by Megan Woodward, Queensland-based Media Stringer
The Burdekin is on fire this time of year.
It's the only sugar cane growing region in Australia that still burns cane, as opposed to harvesting it.
It's a sight, a sound, a smell that is intrinsically north Queensland and, a little like your first love, your first cane fire is impossible to forget.
It's entrancing and beautiful and overwhelming and is a practice that's part of the fabric of this tiny rural area, a little over an hour south of Townsville – made up of towns like Home Hill, Ayr and Brandon.
It’s amongst the sugar cane and the fires and the cane toads that Laurence Pavone grew up.
And with his wife Julie he’s built a life, a family … and a fire, all of his own.
Laurence Pavone (pron: pah-vo-knee) is ‘that’ guy.
The guy who’s laugh you hear first walking into the pub on a Friday night.
The guy who always shouts the first – and last – round of drinks.
The guy who is proud to the bones to say he comes from a small town most people have never heard of.
The guy who is the first to lend a hand and is everyone’s ‘best mate’.
The guys who is already the starter of laughs and ender of sad days.
The guy who is a bit of a mad bugger – but the most loyal of sons’, the most protective of brothers.
The guy who is a doting Dad, loving husband.
This story was to be in ‘that guy’s’ own words.
But in the few short weeks since reaching out to Laurence and Julie Pavone about the world of support the sugar cane community of the Burdekin has built around them as Laurence battles brain cancer … his ability to use his words has started to fade like the last of the cane fire embers.
His recent MRI scan shows cancer progression and that means that the treatment he is on is no longer responding. There is now no other treatment offered to him.
His symptoms are worsening.
His speech is very disrupted, he suffers extreme fatigue, he can no longer read, type, or text.
He is wobbly and the right side of his body is becoming more and more weak.
So, his wife Julie has spoken on his behalf … on the power of small towns, building a life around farming … and the value of love.
Sugar cane in their blood
Laurence and Julie Pavone have sugar cane in their blood.
Julie was born and bred in Home Hill, a little cane farming community south of Townsville in the Burdekin region.
“I’m the baby of three siblings and had a fabulous childhood growing up surrounded by cousins, family and friends in a laid-back little town,” Julie remembers fondly.
“My mum was a stay at home mum while my dad was a harvester contractor. My parents are both of Greek decent; my grandfather on my mother’s side immigrated to Australia from Cyprus when he was a boy and moved to Home Hill for an opportunity in cane farming and cutting cane by hand,” Julie said.
“My grandmother and fathers’ parents were all born in Australia. My mum was raised with her six siblings beautifully on the home farm with a very simple lifestyle. Mums parents lived there until they day they both passed away only a few years ago.
“They had a magical life on the farm. That farm has since been purchased and taken over by my brother, so he is now the third generation running that farm.”
Julie’s Dad grew up in the bright lights of Sydney with four siblings, the son of a busy city café owner – but it wasn’t the life for him.
“My dad moved to Home Hill in his 20’s to cut cane for my grandfather, and he soon met my mother on the farm,” Julie said.
“They fell in love, got married and the rest is history. They made Home Hill their family base and raised us. Cutting cane, my dad provided us with everything we ever needed.”
A few clicks north of Home Hill, a similar story was unfolding for another family.
Laurence Pavone’s grandparents and great-grandmother were all born and raised in Sicily and immigrated from Italy to the Burdekin when his dad was just three years old.
“Laurence’s grandfather purchased a small cane farm in Brandon and when Laurence’s dad was just 18, he purchased his own farm right beside his fathers’ farm,” Julie said.
“Together they ran the cane farms and ran a small brick making business. The life of a sugar cane farmer was great. Laurence’s grandfather built a home with the bricks he made on the home farm where he raised family,” she said.
“His grandmother also still had her mother here for many years as well and she passed away aged 103,” she said.
“At one stage, they had five generations still living. Once his grandfather left the farm, Laurence’s father continued to run the farms, and then when old enough, Laurence came on to continue running the farms. Three generations of farmers up until just last year.”
When your world is turned upside down
Catching each other’s eye at a local debutant ball as teenagers, the Laurence and Julie married in 2001, then settled in the home that Laurence was raised in on the farm at Brandon.
“There we lived happily, working hard and playing hard and four years later, we introduced our daughter Claudia to the family,” Julie said.
“She was the light of our lives, bringing us much joy after the news we were given just six weeks earlier.”
That was 2005. Six weeks before Claudia was born, Laurence was diagnosed with a low-grade brain tumour – an Astrocytoma Glioma.
“We were told the unthinkable. He was only 27. He had a newborn. He had so much living to do. And yet here we were in and out of doctor’s offices worrying about our future,” Julie said.
Laurence was told with this diagnosis that the average survival rate was just seven to ten years.
For a young couple nursing a newborn it was an incredibly difficult diagnosis to comprehend given their lives had merely just begun.
“Laurence had a brain biopsy to confirm the type of tumour we were dealing with and then began oral chemotherapy and radiotherapy,” Julie said.
“He handled the treatment very well, apart from fatigue, and the tumour responded very well to the treatment and it shrunk considerably until it no longer posed a direct threat to Laurence’s life.”
Then, the Pavone’s did what they do best – picked up their lives, looked for the silver linings and continued with all they planned.
Two more children – Layla and Mason – a move north to the regional centre of Townsville for a few years, then a return to Ayr where they built their dream home – surrounded by family, cousins and friends.
Annual checkups returned only good news and life was great. Then, in December 2018, 14 years after his initial diagnosis, Laurence Pavone’s world was turned upside down all over again.
Certain death … and community spirit
“We always knew in the back of our mind that one day this was bound to happen – you just hope it never comes,” Julie said.
“The fact with brain cancer is that 9 times out of 10 the general direction of these tumours is to build momentum and start to grow again, often coming back worse than before,” she explained.
“Again, we were in and out of doctor’s offices for tests and discussions. Another brain biopsy confirmed this time it had changed to a high-grade Glioblastoma Multiform – the worst possible form of brain cancer one could ever get.
“No one survives these. These cancers take more lives under 40 than any other cancer and more children than any other disease. This cancer is by far the deadliest and most scary form of cancer.”
The odds and prognosis were not in Laurence’s favour because of the severity of the tumour.
“We were staring at certain death and time meant everything. And Laurence just knew he needed to do something bigger than him,” Julie said.
“Amidst all the pain, anguish and fear, Laurence gathered his thoughts and started to think about how we wanted to make a difference, and how he could leave a legacy for his children,” she said.
And this was the beginning of Laurie’s Love.
Laurence and Julie worked together to find out what was required in order to start a foundation to raise money for brain cancer research.
“We had to appoint a Board of Directors then fill out a mountain of paperwork,” Julie said.
“One of our directors on the board is an accountant and he’s been kept very busy with all the application forms but once they were submitted it was accepted, and we were granted our wish to start the foundation,” Julie said.
On April 13, 2019, Laurence’s 42nd birthday, the Laurie’s Love Facebook page and GoFundMe page went live.
Within minutes donations started rolling in and in July 2019 they were successful in achieving Charity Status and were registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.
A huge achievement when you consider that some charities can take years to accomplish the level of achievement and recognition working in a metropolitan area.
Every penny raised is going straight to brain cancer research. They’ve already hit their target of $100,00 in 12 months ... in just four short months.
But it’s the love and support of the tiny little community of the Burdekin that has kept the Pavone family going.
Painting the town red (and black)
“It’s not the money, gifts, flowers, and meals that keep us going. It’s the love that all of those things are delivered with that is so incredibly evident to us,” Julie said.
“Laurence coined the tagline for the foundation himself – the infinite love is the cure,” she said.
“No words can explain how amazing the Burdekin community have been. The support has been tremendous. So many fundraising events held by the locals all to raise money for Laurie’s Love.
“It has been such a huge effort by all involved. We had our logo printed onto t-shirts and I believe we have sold in excess of 600 shirts to date. We also have wrist bands, badges, stickers and car magnets for sale.”
The town of Ayr is painted red and black on a Friday – the colours of the Foundation – as the majority of the local business houses wear the Laurie’s Love shirts for their Friday shirt.
The local school has encouraged the children to wear their shirts every Wednesday.
“You can ask any one of those kids what is on their shirt and they can explain to you that a guy named Laurie has brain cancer and he is raising money to find a cure,” Julie said.
“The kids at the local high school – where our daughter, niece and nephews attend, and Laurence’s sister Sandra teaches – held a walkathon fundraiser. With just 4 weeks to find sponsorship and donations, they managed to raise $17,500,” she said.
“The kids were in awe of the purpose for their fundraising. They were excited and determined to reach high goals, and that they did. We have had several large fundraising events held by various businesses and organisations here in the Burdekin and they’ve all be successful.
“And when I say thank you with shock and disbelief, they say to me, “Did you honestly expect anything less? It is Laurence we are doing this for after all”. He is so respected and so loved so it has been so easy to get the support of the community.
“When Laurence first set the fundraising goal at $100,000, I thought that was way too high. A little out of reach and a little arrogant perhaps.
“But then I came to realise that with the amount of love people have for him, there would be no doubt he would hit his target. How could he not. It was Laurence. The whole town had his back and bought a ticket to his roller coaster ride.”
For Laurence and Julie’s three children, it’s one heck of ride to be taking at such young ages.
“They know they are losing their Dad and it breaks their hearts,” Julie said.
“They are very dedicated to Laurie’s Love and understand what it is all about and when she’s old enough, Claudia, our eldest child, will join our board of directors if she wishes to,” she said.
“The foundation is helping them as they see the community wrap their arms around us all. Everyone is constantly checking in on them and offering support. The kids are so proud of their dad for spending his energy to develop this to help other families.”
“Initially, the little kids in our family thought that once we reached the $100,000 then Laurence would be cured so they were raiding their money boxes.
“It is only of late as things have progressed and they can see the physical changes in Laurence that we had to explain in a little more depth the severity of the disease and the probable prognosis.”
The luckiest man in the world
Laurence however still claims to be ‘the luckiest man in the world’ and feels he has lived a remarkable life of 42 years.
“He would genuinely rather be in the position he is currently in than have lived to 85 years old having had a miserable, unhappy life,” Julie said.
Before his speech started to fail him, Laurence told a newspaper journalist that life is too long; explaining that so many people think they can put things off for another time.
“You become complacent that you’ll get opportunities later on down the track,” Julie said.
“Not everyone gets to that end of the track though. Laurence’s point was that no one should wait. Don’t think you’ll have next month or next year to get those things ticked off your list.
“Do it now – live now – love now.”
And that’s Laurence’s wish for Laurie’s Love.
“He genuinely wants people to spread love and awareness. We’d love to one day be recognised as one of the reasons a cure for brain cancer has been found,” Julie said.
“To do that, we obviously need the Foundation to spread beyond the Burdekin postcode though. I think it is very important for the survival of the foundation to fundraise beyond Ayr,” she said.
“There is only so much one little community can do, not only for fundraising, but also to spread awareness surrounding brain cancer – the only way we are ever going to change the statistics is through research and research takes a lot of money and time.
“We hope in the future to hold a “Day for Laurie” whereby schools participate in a red or black shirt and gold coin donation for the foundation. It would be my absolute dream and make us so proud for our children to one day see Laurie’s Love plastered all over Australia.
“Our community will never forget Laurence. He will always be here, and they will be forever proud of what he has done for them all.
“He has brought many people back to life when they were feeling low. Laurence and some of his crazy ideas have brought so much joy and happiness to our town. His involvement in so many community-based events has given him a platform that will be hard to replace.
“We wish for Laurie’s Love to make a difference in people’s lives. We wish there to be infinite love because of Laurie. We wish for our three children to always be able to say, ‘That is my Dad’.”
And that’s the type of fire that won’t burn out in this cane community of north Queensland.