The way Ryle O'Leary looks at his mother Lisa is not the way most teenage boys look - or glance - at their mothers.
He's taking in the details of her face, searching her eyes. He's really seeing her. Remembering her.
Ryle, 18, a marine mechanic, was at work the day he found out his mother was dying. He knew she had an important medical appointment that day and called, demanding to know what the doctor had said. He sat alone in his car for an hour afterwards.
It has been 16 months since Lisa, 41, of Warilla, visited her optometrist to see whether her eyes could be to blame for the blurred vision and headaches she was suffering.
The long-serving Woolworths Stoney Range staffer was immediately referred to hospital where she underwent emergency surgery to remove a large tumour from behind her right eye.
She was diagnosed with Stage 3 glioma, a malignant and aggressive form of brain cancer. She underwent 33 sessions of radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Then a scan showed a new tumour had appeared in the space left by the old one.
Lisa endured another July 2023 surgery before she was forced to terminate two further courses of chemotherapy after the treatment badly depleted her red blood cells, making it too dangerous to continue.
Her husband Dan O'Leary feared she had suffered a stroke when her face started to droop and she became unsteady on her feet. But a January MRI revealed it was the tumour at work again, causing swelling on her brain.
Dan was devastated but not surprised late last month when Lisa's doctor told them she had 6-12 months left to live. But Lisa wasn't expecting quite such a dire outlook. The couple agree the worst part was telling their 14-year-old daughter, Amber.
"I didn't think it would be that quick," Lisa told the Mercury.
"We had to tell Amber. She just sat on the lounge and shook her head, then she started bawling.
"I'm not really scared of dying, it's more the fear of leaving my family behind."
Confronted with their worse fear, Lisa and Dan immediately booked a family holiday in Eden - a glorious six days spent in the water, playing trivia, making memories and adding to Lisa's bucket list. This is what it includes so far:
- A meal at Debutante in Wollongong for Valentine's Day
- Glamping at Huskisson (a return visit)
- A cruise - "I've never been on one before. I don't care where"
- A stay at Bewong River Retreat
- Eating at the restaurant of someone famous
- Family picnics at the beach, with cheese platters and no sitting on the sand
Generous friends and strangers have poured almost $18,000 into a gofundme account set up less than two weeks ago to support the O'Learys. But friends say more is needed to give the family the experiences and financial breathing space they deserve.
Dan was 17 when he met Lisa, 16, at the Lake Illawarra PCYC. He walked to a payphone near his Oak Flats home so his family wouldn't hear him as he plucked up the courage to ask her out.
At Lisa's Warilla home, long before anyone had a mobile phone, she sat on the floor with the receiver at her ear while her family listened in for her answer.
"She said yes, and we've been together every since," said Dan.
"They've cut her open twice now. It's devastating. And yet she's been so strong all the way through it. I tease her all the time because she has these brain surgeries, massive pain, and gets through it like a trooper, then I'll push her arm lightly and she'll say 'ow, that hurts!'."
Photos on the walls of the family home show a young Dan and Lisa cuddling, and on their wedding day.
Ryle is small in lots of the pictures. His eyes were uncomplicated then.
Grown now, he doesn't stop to think before he answers, when asked what sort of mum his is.
"She's the best," he says.
Visit the gofundme page to support the O'Learys.