The light from the streetlamp glowed through the windshield onto my girlfriend, Toni, 20.I was 21 and had driven her home after our date, but we weren't ready to say goodbye yet.
"I love you," I confessed for the first time.
A smile spread across Toni's face.
"I love you too."
We'd been going out for six months, after meeting at a university ball.I was studying engineering, and she was was doing a commerce degree, but we both wanted the same things – to live simple, happy lives and help others.
After three years, we bought a unit and moved in together.
We talked about marriage and the two children we dreamt of having.After five years together we went on holidays to Clare Valley, SA.
My heart thudded as we walked to a lookout, a diamond engagement ring bulging in my pocket.
"Do you want to change your last name?" I asked.
I tried to be charming but it sounded awkward and anxious.
Still, Toni grinned and kissed me.
"Of course," she beamed.
She threw herself into planning our wedding, working so hard she ended up with a headache most days.
In her white silk gown, with a veil flowing behind her, Toni was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen.
When I said our traditional vows, I choked back tears.
For our honeymoon we travelled to Japan.
With the wedding finished, Toni was more relaxed.
But on our third night, she rolled over in bed and groaned.
"This headache is killing me," she muttered.
She took a painkiller and, thankfully, it went away the next morning.
Four months after the wedding, Toni was working as a high school teacher when her vision disappeared for a few seconds.
In a panic, she went to the doctor.
A few hours later, she called me.
"I had a CT scan," she explained.
My mind was racing when I drove to the hospital.
Surely it wouldn't be anything serious.
But the neurosurgeon looked grave when we sat down in her office.
"You have a white mass in your brain," she explained, pointing out the tennis ball-sized shape.
"It might be a tumour."
Toni and I held each other as we burst into tears.
How could this happen?
Toni was booked in for surgery to have as much of the mass removed as possible before docs tested what it was.
I was a wreck while we waited for her to be wheeled into surgery.
I didn't know how to cope but she was incredibly brave.
"I'll see you soon," she smiled as the surgeon took her away.
The surgery was a success, with 80 per cent of the mass removed.
But when the results came back, Toni's doctor looked sad.
"It was a tumour," she confirmed. "You have a rare type of brain cancer, anaplastic astrocytoma. It's stage-three."
Toni only had three years left.
Before I broke down, I took a deep breath.
My wife was young and fit.
Toni started chemotherapy and radiation together to target the cancer more effectively.
We knew it wasn't a cure but with some luck it'd buy us more time.
Every three months, Toni had a CT scan to check whether the tumour had changed.
"Let's do something to celebrate every time you get a good result," I suggested.
Thankfully, the first scan showed the tumour had shrunk.
Excited, Toni gripped my hand.
"If kids aren't in our future anymore, can we buy a dog?" she smiled.
How could I say no?
We headed to a pet shop and bought a fluffy Bichon Frise named Zoe.
Through the nausea and fatigue, Zoe kept Toni happy.
Over the next five years, Toni defied the docs with great scans and we kept celebrating.
We went out to fancy restaurants, saw musicals and travelled to Singapore, France and Tahiti.
We'd just gotten back from a holiday in New Zealand when Toni went for another scan."It doesn't look good," the doc frowned.
The tumour had grown in an area that would affect Toni's speech.
If she didn't have surgery, she'd lose the ability to talk.
I was devastated but Toni maintained her sunny disposition as she went under the knife again.
The op was a great success and Toni's cancer was even downgraded to stage two.
But just nine months later, she got another bad scan.
"The drugs just aren't working anymore," the doc explained sadly. "There's nothing more we can do."
I cradled Toni against my body as we broke down in sobs.
She'd fought so hard, I really believed she'd beat the odds.
Docs arranged for palliative carers to visit our home.
I was overwhelmed, but it was a world away from what I expected.
Toni started music therapy, with a carer named Annaliese.
I'd walk Zoe then come home to the sound of Toni laughing as she strummed a guitar or played the keyboard.
We also had sessions with a counsellor, Maria, who helped us talk through our fears and plan Toni's death.
I wasn't ready to accept life without her.
But as always, Toni ploughed through the difficult moments bravely.
"I want you to find love again," she choked. "Your life doesn't end when mine does."
Tears fell from my eyes as I nodded.
We even planned her funeral.
It was just like when she planned our wedding, with a scrapbook full of spreadsheets and leaflets.
It broke my heart.
Three weeks after Toni picked out her cemetery plot, her health declined.
She could barely talk and her body was weaker than ever.
Hopping into bed that night, Toni grabbed my hand tightly.
"I love you," she rasped.
The look in her eyes scared me.
"You'll be fine," I soothed before cuddling up beside her.
When I woke the next morning, her body was cold and still.
She looked so peaceful it was hard to believe she was really gone.I was a mess but I tried to stay positive.
Doctors had predicted Toni would only have three years left but she held on for seven.
It hadn't all been smooth sailing but Toni and I had celebrated every milestone.
In those seven years, my wife had really lived.
With the funeral already planned, I focused on writing a eulogy.
At the ceremony, I read out a card Toni had written me, just after her diagnosis.
"I'm so happy I met you," I recited. "I'm excited to live our lives together."
It was typical of Toni to focus on the positives when she had so much to worry about.
Now two years have passed and, although I'll always miss Toni, I'm thankful for the conversations we had before she died, and all the assistance we received form palliative care.
Nothing was left unsaid and I've done everything she asked me to.
Toni still inspires me to be the best person I can be and she always will.
- BooksThe best, beach-ready motivational books on the shelves right now
Now To LoveToday 5:00pm