Last week I wrote about Mother Christmas aka my wife. How she had prepped for the Big Day with the kind of enthusiasm that would put a Kirstie Allsop-Martha Stewart hybrid to shame.
By midweek last week, everything was wrapped and labelled, ribboned and ready. There was literally nothing left to do other than trim the sprouts, parboil the potatoes and stuff the turkey – all of which could wait until Christmas Eve.
So last Thursday, we cracked open a bottle of Prosecco and relaxed, smug in the knowledge that Mother Christmas's get-ahead nature would leave us to enjoy the festivities sans stress (at least until the Christmas morning orgy of present-unwrapping).
But then a phone call changed everything – and unleashed a chain of events to rival the plot of a soap opera. It was from my mother-in-law.
"How's things?" I asked. "Looking forward to Christmas?"
It is our tradition to spend Christmas Day at home, behind locked doors with our children, and then hit the road after Boxing Day to visit first my dad (aged 76), then to spend New Year with my wife's parents (mum: 78; dad: 86).
"See you on the 27th. I'll hand you over to your daughter," I signed off.
As I passed the phone to my wife, her eyes were quizzical. Her mum never called after 9pm. It was 9.05. "Hi, Mum, what's up?" I heard her ask.
And then her face started to crumble, and then dissolve. Tears were streaking down her face as she held her hand to her mouth and nodded at whatever was being said at the other end of the line. Ten minutes later, she put the phone down and looked at me.
"She's got cancer. Breast cancer. Aggressive breast cancer. She's having an emergency mastectomy tomorrow. I'm going up first thing."
The next morning – Friday – she packed, called work to say she wasn't going to be in, then left.
"I don't know how long this is going to be for," she said.
"I know," I nodded. "I'll hold the fort."
Mercifully, the 300-mile journey was relatively trouble-free and took just under five hours. My wife was at her mum's bedside a couple of hours after she came out of surgery. She was sitting upright, matter-of-fact, stoic.
"What are you doing here?" she said to my wife. "It's your daughter's birthday on Sunday! That's where you should be."
Indeed it was. Her 12th birthday, but that wasn't the priority right now. The consultant arrived to deliver the prognosis – and it was a good one.
"I got it all," he said, referring to the cancer. "I took the lymph node too, so as far as I'm concerned, you can go home on Sunday!"
This stunning news felt like a Christmas Miracle. My wife had raced to her mum's bedside fearing the worst, but now she was told her strong, stubborn, stoic mother was in the clear. She'd have to go back for follow-up checks on December 30, but she'd be home for Christmas. Phew!
My wife visited her in hospital again the next day.
"She looks better than before she went in," she quipped.
And later that afternoon, my wife was back on the road to arrive back on Saturday night, get a good night's rest, then lay on the works for her daughter's birthday. As happy ever afters go, that should have been one.
But the season of stress wasn't done with yet. For after arriving home from hospital on Sunday, my mother-in-law started having excruciating pains just below her ribs. The agony was so unbearable she had to call an ambulance.
And once again, she found herself in hospital for another emergency operation – for a twisted bowel. Nothing to do with the breast cancer. Just a coincidence. A very unfortunate one.
My wife received the call as she was going to work on Monday. I waved her off down the street, as one of the worst storms of the winter was blowing in, then saw her stop, put her phone to her ear, then slowly turn back around and traipse back up the path.
She took her unpacked suitcase from the hallway, grabbed the car keys and after explaining with wobbly words what had happened, she declared: "This time I won't be back for Christmas for real."
"I know," I said. "I'll hold the fort."
As she left, my mind raced back to three years ago when my own mother died, on December 21.
I'd been to my brother's wedding two days earlier, then travelled back to London from Manchester to prepare for Christmas with my wife and children.
And then the phone rang. My wife answered. It was my youngest brother. My youngest brother had never phoned me in his life.
He could hardly get the words from the back of his throat. "She's...she's...gone." He was almost choking on the sentence. "Mam's dead."
She'd passed away mercifully peacefully. My dad had been with her just half an hour earlier. He said her breathing had been laboured, like she'd had enough of the struggle of battling with Alzheimer's for five, long, horrible years.
I prayed that my wife wouldn't have to go through the desolation I felt then, prayed that her mum would be OK.
By Monday evening, my mother-in-law was coming around from her operation. A section of her bowel had been removed, and then the ends re-attached. A grisly procedure and incredibly traumatic, especially for somebody pushing 80, and double especially for somebody pushing 80 who, a couple of days earlier had had a breast and lymph gland removed.
It was a full-blown Christmas crisis. Our plans to visit Grandma and Grandpa were cancelled while my wife and her sister (who had arrived with her husband and two teenage children) coordinated how to care for their elderly dad – who suffers from diabetes, arthritis, cataracts and deafness – as well as visiting their mum in hospital.
But for all of that, I was determined that my boys would still have a Christmas to remember. It was what their mum would have wanted, it was what their grandma would have wanted.
Fortunately, my sons' sister – my stepdaughter – had gone to her dad's the day before (we take it in turns: one year she spends her Christmas and birthday with us; the next year, the next year, with her dad and his family!).
So on the night before Christmas, I tucked the boys into bed nice and early, hung pillowcases at the end of their beds, kissed them goodnight, and told them we were going to have the best Christmas ever: an all-boys' Christmas.
As I waited for them to settle, I texted my wife, who was with her mum at hospital.
"Miss you, Mummy," I wrote, as if from her boys.
A few minutes later, she rang.
"I'm coming home," she said. "The hospital are taking care of Mum. My sister and her husband can handle my dad."
And so Mother Christmas drove down the motorway for another five hours on yet another filthy night to arrive home at midnight and put the final touches to the presents under the tree.
Then at 7am the next morning, when our boys burst into our bedroom, clutching pillowcases, stuffed with presents, and yelling, 'HE'S BEEN! HE'S BEEN!', their little jaws dropped when they saw the best Christmas present of all: their mum.
Footnote: My wife returned to her own mum's bedside on Boxing Day and will be up there for the foreseeable future, but all the signs are that she will make a full recovery. And, despite the circumstances, we will always remember 2013 as one of the best Christmases ever – because Mother Christmas made it so.
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