In the light-filled sitting room of her parents' house north of Wellington, young mum Krystal Sloan-Meyrick sits penning 50 years of birthday cards to her precious four-year-old Harper-Rose.
The heartfelt cards, which each speak of love, memories and advice for the future, are carefully sealed in envelopes and then tucked away so they can be given to her little girl with each milestone year.
"Here's her 16th birthday card, a card for her 21st and a card for her wedding," says Krystal, 24, carefully stowing each in a special box. Krystal is determined to give Harper-Rose her fifth birthday card in October and watch proudly as her little girl starts school, but deep down she knows her family is more likely to pass on the other gifts with each subsequent year.
Despite the single mum's youth, translucent skin and clear eyes, she is, in her own words, "waiting to die".
Diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) nearly four years ago, Krystal has battled the cancer valiantly, with brutal rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, and a stem-cell transplant, but her condition is now terminal.
"I'm running out of time, but I don't want any sadness or negativity – life now is all about making memories with Harper-Rose," insists Krystal, the eldest child of a large and loving blended family, with her mum and stepdad, Ang and Paul Murphy, her dad and stepmum, Darren and Therese Meyrick, and her siblings, Tyler, 23, John-Paul, 22, Lily-Jean, 21, Luke and Grace, both 19, and 13-year-old Sam.
"Writing Harper-Rose letters every year after I'm gone means she will always feel me around her."
After Harper-Rose's birth, Krystal says she never came right. "I was sore, struggling to breathe and had no energy," she recalls. "It went on for months and by the end of it, I was crawling on my hands and knees to get to Harper-Rose in her cot."
Concerned and bewildered, Krystal's mum dropped everything to support her. Ang, now 44, was working as an independent midwife at the time, but went to her daughter's home every morning to get the tot dressed and fed, then returned in the evening to check on the pair.
Over a period of months, Krystal saw three different doctors, was taken to hospital three times, and was told she had everything from postnatal depression and the flu to glandular fever.
"I was watching Krystal get progressively weaker and after a while, I thought, 'OK, this is really frightening me,'" says Ang, who has given up work to care for her daughter and granddaughter.
Finally, she made an appointment with Krystal's childhood GP, who looked at her daughter's history and ran a series of blood tests.
"She looked me in the eye – I knew it was bad," remembers Ang. "She got on the phone and sent us straight to hospital."
By the time Krystal was diagnosed with ALL, the leukaemic cells had taken over 97% of her bone marrow.
"Without treatment, I was told I had about two weeks to live," explains Krystal. "By then, my little girl was only 11 months old."
Since the diagnosis, Harper-Rose, Ang and Krystal's grandmother Lyn, 74, have rarely left Krystal's side.
"I made it my mission to keep a strong bond, no matter what," says Ang.
Adorable Harper-Rose has grown up in a hospital and only ever known a mum who has been sick.
Because of Krystal's compromised immune system, which means a common cold could kill her, Harper-Rose hasn't spent much time at kindergarten for fear she could pick up germs.
"The doctors and nurses who work in haematology in Wellington Hospital have been like family for the last three and a half years, and played a huge part in all our lives," enthuses Ang.
Courageous Krystal says little Harper-Rose knows her mum has cancer and understands she's going to die.
"It does makes her sad and I know it makes her worry. She often comes into my bed to sleep because she is scared Mummy is going to die in the night."
Through Te Omanga Hospice, Harper-Rose does art therapy, in which she is encouraged to draw and talk about her mum's illness, and how it makes her feel.
"We do a lot of drawing together and I tell her we are like superheroes in our capes, strong and vibrant forever," says Krystal.
For the young mum, writing is cathartic. Not only does she pen beautiful cards to her daughter and other family members, but she also keeps a blog to encourage people to live life and make the most of every day.
Her biggest comfort for the future is the knowledge that her precious Harper-Rose will be at the heart of a close-knit and loving four-generation family.
"I say to Harper-Rose that my love for her is invisible – long after I'm gone, it will still be there. And even if she can't see it, she will be able to feel it."
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