Love story overcame the odds

LATE LOVE: Graham Woodward and Lorna Russell
LATE LOVE: Graham Woodward and Lorna Russell

Neither distance nor cancer could stop Graham Woodward, 75, and Lorna Russell, 77, getting together. In March this year they shared their whirlwind romance with the Nelson Mail but shortly afterward Lorna's cancer returned. Graham spoke to Kate Davidson about love and loss.

‘I am just so sad that our relationship lasted such a short time. What I am not sad about is that I met her. My time with her enriched my life."

With these words Graham Woodward paid tribute to his late-life partner Lorna Russell at her funeral last month.

The pair first met online three years ago after friends and family signed them up for a dating site.

They swapped life histories in just over two weeks via email and when Graham came from Geraldine to Nelson, their real-life partnership blossomed just as quickly.

"The relationship was so good. It was right from the moment we met at Millers Acre cafe. People were saying in days, how many years have you two been together?" said Graham.

"We just clicked. At no point at any stage was there any noted dissension, we never had a row, never had an argument. I don't think we even had a disagreement."

At the Cancer Society's Relay for Life at Saxton Field in March, they shared their story with the Nelson Mail.

Lorna recalled their first meeting: "I said to him, ‘Before we go any further I do have to tell you that I had a mammogram yesterday and they think it's cancer'."

A survivor of melanoma and having lost close family members to cancer he told her, "Oh, that makes no difference."

Graham was by her side as she underwent chemotherapy, and shared her joy when she received an all-clear.

But in May this year, Lorna's cancer returned. Doctors thought she still had some time, possibly months or even a couple of years.

"Then all of a sudden she started to have more breathing problems," said Graham.

"But, she was still bright and that night we out to the Suburban Club for dinner and 12 days later she was dead."

Lorna went into hospice care on Saturday, July 12, slept most of Sunday and on Monday opened her eyes briefly to say hello to her daughter and grandson who had arrived from the North Island.

Graham can't remember what time it was, but late on Monday evening Lorna opened her eyes and said goodnight and he replied he would see her in the morning. She said yes and "that was the last word we ever spoke".

His fondest memories were just of being with her.

"She always used to say she wasn't educated, but she was," Graham said.

"She was, like me, a prolific reader of all kinds of things - papers, magazines, books of all types. We had some good times; we had a lot of fun. We both wound one another up.

"I used to jokingly refer to myself as the toyboy; that used to get her going."

He often teased her about approaching unsuspecting young men since she was the first to contact him on the dating website.

They went to shows and cafes and out for lunch each Sunday. They also explored the country.

"We went away on a trip in April last year.

"She had never been further south than Timaru so we went in down through the lakes and right down through to Invercargill.

"We didn't strike the best of weather, but she enjoyed it, seeing places she had heard of."

The pair had a North Island adventure and deep south trip on the agenda when the cancer reappeared.

"Sometimes it stopped us from doing the things we wanted and that's probably the saddest part of all," he said.

They never married, despite Graham's efforts.

"I asked her a couple of times and she said to me no. She said one marriage was more than enough," he said.

He loved her quirky sense of humour and liveliness.

"So that's suddenly all missing. She's left a hell of a void."

Having lost his first wife in June 2008, Graham has had some experience dealing with grief.

He has put into practice the advice of a psychologist - keep in contact with friends and family and stick to your routines.

He gets up, has his breakfast, goes down to a cafe for a cup of coffee, and regularly goes out shopping on Wednesday.

But winter makes it hard with short days, long nights and friends away.

The funeral was exactly how Lorna had wanted. "She was pretty clear on several things - she didn't want any more rubbish put in her veins.

"She said she had had enough with chemo so she didn't want to be embalmed. She wanted to be cremated immediately," he explained.

"She wanted it to be at the Suburban Club because we were both members. She said with the trouble the Suburban Club was in, they could use the money," he said laughing.

Having forged friendships and become involved with the Nelson community, Graham plans to stay in the city with its climate kinder than Geraldine's.

Lorna is survived by three children, seven grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.

The Nelson Mail