri’s distinctive green league boots, his favourite ball and many flowers adorn the site.It was Stacey’s wish that she would be buried with Tawhiri. Six weeks after he died, the teenager’s grave was dug up so Stacey could be laid to rest alongside him.Says her father Josh, “They were inseparable, those two – as thick as thieves."
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