She always said ‘Mum, I’ll be fine’: Grieving mother remembers her teen daughter on the eve of child cancer street appeal

"It's the little things that get to you, like when you're hanging out the washing and there are no clothes of theirs to hang out,'' says Jo.
Jo Buckingham and daughter Georgia

For as long as Jo Buckingham can remember she and her family have holidayed at Pukenui in the far north.

It’s only an hour’s drive from their Kaitaia home and the family love it. It’s where they go to unwind.

But now this spot holds even greater meaning for the mother-of-five because it’s where her 16-year-old daughter Georgia has been laid to rest.

Georgia passed away in 2016 after a short battle with acute myeloid leukaemia.

She had asked to be buried there, Jo says, because for her too, it held so many happy memories.

Many young New Zealanders know Georgia’s story because she gathered a following of thousands on social media after she began documenting and sharing her cancer journey.

Her last Instagram post is dated October 22, 2016. It was shared six days before she died and it’s a simple post showing a cheeky teenage girl poking out her tongue as she holds up a body scrub product that is popular among teens.

“Scrub, scrub” it is captioned.

A week later, her family left a message thanking everyone for their support.

Georgia had died peacefully on October 28, 2016, at home with her dad Glenn by her side.

The first sign of Georgia’s illness had come in the form of an itchy bite that wouldn’t go away, Jo shares.

She had taken Georgia, who was then 14, to the doctor and been told the angry, raised mark on Georgia’s leg was probably just a spider bite.

But then Georgia’s gums became red and inflamed so they went back “because Georgia was one of those kids who just never got sick”, Jo explains.

“So why were these sorts of things starting to happen to her?”

On the third visit the family asked for blood tests, and by the end of that day – 23 December 2014 – Georgia and dad Glenn had boarded a plane to Starship hospital. On Christmas Eve Georgia’s shock diagnosis was confirmed.

Georgia with Mum Jo, dad Glenn and brother Trent. Photography: Jacqui Van Dam Lifestyle Photography Invercargill

Despite initially responding well to chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, Georgia relapsed twice and was also told she was in remission twice. But by August 2016 she had been told she was terminal.

“You lose the plot about then,” Jo says. “You say, ‘Hang on a minute, you told us everything was fine.'”

Despite the devastating news, Georgia never complained or showed that she was angry or scared, Jo says.

“She always just said ‘Mum, I’ll be fine.’ Even in her final days.”

She was the sort of kid who always showed resilience, Jo says, as she remembers the time Georgia played two netball games then put on a pair of rugby shorts and played for her brother’s rugby team because they were short of players that day.

“And she said to me, ‘Do you know what, Mum – the buggers wouldn’t’ even give me the ball because I’m a girl.'”

In Georgia’s last month she did all the things a teenage girl could hope for.

She took a trip to Sydney with her mum and sister and “shopped till she dropped”.

And she attended a concert in Sydney with her favourite band, 5 Seconds of Summer, and met the band backstage.

It was her second time; the first had been when they’d performed in Auckland and Georgia had met them as part of “Make A Wish”.

She had been determined to see them again, though, Jo says – even though doctors had advised the family against taking her because there “wasn’t enough time left”.

“When she got home she said mum I’ve got nothing to live for now,” Jo smiles sadly.

Jo and Glenn had been taking Georgia to Kaitaia hospital for regular blood transfusions, but by early October the bloods were no longer working, the medical team advised them.

“So we talked to her about it and she was grown up enough to say ‘no mum I don’t want to do this any more – just take me home’.

“She got sicker, obviously,” Jo continues. “And then we got hospice in…

“She was so brave. She planned her own funeral, she designed her own coffin. She had all the music sorted – 5SOS of course.”

The day before she died she asked her mum to call her friends and have them come round, Jo recalls.

“They all came and sat on her bed and massaged her hands and rubbed her feet. After they left we gave her a shower, put her in fresh clothes, changed her sheets. We popped her back into bed and I slept with her that night.

“At 6 o’clock the next morning my husband came in and said ‘you go and get some sleep’, but by the time I’d left the room and got to the top of the stairs she had gone.”

Jo and Glenn will never know whether Georgia waited for her mum to leave or her dad to arrive, but either way they take great comfort in knowing she left this earth feeling happy and loved, and that she’d been able to say goodbye to everybody, one last time.

In the end, that’s all a parent can hope for.

Georgia with her dad, Glenn

On Friday Jo will be hitting the streets to collect money for the Child Cancer Foundation annual street appeal. It’s her second year collecting, and even though it’s emotionally hard she also finds it healing.

“I wear Georgia’s beads and some people will ask about them and I will say they are my daughter’s. And then they’ll say ‘so you’re Georgia’s mother’. Some have shed a tear and I’ve shed a tear or two, too. Sometimes people tell you their story, and it’s that sharing of that whole experience I guess.

“The Child Cancer Foundation were marvellous with us. You just don’t know until you’re in this situation how much love and care and support you get from them. Even after Georgia passed away, we’re three years down the track and they are still there for us.

Georgia with her brother, Trent

If Jo has one piece of advice for other families going through something like this it would be to be kind to one another and keep talking.

“When Georgia was diagnosed a social worker told us unfortunately a situation like this is either going to make or break your marriage. Couples either can’t cope with the stress or they get stronger. Ours got stronger but it came down to the whole communication with each other and telling each other how you’re feeling. We’ve been married 23 years in March.”

“You don’t ever think you’re going to have to go through this when you’ve got healthy children,” Jo says. “And of course it’s the little things that get to you, like when you’re hanging out the washing and there are no clothes of theirs to hang out.”

Georgia’s passing also had a profound effect on her younger brother, Trent, who has just moved down to Dunedin to study pharmacology at Otago University.

“He wants to find a cure for cancer,” Jo explains. “It was two years of his life, too, and he had to try and do schoolwork and carry on as normally as he could.”

Saying goodbye to Trent at the university hall of residence where they dropped him off earlier this month was emotional, Jo says.

“But as I cried a few tears at the airport Glenn said to me, ‘hey, we’ve been through worse’.

“We will see Trent again.”

The Child Cancer Foundation street appeal is on from Friday 28 February until Saturday 29 February. For more information or to donate online, click here.

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