Missing an angel

Even if I never live to see it, please don't be sad for me this Christmas...

Published by: Sue Hardy & Amy Thompson
Published on: 11th January 2011

An angel on top of the Christmas tree sat neatly above twinkling fairy lights as I made a special wish. One day, I want to be Mrs David Hopper, I thought, squeezing my eyes shut and picturing my teenage crush.
I could see his gorgeous brown eyes and dark hair, the denim jacket he always wore as he strolled around school with his mates. I prayed that one day, he’d see me as someone special, too.
I was only 14 when I made that wish. Sadly, it didn’t come true.
In my 20s, I married someone else and had a little boy Nigel, followed eight years later by Jordan after I’d divorced. But my relationships with their dads didn’t work out and, by the time Jordan was two, I was a single mum.
Now, though, as I added the finishing touches to my Christmas tree, guess who was by my side…only Dave Hopper! I’d never dreamed we’d be reunited, but 20 years after I’d made that wish, a friend had given me his number and we’d gone on a date. Dave had two sons of his own and was divorced, too. We’d hit it off right away.
Within a few months, we’d even spoken about marriage, but decided to wait until Dave had paid off his mortgage. After all, we’d both been married before and, with all that time to save, we’d have a day to remember. ‘In 13 years’ time, I’ll own the house and we can have a really special day,’ Dave said, as we’d snuggled on the sofa one night.
‘We could go abroad, get married on some exotic beach,’ I’d agreed, dreamily. This year would be our sixth Christmas together.
‘It’s not even December yet, and you’re decorating the tree and wrapping presents already,’ Dave said, passing me a roll of tape as I bustled about.
‘I want it to be done for when we get back off holiday,’ I smiled. ‘Don’t want the boys peeking at their presents while we’re away.’
‘You should be relaxing,’ he sighed, hugging me.
‘And I will,’ I smiled. ‘As soon as this is done and we’re in Lanzarote.’
Our two-week holiday couldn’t come a minute too soon.
Although our relationship had gone from strength to strength, the last few years had been awful.
I’d started bleeding between periods, and had been constantly back and forth to my doctor for tests. But each time, the results had come back normal – until my last visit. They’d found abnormal cells in my cervix, and had to do a cone biopsy to remove them.
That was six weeks ago and, thankfully, I hadn’t heard anything more from the hospital. I couldn’t wait to get away and enjoy myself.
While the boys stayed with friends, me and Dave boarded a plane on December 2, a week before my 40th birthday.
Lazing by the pool, sipping cocktails and soaking up the sun, I realised how in need of a break I was. All those tests, being prodded and poked, having to go into hospital… Finally, it was over.
By the end of our holiday, I was refreshed and ready to throw myself into a traditional hectic Christmas, rustling up a roast turkey with all the trimmings.
Before I could get into the festive spirit, though, I had a pile of letters to go through at home. ‘Gas bill, electricity, phone…’ I stopped. ‘There are two here from the hospital,’ I told Dave, anxiously ripping the envelopes.
‘What do they say?’ he frowned.
‘I’ve missed two appointments with my consultant!’ I replied, rushing to call the hospital. ‘They say it’s urgent.’
My heart thudded as I spoke to the receptionist, who asked me to come in right away. Dave drove me to hospital. ‘I’m afraid the results of your biopsy showed the cells in your cervix are on the verge of becoming cancerous,’ my consultant explained. ‘We can either do another cone biopsy, or perform a hysterectomy. It’s entirely up to you.’
I stared at him, stunned. My mum Lillian had died aged 57 from lymph node cancer. I wasn’t about to take any risks. ‘I’ll have the hysterectomy,’ I said, firmly.
Because Christmas was only a week away, they decided to wait until just after New Year. Some festive season!
Afterwards, I was given 25 sessions of radiotherapy to make sure they’d got it all. It made me feel sick and tired, but I couldn’t complain – not if it had saved my life.
‘We’re 99 per cent sure you’re free of cancer,’ my consultant smiled. ‘We’ll check you every six months, though.’
Thankfully, four years flew by without any problems. No more tummy pains or swelling, no more bleeding… no more cancer.
The boys grew into strapping young lads, and I felt better than ever. ‘Only two more years until we tie the knot,’ I said to Dave.
I’d already had to retire from my job at a school because of a back problem, and me and Dave couldn’t wait until he could retire from the council, too. ‘We’ll be one of those little old married couples touring the world in a motorhome one day,’ he chuckled.
‘We’ll have to come back for Christmas every year, though,’ I smiled. ‘So I can still cook dinner for the family, have the grandkids round.’ Okay, being a grandma would be a while off yet, but it was nice to think about the future.
Then I felt a familiar pain in my stomach… A trip to the hospital confirmed the cancer had returned. ‘There are two tumours the size of tennis balls in your pelvis and bowel,’ I was told.
Well, I’d got through this once, I could do it
again… I was given a course of chemotherapy and, at first, it seemed to do the trick.
But after six sessions and losing my hair, the tumours stopped shrinking.‘There’s a second type of chemo we can try,’ said my consultant. ‘But it’s expensive. We’ll have to apply to the Primary Care Trust to see if they’ll fund it.’
In the meantime, it was Christmas again. ‘Why do things always seem to go wrong at this time of year?’ I said tearfully to Dave.
‘It’ll be fine,’ he soothed. ‘We’re going to visit your sisters soon, a nice break’s just what you need.’
That was true, we were planning to first visit my sister Denise, 49, in France. Then we were heading over to spend New Year with our other sister Karen in Germany.
For at least a couple of weeks, I was determined to push the cancer to the back of my mind.
‘Look at you!’ Denise beamed, hugging me as soon as we arrived. ‘Your hair looks fantastic!’
‘It’s a wig,’ I laughed. ‘My real hair hasn’t grown back yet.’
‘Well, you look beautiful,’ she smiled. ‘I’m so glad you’re here.’
We had a great time celebrating. And when it snowed on Boxing Day, I was thrilled.
‘Last one out’s a rotten egg,’ I yelled, racing into the garden.
‘Hang on, Mum,’ Jordan shouted, running out with Denise, Dave and Nigel. Too late! I was already flat on my back making snow angels.
‘What are you like?’ Denise giggled, taking a photo of me.
‘Remember when we used to do this as kids?’ I beamed, arms and legs still flapping up and down.
‘How could I forget?’ she smiled back.
‘I wish Karen, Stephen and Richard could be here, too,’ I said, thinking about my other sister and two brothers.
The two lads lived in Amsterdam, and the five of us hadn’t spent a Christmas together in 20 years.
New Year with Karen was just as magical as Yuletide had been with Denise. We had dinner in an amazing restaurant with dancers. I never wanted to leave. Problem was, I felt poorly again.
Back home, I was rushed to hospital with gall bladder and liver problems. Shortly after Christmas, I was given my second lot of chemo. Almost a year later, in October 2009, I had yet another MRI scan. ‘Well?’ I asked the doctor for my results.
He shook his head. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘The treatment didn’t work. There’s nothing we can do.’
All my dreams, all my plans, all the things I’d wanted to do with Dave and my kids came shattering down. I’d never watch my boys get married, never travel the world, or cook a Christmas dinner surrounded by my grandchildren…
Would I even be around to see Jordan’s 16th next year? Or congratulate him on his GCSE results? I broke down in Dave’s arms. He knew just what to say… ‘Marry me,’ he whispered. I burst into tears, hugging him.
The next six weeks were crammed with planning our big day. We chose the flowers, the music, the bridesmaids’ burgundy dresses. My sister Karen even let me borrow her wedding dress. I’d loved the ivory gown, but it’d never fit me before.
Trying it on now, I felt thrilled and terrified all at once. It looked gorgeous, was a perfect fit – but that was because I’d lost so much weight through being ill.
I couldn’t think about it for long, though. There was a surprise waiting for me on Christmas Day – all my siblings had come to celebrate the holiday! And they’d all be there for my wedding four days later, too. It was our first Christmas together in 22 years.
On December 29, my second Christmas wish came true as me and Dave exchanged vows at Hull register office. At our reception, I gave a speech. ‘As you know, this isn’t just a celebration of our marriage,’ I smiled.  The faces of friends and family smiled back at me – the people I loved, who loved me.
‘This is a celebration of my life,’ I said. ‘I probably won’t be here next Christmas. But I want you all to know how much I love you and thank you for coming. I never thought I’d be Mrs Hopper, but my wish came true at last.’
By the end, everyone was in tears. But as me and Dave danced our first dance as a married couple to Love Will Keep Us Alive by the Eagles, I was so happy.
Just weeks after the wedding, though, in January this year, I was too weak to be at home, and was admitted to a hospice.
So I made memory boxes for Nigel, 24, and Jordan, 15, and wrote a letter for Dave to read when I’m gone.
I never imagined that so soon after planning my wedding, I’d be planning my funeral. But I didn’t want my family to have to do it.
The year sped by – and my life with it – and now it’s Christmas again. Last Christmas was filled with joy and laughter, and I’ll never forget what a magical day it was.
My days are tinged with worry, though. Not because I fear death, but because I wonder what things will be like for my family this festive season. Chances are, I won’t be around to see it. Will they exchange presents? Have a big roast dinner together? Decorate the tree, and make wishes to the angel on top as I did all those years ago?
I hope so. Christmas will always be filled with memories for them, especially with my wedding anniversary just days afterwards.
My gorgeous husband and my boys are everything to me. And I hope when they see snow on the ground and hear Christmas carols, they won’t be sad I’m no longer there to share it with them. I want them to smile and remember that together they made all my wishes come true.
• Sadly, Irene passed away on October 23. It was her dying wish that this article went ahead, with the blessing of her family.
Irene Hopper, 46, Bransholme, Hull