FALLING through a balcony and breaking her back wasn't Sam Bloom's worst day. Nor was it when a young doctor told her - with a scoff - that of course she'd never walk again. No, her worst day was returning to her home on Sydney's northern beaches, husband and sons for the first time after the accident.
That was when the former nurse realised her life had changed, irreparably.
No taste or sense of smell. No use of her torso or legs. No more mountain biking or surfing - life-long passions. Adventuring and hiking - ditto, with intrepid adventures through Africa, the Middle East and Europe under her belt. Constant physical pain; feelings of despair and guilt.
Now, she realised, she couldn't even be the mum she always wanted to be.
You've probably heard the story, via the Bloom family's two books - Penguin Bloom and Heartache and Birdsong, or Naomi Watts' just-released film (she plays Sam).
But here it is again: seven years ago, on holiday in Thailand, Sam fell six metres backwards over a faulty balcony railing and broke her back at T6 and T7 (chest down). She also fractured her skull and her lung collapsed. Her photographer husband Cam and sons Reuben, Noah and Oliver thought she would die. Then an injured - but plucky - baby magpie waddled into their lives, and looking after her healed them all. But especially Sam, who was motivated to invest more energy into her own physical recovery.
Cam started an Instagram account sharing quirky photos of Penguin the magpie with the boys and - very occasionally - Sam. These were seen by media, then book publishers, then Watts's production company picked the story up.
At a movie screening last week, I saw Cam leave his seat in the middle of the theatre to go and kneel beside Sam, his head in her lap. Raw, harrowing scenes were playing out on the big screen; difficult to watch as a bystander, let alone the protagonists, I imagine.
One tragic scene in the movie, and their shared life, is when Oliver - then just 7 - gets sick in the middle of the night and cries for Cam, as Sam, a former nurse, used to doing most of the family caregiving, lies in bed, stuck and straining to hear what's going on.
This is the scene that gets Sam the most. "She's just crying and saying 'What am I if I'm not a mum?' and then when she says 'I hate this'. It's so awesome."
'Awesome.' Did you mean 'awful'?
"No, I loved it because it's so true! I do hate it so much and I love the fact that she said that!" she says.
"I just remember crying. I was overwhelmed with my new life. You feel like the worst mum because you can't be there for your kids. You feel guilty, you feel terrible."
IN OTHER NEWS:
Because there's so much love in their story, I wanted to interview Sam and Cam together, but it turns out tricky to get whole quotes. They finish one another's sentences and talk in a shorthand that comes with having hooked up when they were teenagers, when "spunky" surfer Cam frequented Sam's family bakery with his massive red glasses and his dog. After travelling the world together, they married when they were pregnant with eldest son Reuben.
Respect, humour, shared history, teamwork - it's all there in how they interact with one another.
"I think it is a love story," says Sam. "Cam has been there from the moment it happened. He's put all his energy and compassion into me. And to making it OK if I have those bad days."
Adds Cam: "I married my soul mate. I've never yelled at Sam. We've never had a fight."
When Sam spent seven months in Royal North Shore hospital after the accident, a friend asked Cam if he was going to "stick around", a question that shocked him to his core. Leaving hadn't occurred to him.
"It was just so fine to me," he says now. "If the kids and I can make Sam's life easier, we are all going to be better and stronger. It's not hard being kind and in love."
For the book, renowned author Bradley Trevor Greive interviewed Sam for countless hours over many months. For the film, Sam sent Naomi all of her deeply personal diaries. She has also allowed some friends and much of the production team to read them - but not Cam. "I didn't want Cam to read them and Cam didn't want to read them; they are so dark," she says. "It would make Cam so sad - because it was all about wishing that I'd died."
Is she still angry?
"Deep, deep down, I think I'll always be sad and angry - but I don't let it dominate my life," she says. "Sometimes I will have a really shit day and be so over it and really hate the world but I think that's normal."
She does an incredible job of containing it. She exudes light, and is fun to hang around - the type of person you want to be your friend. Cam describes her as a "rumbling volcano" but adds that she is never nasty.
"I'm not one to go around complaining. I don't go around screaming it, it's just in my head," she says. "I know when I'm so sad and angry, I bring everyone down. I just keep busy. If you're busy, you don't focus on all the negatives."
For the Northern Beaches Review cover shoot on a moody day at North Bilgola, Sam's childhood beach and one of her happy places, we all head into the surf. Sam is physically and emotionally weightless, on a board, her husband pushing her onto waves, and it's easy to think everything is fine.
But this is not a story of fists-in-the-air redemption. While science is advancing fast when it comes to spinal injuries, the Bloom's life - Sam's especially - still has a lot of darkness. She still wakes up every morning and thinks: oh, no. Still here.
"And what sucks is I'll have these dreams where I'm literally running along the beach, or just being me, the old me, and I wake up. They don't make me feel better, I feel worse," she says. "It's very funny because Cam will wake up sometimes and say he had a scary nightmare. My nightmare is actually when I wake up.
"I would never say I'm a better person because of this accident. It gets a bit easier. But I'm still in pain and I'm still in the chair, I can't get up."
But she no longer hides from school-mums and football teammates in the supermarket. "I used to be so embarrassed because I wasn't the same person," she says. "I used to be super active. I was pretty fast on the soccer field and now I'm in a frigging wheelchair. And also - and this sounds so vain - but it was body image. I've got no core so sometimes it looks like I'm pregnant. And I couldn't wear what I used to wear. Being active was who I was."
The many messages from people she has helped are getting her to a better place. Such as the lady who recently told her: You have fully saved my life. "She had depression and read my book," Sam says. "That makes it worthwhile, the fact that you've made someone's day a bit better."
Penguin Bloom - the odd little bird who saved a family - was the first to make Sam see beyond her despair. Then the books helped. Fame, too, they both admit - though they'll be happy to go back to their "boring" life. Rediscovering the water on new terms, winning kayak and surfing championships - she's now focused on a third world championship trophy in adaptive surfing, training at the gym five or six times a week.
She is more able to focus on the positives, such as the people in their lives - Gaye, the straight-shooting kayak coach, the hospital's sports and recreation officer who took her to wheelchair basketball and murder ball and planted a sporty seed, personal trainer Mandy Burlinson, everyone at Blackmores, who helped her achieve her competitive sports goals.
She's starting to taste stuff now, like chocolate. Her sense of smell Is coming back too, about 20 per cent. "I used to just eat because I was told to eat. I used to feel really bad because I'd go to people's houses for dinner and tell them it was really good when I couldn't really taste it." She laughs loud and long.
She is on the public speaking circuit - a huge achievement for a committed introvert more comfortable in the corners than the limelight. "I'm pretty shy but it's actually been quite fun. You come off and you are buzzing," she says.
The first time she did it, she thought she would throw up all over the audience. But she spoke about her journey, and then got to Antony: the friend she made on her intrepid solo travels through Africa. She'd cut her trip short after all her funds were stolen in Burkina Faso; a few weeks later he was killed by terrorists while washing up with the tour group in Uganda. Fighting tears, wanting desperately to leave the stage, she looked up. Everyone in the audience was crying. She doesn't tell that story anymore - but it showed her she had the capacity to move people, from her chair, and even effect change. And that she is alive. "It's so f-ing unfair and sad that he's not," she says now.
In the end, she says, she is "stoked" that she is getting to watch her boys, now 15, 17, 19, grow up. "I think we've been really lucky. They're good kids. They're nice, they're compassionate. I've always said I hope the kids grow up to be like Cam. It's so cheesy but it's true. Because he's a bloody nice guy."
HOW CAN YOU HELP?
Sam is one of 20,800 Australians living with a spinal cord injury. The total lifetime cost of spinal cord injuries in 2020 is estimated at $75.4 billion (about $3.7bn/year).
Besides donating 10 per cent of the book and movie proceeds SpinalCure Australia, Sam and Cam are hoping that it will raise awareness of what it's like living in a wheelchair.
"There's so much more to it than being stuck in a chair," says Sam. "It's physical but it's mental as well. It is anguishing. It can be soul destroying and devastating."
She adds: "I do really believe there will be a cure, I just think it will take some time. I want it now! It breaks my heart when I meet young people, like 17-year-olds. Because I found it hard and I was 41, I'd done everything I wanted to do."
To find out more or donate to the 'Sam Bloom for SpinalCure' research fund, see www.spinalcure.org.au/sam. 100 per cent of donated funds goes to research.