Less than a month after Lorraine Wood turned 80 she hired a cruise ship to sail her family and close friends around the Fijian Islands. It was a celebration and a goodbye, and as her daughters Fleur Wood and Frances Hansen talk about those joyous four days, they are laughing and wiping away tears simultaneously.
“In true Mum style she flew 70 people over. She was quite unwell but she pushed through it and we really had the most incredible week together as a family with lifelong friends,” says Fleur. “It was called the Fijian Princess and it was just us. There were 35 cabins and we took over the whole ship,” says Frances smiling.
The photos are jubilant, showing generations of a family partying together in a tropical paradise. They’re a complicated, blended band but surprisingly close. Fleur, best known as one of Sydney’s most successful fashion designers and creative entrepreneurs who, these days, lives in New York with her husband and children and is the founder of refugee charity Ads-Up, is the only child of Lorraine and Bill Wood. Respected artist Frances and her three sisters are from Lorraine’s first marriage. There are also three other sisters from Bill’s first marriage. “It’s like the Brady Bunch, only we’re eight girls,” laughs Frances, who is sixth in the line-up.
Lorraine and Bill met and married in New Zealand and moved to Sydney when Fleur was four. “There was a lot of coming and going growing up. But there’s definitely a closeness between us all,” says Frances, who admits that gaining sisters following her mum’s divorce was a bonus. Then when baby Fleur was born, she was over the moon. “That was very exciting for me, age 12, to have a little baby sister to look after.”
As the youngest, Fleur was pretty much on her own with her parents from age seven, although grown-up sisters would drop by and stay for periods. “They lived such different lives from me because there was such a big age gap, but we had lovely bonds and I have lovely memories of special times like holidays,” she says.
The cruise was reminiscent of those family get-togethers, only this one was tinged with sadness. In February 2017 Lorraine had been diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. “The prognosis was eight months,” says Frances. But typically, their mother took control of her illness, aiming for what Frances calls “radical remission” and in doing so bought herself more meaningful time. “She did do chemotherapy for a while but she felt so sick and miserable on it that she decided at her age she wanted to go for quality over quantity,” continues Fleur. “After that she did the opposite of what the doctors told her to do. She went to America and pursued an alternative treatment. For her that was a great option and she felt really good on those treatments.”
Lorraine was battling cancer, but she was doing it her way. She was also preparing herself, her family and her business for her next journey. “The cruise was a really fun, very special time,” recalls Fleur. “I think that was Mum’s gift to us all. This tremendous farewell. Mum had lots of close friends through all different stages and ages of her life. It was a time for us all to bond. She even invited all the grandchildren one day to have breakfast with her.”
Lorraine died in August 2019. “It was quite a slow decline,” Fleur says, quietly looking to her sister. It’s obvious both are still coming to terms with the loss. “In the end I think she was really ready to go. She was excited to be reunited with Dad. She had really strong spiritual beliefs and really believed that he would be waiting for her.
“The gift of cancer – sometimes – is that you’ve got that time to process, say farewell and prepare yourself. Mum was incredibly brave and faced it with her normal determination and strength of character and grace. It was a difficult journey, but in many ways she made it easier for us with her courage and being very upfront about what was going to happen.”
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