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Declan Halford, 10, died on September 24 after falling from a tree at home. Photo / Supplied
Exactly three weeks ago a hole was punched into the lives of Declan Halford’s family when the 10-year-old Northland boy died after falling from a tree at home.
Parents Deborah and Luke spoke exclusively to the Northern Advocate about how the memories of their dinosaur-loving son, equipped with a curious mind and kind heart, are helping to patch the hurt.
“One of his dreams was to go to America to visit Tornado Alley,” mum Deborah says of the Maungatapere youngster.
And when Declan got there, his 12-year-old sister and “best bud” Adina said he planned to get an umbrella, “be Mary Poppins and fly away”.
“He had some interesting theories,” Deborah said with a gentle laugh.
Declan’s fascination with weather, more specifically natural disasters, was just one of the cogs turning in his feverishly curious mind.
“Growing up you could always see that he had a brain that would just sit there and work things out from a distance.”
As a baby, Declan figured out early on how to crawl but had to be lured into showcasing the skill with a biscuit.
His infant eyes would watch how his parents opened doors, savouring the knowledge until he was tall enough.
“He always knew how to do things before he could physically do them,” Deborah said. “He just had a mind that worked.”
A mind that later created a world of titans captured in story books Declan penned with his best mate from school. The duo took it a step further by making a card game based on the titans’ adventures.
Deborah described how Declan’s inquisitive nature was enamoured with the world of dinosaurs. His two beloved blue-tongued pet lizards were as close as he could get to the real deal.
However, he had been waiting for one of his pets to return after it took off one day almost a year ago in the middle of a game of hide-and-seek.
“He loved reptiles,” Deborah said. “Just any weird animal, really.
“He spent hours reading about things like that and jotting down the facts and putting it together.”
Declan’s latest poster, all about alligators, had facts carefully recited in a child’s handwriting next to glued-on pictures and was proudly displayed on the dining room wall.
Fittingly Declan’s ode to his most cherished species was stuck onto a sheet of paper in his favourite colour, green.
A dark green similar to that found among the trees and gardens filling the family’s vast Wheki Valley backyard where all six of the Halford kids embrace nature as their playground.
“Traditional sports weren’t Declan’s thing but he was outdoorsy. He liked to go exploring and discovering,” Deborah said.
He especially loved to climb trees.
So for Declan to be in the branches of the macrocarpa tree after milking the goats with Adina and 8-year-old brother Jasper on the morning he died was nothing unusual.
“He was like a little monkey really [when climbing trees]. He’s comfortable up there and he chooses his branches carefully and things like that,” Deborah said.
Luke laboured away in the garden next to where his son moved through the tree as he had many times before.
And then with no warning whatsoever, Declan fell.
His abrupt death and its unknown cause added a heavy weight to the family’s grief.
“[…] you had no chance to say goodbye or work up to it,” Deborah said.
“He’s just there one minute and gone the next and that’s just definitely hard to process.
“Some days you still feel like it’s not real and I don’t think that’ll go away for a while but also not knowing exactly why it happened – it leaves you with questions.
“If he wasn’t comfortable up in that tree and confident in what he was doing, he wouldn’t have been up there.”
Since that day, Deborah most of all has missed having her boy – the “class clown”, the people lover, the board games master, and her ever “quirky” and fun son around.
Big sister Adina misses the other half of the siblings’ invented superhero duo inspired by the Marvel comic characters, especially Declan’s favourite – Antman.
“We started to make up our own Marvel superheroes and his one was Beetleman, who could shrink but also had the power stone on his belt as his regulator.
“He would call himself the ultimate superhero,” Adina laughed.
She played the role of Voltaria, armed with the power of lightning “but upgraded”.
“We call ourselves Beetleman and Voltaria and when we’re together we’re unstoppable. We even tried to make our own suits but eventually, the helmets got too small.
“We were best buds,” she said.
Life without their brother has been something Deborah, pregnant with the couple’s seventh child, and Luke have been helping their kids – aged 12, 8, 7, 5, and 2 – cope with.
“They do have their moments, especially when they quieten down and it’s bedtime, all the questions come out and we talk through them,” Deborah said.
Luke praised their youngest for unknowingly soothing some of their pain.
“Theo helps a lot. He doesn’t let you grieve,” he said with an appreciative chuckle.
“Sometimes you feel like you need a moment and he’s like nope, come do this with me,” Deborah added.
Not only does the continued light and laughter of their children buoy the couple but so does their faith.
“I think for us a big comforting factor is that we’re a Christian family. We do believe we will see him again and we do believe that he’s in a better place now,” Deborah said.
The Halfords have been blown away by the outpouring of kindness from all corners of the country.
Close friends were quick to rally around and organise at least a month’s worth of meals plus a Givealittle page, which has since raised close to $30,000.
Maungatapere School, where the older Halford kids went before being homeschooled this year, held a movie night fundraiser for the family and flew their flag at half-mast the day of Declan’s funeral.
“The support has been incredible,” Deborah said.
“Nothing is really going to take the pain away but it’s made the day-to-day things really manageable.”
Having food readily made at the end of the day when the couple was emotionally worn out has been “amazing”.
So were the random messages left in the couple’s letterbox by strangers, whose “hearts had been touched” by the family’s experience.
“It’s knowing that people are there and thinking of you and being supportive that makes a big difference,” Deborah said. “You don’t feel quite as alone in the situation.”
Also staving off the loneliness are the imprints Declan has left behind.
His personality lights up the screen in the family’s YouTube vlog, kept up until just under a year ago when they decided to hit pause.
Declan can be seen carrying out his morning chores on screen as part of the insights shared into the Halfords’ self-sustainable lifestyle surrounded by goats, pigs, goslings, and chickens on their 4ha block.
“[…] just being able to go back into the videos and see him on there is invaluable,” Deborah explained.
Luke said through laughter that even though Declan made out he didn’t enjoy the videos he had begun to make his own “way off what the channel is about”.
His homemade clips were full of interesting facts and the kind of adventures kids dream up.
And definitely not the garden like in Luke’s videos.
“Declan was not fond of the garden at all,” Deborah said. “He would seldom do work in the garden because he’d be so busy looking for worms or rare endangered skinks.”
Or the weird plants that nobody had heard of before.
“He was excited about starting a food forest though,” Luke said.
And the family plan to complete the forest in Declan’s honour with all the weird plants he would’ve liked, Deborah said.
Sugarcane and Inga beans – also known as icecream beans – were on the list.
“He also wanted miracle berries,” Adina said.
Berries that made sweet taste sour and sour taste sweet.
Deborah said the couple had previously been mulling over a move to the South Island, closer to Luke’s family, but the idea was thwarted by Declan who declared the family was never moving.
“I think that decision has been made for us now. I don’t think you could move because then essentially I’d feel like we’re leaving him behind.
“I guess I just want to take what we’ve got left and this is where I feel closest to him,” she said.
“It’s been hard but the way we see it, for now, no matter what you’re always going to see him in everything and for now it hurts but at some point it’s going to be comforting because, like I said, you’ll see him in everything.”
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The crash was reported to emergency services at 8.32am.