Ordering a round of drinks at the casino, it was hard to believe my little
brother was turning 21.
Born two years apart, and raised by a single mum, Casey and I had always been incredibly close.
I’d never known my dad, but to me it didn’t matter – Casey was fiercely
protective of us, always putting the needs of others before himself.
It felt good to celebrate the amazing man he’d grown up to be.
Five years later, Casey told us he’d met the love of his life, Nicole, and I was over the moon for him.
I couldn’t wait to meet her at a family gathering in May 2007. But, that morning, I received a call that turned my world upside down.
Casey had passed away.
Distraught, I couldn’t imagine a world without Casey in it.
Later that day, I learned that he had been walking on the beach with his best friend when he was attacked by three men.
He’d died instantly when a single punch severed the main artery to his brain, causing a haemorrhage.
He was just 26.
For a long time, I struggled to be happy.
I’d always imagined Casey growing up to be a loving father, and now, I was never going to be an aunt to his children.
Then, I fell pregnant. When Tyler was born in February 2009, I felt like my life had meaning again.
Sadly, Tyler’s father and I separated, but I found love again with Justin and, in 2012, we welcomed our girl, Jacey.
Watching my two kids, my heart felt so full.
But, I still felt like a piece of me was missing.
So, together with my mum, Cynkay, we decided to take a DNA test to find out if I had any other siblings from my father’s side.
I knew they’d never replace Casey, but I felt like I had so much love to give.
When the results came back, I was shocked to discover I had a cousin living just a few hours away.
Within hours, I’d also managed to track down my father, Patrick, and his brother, my uncle, Larry.
Chatting to my dad on the phone, he told me I had a sister, Kristionna, then 31.
Sadly, she’d suffered from substance abuse and had lost custody of her four kids, Alex, 12, Baili, 11, Jesse, 10, and Kristina, eight.
But, she was desperate to get them back.
I have to help her get her life back on track, I thought.
Finally, I was going to be an aunt! Organising to meet the following week, I was racked with nerves, but I needn’t have worried.
My dad and his family were incredibly welcoming.
Then, when my sister walked in, we shared an instant connection.
‘She’s coming home with us,’ I told Justin.
‘But you have to get yourself clean,’ I warned Kristionna.
Back home, she talked constantly about her children and their different personalities.
Though I’d never met my nieces and nephews, I felt like I already knew them.
Kristionna had a lot of love to give, but I knew I couldn’t give her the help she needed.
So when she left three weeks later, I wasn’t surprised, just disappointed.
Despite her demons, she was still my sister, so we kept in touch.
Then, five months later, in February 2018, my uncle called me.
My sister and her husband had been in a fatal motorbike accident and sadly died.
I was heartbroken, but I knew the news would have hit her kids even harder.
I have to take care of them, I vowed.
Calling Justin at work, I was nervous about how he would react.
‘Go get our kids,’ he said, supportively.
Tyler and Jacey were just as excited to have their cousins come and stay.
Just a month later, we were granted custody, on what would have been Kristionna’s birthday.
Picking up the kids the following day, I could see their faces were full of hurt.
‘Your mum was my sister, which makes me your aunt,’ I said, introducing myself.
‘When these things happen, a judge decides where children should go, and he’s decided you should live with us.’
Though I could sense they were nervous, Baili was the first to break the silence.
‘I like lollipops,’ she smiled, innocently.
Incredibly, around four months later, they felt comfortable enough to start calling me mum.
Now, more than two years on, our house is full of chaos, but adopting my sister’s kids has been the best thing ever.
Though there’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think of Casey and Kristionna, losing them is what led me to my new life as a parent to six beautiful children.