Real Life

Two pen pals, 45 years later: How two women on opposite sides of the world reunited decades after their last letter

Sisters from a distance.

By Mitchell Jordan

Gayel Child, 63, from Feilding, New Zealand, shares her surprising story:

I was home with my two young kids, Gerard and Robyn, when my mind started to wander.
I was reflecting on my past and couldn't help but think: Whatever happened to Kathy?
Kathy lived in a tiny Canadian town and she had been my pen pal for five years.
As a 13-year-old girl growing up in New Zealand, I was curious to learn more about the world and Kathy's letters certainly showed me how different life could be in another country.
I was one of eight kids and lived in the city, and she lived in the country with her three siblings.
It took three weeks for our letters to reach each other, but I lived for the missives she posted me.
When I was 18, the letters had petered out and we lost contact.
I'd gone on to marry my husband, Paul, and start a family but the more I thought about it, the more I missed news of Kathy's adventures.
Gayel in 1970, when she was writing to Kathy. (Image: supplied)
I decided to write to Kathy and knowing that her parents lived in such a small town, I addressed the letter to them and hoped for the best.
Three weeks later, my heart leapt when I got an envelope postmarked from Canada.
I recognised your handwriting straightaway, Kathy wrote to me.
It turned out that, like me, she'd also married but after a diagnosis of Hodgkin's lymphoma and the treatment, she was unable to have children.
Her job as a nurse kept her busy and she enjoyed helping others.
Realising how quickly life could change, I vowed to keep writing to her no matter what.
Her letters soon became a highlight for me, giving me the same excitement I'd felt as a 13-year-old.
"It's a shame she's so far away," I sighed to Paul, who knew how much this friendship meant to me.
One day, when Paul was using the chainsaw to cut some wood, a splinter flew into the centre of my right eye and I lost my sight immediately.
Paul felt terrible and while it was a huge blow for me, I tried to carry on as best I could.
Soon, that eye shrank so much I needed an artificial one and received financial compensation as a result of the accident in our yard.
"Gayel, you need to use the money to do something for yourself," Paul urged, knowing the impact it had had on me.
"Maybe I should use it to meet Kathy," I joked, thinking it was too much a stretch to ever really happen.
Kathy (right) and Gayel meeting for the first time. (Image: supplied)
I expected Paul to laugh along, but he was all for it.
"That's exactly what you should do," he insisted.
So I left Paul and the kids to travel 30 hours on five flights to reach her.
Of course I was nervous: we'd poured our hearts out to one another for decades but had never actually met face-to-face.
My nerves disappeared the moment I stepped off the plane and spotted Kathy with her mother, Mary, sister, Lisa, aunt, Hilda, and good friend Kathryn, all waiting for me.
"I'm finally here!" I choked as we hugged each other in tears.
For the next 10 days, Kathy showed me the sights of Canada.
As we said goodbye, I knew this wouldn't be the last time we saw each other.
"I'd love to bring my family over to meet you," I said.
And, two years later, that's exactly what we did.
Gayel and her husband Paul. (Image: supplied)
My family and Kathy's got along so well that it felt like we had one great big extended clan, despite the geographical distance between us.
When email came along we could communicate even faster than before.
Kathy and I were now closer than ever but tragedy struck when my son, Gerard, died in an aircraft accident.
I was bereft and turned to Kathy for support.
Phone calls were expensive, and there was a considerable time difference, but she emailed me every morning.
Just letting you know, I'm with you in spirit, she wrote.
And when my daughter Robyn was overseas, she flew to Canada especially to see Kathy, who she spent Christmas with.
I hoped I'd get a chance to return, too.
Kathy was a monumental support to Gayel. (Image: supplied)
But just as things started to improve, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
As an oncology nurse, Kathy's support was invaluable to me and I eventually got the all-clear.
So when my 50th birthday approached, I knew I had to do something special.
"Let's celebrate together," I suggested to Kathy.
I flew to Canada and we brought in the big five-o in each other's company.
Over the decades, I've come to realise that Kathy is more than a pen pal: she's my best friend and sister.
So when I saw Take 5's Best Friend competition, I had to nominate her.
Pen pals aren't so common these days and we tend to use email and phone to stay in touch.
But I'll never forget the magic all that mail brought to me in the shape of my best friend, Kathy.
The pair remain good friends. (Image: supplied)

Kathy tells Take 5:

Our friendship is one in a million. We have seen each other through some really tough times and have been able to do it from thousands of miles apart. Even if we don't get to see each other again face to face, our friendship will endure.

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