Winding up the gravel driveway to actress Amelia Reid-Meredith’s family farm in Nelson, one of the first things you notice is the shiny black helicopter parked in the paddock. A world away from the flame-haired star’s theatrical craft in front of the camera, flying has been the top career choice for generations of Reids – so much so that the actress’s parents named their only daughter after aviatrix Amelia Earhart.
Although she’s yet to hop in the cockpit herself, as she settles into her new life on the picturesque property, Reid-Meredith thinks flying lessons could be on the cards one day. They say you can take the girl out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the girl, and she reckons the old adage is true.
“The country is definitely in my heart – I can’t imagine not having all this space now,” she says, glancing out of the huge bay windows in her parents’ hilltop home. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt as creative as I have in the past couple of months. You don’t have that time and space to dream and mull over ideas when you’re driving around in the concrete jungle. Here you have a chance to breathe and kind of check in with yourself again.”
The setting may be tranquil, but Reid-Meredith, her husband, Shadon, and their toddler, Arlo, are only just starting to unwind following a whirl-wind shift from Auckland to the top of the South Island. After receiving the devastating news that Reid-Meredith’s beloved mum, Robyn, is facing terminal cancer, the couple knew moving home to care for her was the right decision.
She resigned from her role as Bella Durville – one of Shortland Street’s most popular characters – they packed up their house and a few weeks later found themselves adjusting to a new life in Nelson. “I’m back in the room I had as a kid,” she says. “But now there’s a baby, a husband and a dog too!”
The decision to leave Auckland was “a massive call”, but Reid-Meredith wouldn’t have it any other way. “Mum struggled because I think she felt guilty – she didn’t want us to stop our lives,” says the 29-year-old. “People have said things to me like, ‘You’ve sacrificed your career’, and I hate that word ‘sacrifice’. I haven’t sacrificed a thing. She gave me life, so if I can do one little thing to make hers a little easier, why wouldn’t I?”
Nevertheless, when Reid-Meredith left Shortland Street, no one but family, close friends and a few colleagues knew the truth about why she was moving on; it was something she chose to keep private.
“I didn’t want Mum to feel that it was [all] about her, [though] I knew she was feeling that,” she says. “I just wanted it to be like, ‘I’m leaving to have family time.’ Recently Mum said to me, ‘Why don’t you just speak about the real reason?’ I told her I didn’t want to put her in that position, and she said, ‘Well, it’s an interesting conversation.’”
Facing the death of a parent might be a universal experience, but that’s not to say it’s an easy topic to talk about. “It’s quite scary,” says Reid-Meredith. “Every single person has to go through this sooner or later, that sense of, ‘Okay, I have to make the decisions now, and at some stage there won’t be that person there to guide me.’”
It’s a difficult journey, watching a much-loved family member slowly lose strength while you learn to take the lead as caregiver. It’s a confronting switch in roles that’s keenly felt by many who have lost a parent, and for Reid-Meredith, it stings even more when the parent involved has held the mantle of the loving family matriarch.
“It’s so hard to see someone who’s usually up at 6am and all ‘Go, go, go!’, suddenly spending more and more time in bed,” she says. “One part of me accepts it, and the other thinks, ‘It’s not happening – it’s surreal.’ I’m just so lucky to be in a position where I’m able to support her.”
It’s been five difficult years since Robyn was diagnosed with bowel cancer; it’s been a battle that has involved chemotherapy and major surgery. When the tumour returned, this time in her lung, doctors offered more chemo – along with the caveat that it wouldn’t provide a cure. Choosing to shun the harsh side effects of the toxic drug, Robyn is living the last phase of her life on her own terms.
“She never complains about anything,” says Reid-Meredith. “She’s tackling it all with grace and courage. I think she’s being brave for us too – she’s still being a mum and protecting us in that way.”
Finding her own strength to talk things through with her mother was something Reid-Meredith says was particularly hard, but getting her feelings out in the open has felt like a weight off her shoulders.
“It wasn’t until recently that Mum and I started to have those more candid conversations. I’ve been able to say things I hadn’t quite managed to before, like, ‘I’m really scared’, ‘I still need my mum’ and ‘I’m really going to miss you.’ It’s so hard but you have to. And I feel so much lighter having said it, as I know that she knows how I feel.”
Although the day-to-day realities have started to kick in, such as the increasingly regular visits from the hospice nurse, this practically-minded family doesn’t dwell on the negatives. The house is often buzzing with chatter, Reid-Meredith’s brother Toby and his family live a stone’s throw away and pop in regularly, Arlo, 21 months, holds court with his cute antics and Robyn is still quick to ensure that everyone who walks through the door is fed and watered. With late-afternoon wine breaks, animated family dinners and the kettle on the boil, the tight-knit tribe are making the most of every day together.
Looking relaxed in a singlet, shorts and bare feet, Reid-Meredith hums along with the Beyoncé song on the stereo as she shows NEXT around the house, stopping off in her favourite spot: the movie room. She smiles as she tells of movie marathons and box-set binges with the whole family lined up on La-Z-Boy chairs in front of the big-screen TV.
Since swapping her once carefully structured Shortland Street days for life on the farm, the actress, who was fresh out of drama school when she landed her role on the soap, is learning to live in the moment. “For someone who has always planned everything and been career driven, being here with Mum has been a real lesson in just stopping and being in the present,” she says. “I don’t sweat the small stuff as much now.”
As well as learning to slow down, Reid-Meredith says perfecting her mum’s cheese scone recipe is another new skill she’s trying hard to master. “Dad and I have these ‘home economics’ days, where Mum teaches us how to cook,” she laughs. “But I think the biggest thing I can learn from Mum is her ability to be content. She’s always said she’s so happy with her life – she doesn’t care what people think of her and she’s let nothing stand in her way. I’d love to pass that mindset on to Arlo.”
Reid-Meredith was initially nervous about her surprise pregnancy, but Robyn was thrilled at the news and would fly to Auckland to visit her daughter between rounds of chemotherapy. “She deals with life like a boss, so she was like, ‘You’re just pregnant, get on with it!’
“In the last week of my pregnancy she felt terrible from the chemo and we stayed up watching a box set of Sex and the City. It was a really special time. We’ve always been close; there isn’t much she doesn’t know about me, although she probably wishes I wouldn’t tell her some things!”
These days, Arlo and Granny Goo, as he calls Robyn, are also a tight unit. “Their bond is beautiful,” says Reid-Meredith.
“He’s given Mum something else to focus on. I sometimes think about how he’s not going to have the relationship with her that I did with my grandmother, and I feel like he’s missing out. But we’re learning some of her ways, and later we’ll be able to pass those memories on to him.”
Amid the hubbub of family life, Reid-Meredith seldom gets a moment to herself, but with all that’s going on emotionally, she finds comfort in the noise and distractions.
“I try to go out walking each day, even if it’s only for 15 minutes, and driving Arlo to his daycare once a week is a bit of time out for me. But I prefer to have people around at the moment. In the silence things can get very overwhelming, and I know I need to deal with that. But for now, people give me energy; organising things and being with others keeps me going.”
There’s no doubt in her mind moving to Nelson was the right decision; however the actress says the near-impossible juggling act of caring for parents, looking after children and carving out a career is as much a concern for her as it is any modern woman.
“We’re all encouraged to have that big career and do everything, but then something like this happens and it makes you evaluate what’s really important,” she says. “We’re really torn now, and I think we’re questioning it more in society. It’s like, ‘What do we do?’
You see more and more people going into old people’s homes and I’ve always said to Mum and Dad, ‘You’ll come and live with me, wherever I am’, so I knew that I always wanted to do this. My career will always be there, and if that means I won’t be on the New Zealand acting scene anymore, so be it. I know I’ll make it work.”
The actress credits Shadon, her husband of five years, with being her main support, and acknowledges that a man willing to quit his job to move into his in-laws’ house is a rare find.
“It must be hard for him,” she says. “Caring for relatives is important for his family as part of their Samoan culture, and he’s seen his mum look after his nanny – but it was still a big move. His family are in Wellington and he’s here supporting me, trying to be everywhere at once. It would have been really difficult if he wasn’t so on board with it and felt like I was tearing him away. It’s really testing for a relationship, but I think we’ll be stronger from this.”
Right now, the couple are taking Robyn’s lead and focusing on finding joy in the moment. “We don’t know how much longer Mum will be with us, and it’s just a real blessing having this time together,” says Reid-Meredith.
“I don’t like to think about the future too much, because to me that would be almost like I’m wishing her away. My main focus is being a daughter, and instead of getting all down about things, I want to keep making her proud.”