Ballymena widower Richard Hood on the festive season without his wife
Just over a year ago, Ballymena farmer Richard Hood’s wife Hazel lost her battle with breast cancer. Now, he and daughters Rebekah and Megan are sending a special message to mummy.
Christmas time is now a bittersweet experience for Richard Hood ... but it wasn't always like that. Once, as for most of us, it was a time of family gatherings, of happiness shared and a promise of a bright future with his beloved family.
This year, however, the 38-year-old will be spending his second festive season without his wife Hazel.
Hazel died from cancer in September 2013, at the age of 34, leaving the Ballymena farmer to bring up their two daughters, Rebekah (5) and Megan (2), on his own.
While many who have suffered such a cruel bereavement might find themselves falling into despondency or despair, though, Richard will be remembering Hazel in a special way this year by taking part in the Friends of the Cancer Centre's Wish Upon a Star Appeal, and says his beloved wife is seldom far from his thoughts.
"I miss Hazel every second of every day," he says. "Putting a star on the tree in the Cancer Centre where Hazel spent her last days - and then one on our tree at home - is an extra special way of remembering her, particularly at this time of year and especially for the girls. They can see the star and think of their mummy who they miss dearly as well."
The discovery that Hazel was unwell was both unexpected and shocking, all the moreso, as it came just days after an occassion of great joy, the birth of the couple's second daughter.
"She was in hospital having Megan and she was due to be discharged," he recalls. "She had noticed a small lump on her breast which she mentioned to one of the nurses, who said they would get the doctors to examine Hazel.
"We were called back a few days later to the cancer centre in Belfast City Hospital, where Hazel had a mammogram and a biopsy. I remember sitting in the waiting room and it being full and, slowly, one by one, it started to empty and we were still having to wait, so we started to think it wasn't going to be good news. Then, when we were led away to a separate private room, we just looked at each other, as we knew. We were devastated when we were eventually told that it was breast cancer."
The stress and trauma the couple felt following the diagnosis nonetheless had to be balanced with the demands of looking after their new baby daughter, as well as a toddler. Richard recalls how brave and selfless Hazel was when it came to coping.
"She just got on with looking after the children - that came first and she seldom talked about her illness."
However, there was no hiding from the reality of Hazel's diagnosis and further tests delivered the blow that the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, breast bone and hip.
"Each appointment brought more bad news but Hazel never once complained," he says. "She was the bravest, strongest person I knew. Throughout the year and a half that she battled the disease, she never once lost her sense of humour and her amazing faith just kept her going and her spirits up.
"She lost her hair as a result of treatment and I remember at times she would have hot flushes and just throw her wig off, no matter where she was. One time she did it at the traffic lights - she just flung it onto the dashboard to strange looks from the other drivers around her.
Richard also recalls how Hazel's physical appearance often belied the disease which was slowly taking her away from him.
"Hazel always looked really well despite what was going on inside her body, but she never shied away from telling people she had cancer. If they complimented her hair, she would tell them simply that it was a wig and she had breast cancer. She was very open about it.
"People used to say she was the best-looking sick person they knew, as she always managed to look well no matter how rough she was feeling inside," he says.
"She always had a way of cheering people up. The minister would visit regularly and people would ask, 'Was it not really tough?' but he used to say he always felt better after spending time with Hazel. Her faith just shone through like a star, which is why this appeal is so important and special to me."
Of course, the couple clung to the hope that Hazel would beat the disease but those prospects were further dashed when tests revealed the cancer was aggressive.
"It was the news we had been dreading," says Richard. "The cancer had spread to her spine, her liver, lungs and brain. She fought on and after every diagnosis somehow picked herself up and made the family her priority. The girls were her world.
When we realised her life was limited, we would talk about the girls growing up without her. Somehow we always imagined there would be plenty of time to talk."
Naturally, the prospect of Richard having to balance the demands of keeping a farm going with being a full-time dad also weighed heavily on the couple's minds. "As a farmer I work long hours and Hazel was worried about how I would cope on my own, bringing up the girls and working the farm," he says.
"I promised her the girls would always come first and I have kept to that.
"I have completely changed my priorities and I am home every night to put them to bed and there every morning when they get up. I have great support from family and friends who help with the girls and I have also got three people who help me out part-time."
As the final weeks and days of Hazel's life approached, the ordeal that she had been going through with her cancer became more and more clear to those around her.
"Looking back, I didn't realise just how ill Hazel was or how much pain she was in until I took her to the cancer centre that September," says Richard.
"They made her comfortable but she was drifting in and out of consciousness and I realised she wasn't coming home.
"I brought the girls down to the hospital on the Thursday night to say goodbye to her and she passed away peacefully over the weekend.
"No one could believe how peaceful it was at the end, but Hazel's faith carried her through and it was there at the end when she needed it. In fact, a friend was driving down to see her and started singing a particular hymn in the car. Hazel was coming in and out of consciousness and had been trying to tell us something. When her friend arrived Hazel just looked at her and said 'She will know' and we realised that she was trying to tell us the hymn she wanted at her funeral, which was the one her friend had been singing."
Richard says he doesn't know how the family would have coped during Hazel's illness and in the times after without the support of his and her families.
"My parents and Hazel's mum and dad and sisters have been amazing and really helped me with the girls," he says.
"Hazel loved Christmas time and our home used to be decorated like Santa's grotto.
"Last Christmas was very tough without her and this year will be hard too, but I have decorated the tree and am determined to carry on her traditions as I know it is what Hazel would have wanted.
"I need to be strong for the girls. They are so young and excited about Christmas, but they do talk about their mummy every day.
"Even when she was really sick, she insisted on taking the girls into Ballymena to see the Christmas lights being turned on. She was always determined that nothing would stop her from making precious memories with the girls.
"This is why I wanted to take part in the Wish Upon a Star appeal as I think it is something Hazel would have wanted and it is a special way to remember her. There is a star on the tree in the centre where she was so well looked after by all the doctors and nurses and where we said goodbye to her. And we have a star on the top of the tree. It's like she is still shining bright looking out for all of us still. Hazel was so brave and I hope the appeal will encourage others to have faith and to keep on fighting.
"Life is very different for me and the girls and Christmas will be tough without their mummy, but we cope because our faith is strong and we believe Hazel is in heaven looking down on us."
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Friends of the Cancer Centre is calling on others to join Richard and his family by adding their wishes to the Cancer Centre's Christmas tree.
Colleen Shaw (right), chief executive of the centre, says: "Unfortunately cancer doesn't take a break for Christmas and many people will be facing a difficult time in the coming weeks.
"Thousands of patients, families and carers across Northern Ireland will be trying to have a normal Christmas in the midst of ongoing treatment, hospital visits, as well as many people who will be celebrating Christmas without a loved one.
"The Wish Upon a Star appeal is our way of bringing Christmas right into the heart of the cancer centre and giving people the opportunity to mark this time of year in a unique and special way. Each star will be cherished as it will represent something, or someone, very special."
Stars are available for a donation of £5 and can be purchased directly from the Friends of the Cancer Centre office. For more information, tel: 028 9069 9393