Behind this festive photograph of Paul Watson and his young sons Mark and Euan is a story of remarkable courage, love and searing grief.
And a very special wife, mother and daughter whose life was cut short by cancer at the age of 34.
This Christmas is the second which Paul (35) and his children, from Co Antrim, will spend without their beloved Alison who died in September last year. She was the cornerstone of their young family, a woman who loved being a mum to her precious boys and delighted in every moment she spent with them.
Yet her tragic death has left a massive gap in their lives, and the lives of their family and friends. It is an experience which all too many families have suffered, a loss which somehow feels all the more raw at Christmas.
But despite the pain he has been through, Paul is helping to highlight the work of those who care for the terminally ill at the Northern Ireland Hospice where Alison spent several months.
“Everyone at the hospice was absolutely wonderful,” he says. “Not only did they care for Ali, they cared for me, the boys, and everyone who came to visit.
“I've been back a few times since Ali died to visit people, and it's not a sad place. Yes, the memories are very sad for us but the love and care at the hospice is just unbelievable. That's why I determined to do as much as I can to raise awareness and to help them out with fundraising.”
Paul, a community worker, and his sons will be helping to launch the hospice's Lights to Remember appeal next Thursday which aims to raise £210,000 for the continued care of patients and their families in the coming year.
The appeal focuses on a Christmas tree at the hospice's Somerton House base and the charity is asking people to sponsor a light on the tree in memory of a loved one. The hospice cares for 3,000 patients each year — each one a cherished relative or friend who inspires so many memories for those left behind.
Just like Alison, whose life shone brightly and touched all who knew her.
She and Paul met while they were both studying biology with environmental science at Aberdeen University in 1993. They quickly became best friends and by the end of their final year were a couple.
After graduating they moved to Edinburgh to work and in 2000 embarked on a year long round the world trip. They visited Hong Kong, Singapore, Bali, Australia and spent Christmas and New Year in New Zealand before returning home via the US. Their holiday proved to be eventful in many ways, not least because during it they decided to get married and settle in Northern Ireland.
“Our year away was the icing on the cake for us,” Paul says. “We were best friends anyway, but for that year we were with each other 24/7 doing wild and wacky things and we had an absolute ball.
“It was also great to come back home — we'd gone away with open minds as to our future but with hindsight the best thing we did was come home because we were able to have so much time with our families before Ali became ill.
“We were married on December 27, 2001 and got a flat together. We were pretty chilled and just loved going out for dinner together and simple things like that.”
Two adorable boys followed — Mark, now six, and Euan, four — and the young family have many happy memories of their time together.
But their world was shattered when Ali was diagnosed with cancer in October 2006 when she was referred to a specialist after visiting a clinic for a smear test.
“I remember as clear as day sitting in the little room with Ali when we were given the news,” Paul says.
“We were called into a room in the cancer centre in Belfast to meet the oncologist. I call that room the bad news room because we were in it again a second time, sitting on the same chairs, when Ali’s cancer returned.
“We just couldn’t believe that Ali had cancer. It was something which other people had, older people. She was just 32.”
In January 2007 Alison underwent an intensive course of chemotherapy and afterwards the couple were told that it had done a good job.
“It was fantastic news,” Paul says. “We thought we were home and dry. We went off on holiday with the boys to the south of France and had a fantastic time. Ali was perfectly well.”
But a few months later the unthinkable happened and, after suspecting that something wasn’t quite right, Alison was again diagnosed with cancer. This time it was more aggressive and did not respond to treatment.
“We just didn’t know what to do,” says Paul. “We felt helpless, and we just left it all in the hands of the doctors. But we both had a very strong Christian faith which really helped, and a strong church which gave us great support. I was inundated with food when Ali was sick — everyone rallied round and was so kind.”
The effect on the whole family was immense.
“Just before Ali fell ill her mum had died of cancer, so for her dad it was a massive double blow — to lose his wife and then his daughter,” says Paul. “He found himself going back to the same places, the same cancer centre, all over again.”
Indeed, in a journal which Alison kept, which makes for heartbreaking reading, she speaks of the family she loves and the faith in God upon which she depended.
“I must just keep on praying for healing,” she wrote. “I cry a lot, especially with Dad. I have said to God, ‘I am ready for the outcome either way. Just please don’t let me suffer any more’.”
The first time Alison was sick her boys were too young to know what was happening but the second time Mark was about to start school and Ali, who was in the hospice by that time, would tell Paul how to prepare him for this and what uniform to buy.
“Mark was aware that Mummy was sick,” Paul says. “But he was really great, he used to give her what he called a ‘huggle’, which is a mixture of a cuddle and a hug. He’d give her hugs all the time. No matter where she was he’d cuddle up beside her.”
In the months after her second diagnosis Alison’s pain increased as the cancer spread and it became clear that she required full-time care at a hospice. And this is when Somerton House stepped in. Just as it had done for many people before, it provided a bed and did all it could to manage Alison’s symptoms.
“She was worried about the general view of hospices being places where you go to die,” Paul remembers.
“But we were reassured that the vast majority of work they do is pain relief and symptom management.
“And it didn’t just work for Ali, the staff was there for everyone — me, the boys, the wider family circle. They got us a wheelchair so that I could take Ali to Belfast Castle.
Another time I took her to Lisburn and after I had bought shoes in a shopping centre I turned around and realised she’d gone — she’d wheeled herself away to investigate something. That was the sort of strong, independent person she was. Everybody who came to visit her went away amazed at how courageous she was.
“We were helped enormously by how friendly and helpful the staff were, from the nurses to the cleaning staff. I particularly remember that the cleaners had a store beside Ali’s room and one of the cleaners who was also called Alison used to stop and chat away to us.
“They got the boys colouring books and stickers — they were so thoughtful. Ali would go through the books with the boys and I’ve put them in a memory box for them.”
Alison remained in the hospice for several months. In this, another remarkable entry in her journal, which she penned after realising that medicine could do no more for her, she wrote: “I have given things over to God, my husband, my boys, my future as a mum. I have repented of my selfishness, and my feeling of being cheated (out of her future as a mother). God knows my heart. He knows how truly I have given things up to Him.”
Alison returned home in August as she wanted to be in her own environment. She passed away on September 5, 2008, surrounded by her family. “Yes, it upset her realising that she wouldn’t be around to see the boys grow up,” Paul says.
“She got very down sometimes and other times she was very positive. We knew that God was looking after us — there were things that happened which reassured us of that. One time a nurse was trying to find a vein to take a blood sample, but despite her best efforts couldn’t find one. Ali prayed over and over that the vein would be found — and then the nurse suddenly announced that she had found it, and the blood was taken without a problem. Ali knew this was an answer to prayer.
“Of course, you wonder why these things happen.
I tell the boys that Mummy’s in heaven, and Granny’s there too. I tell them that the best thing is that she isn’t sick any more. I wouldn’t have wished for her to go through one more day of that sickness, that pain. For her to be in heaven, without pain, without tumours or sickness, is far better.
“You can think that life’s not fair, you see couples walking around and you think ‘That could be me and Ali’. But then you remember that she’s not sick anymore.
Whatever the reason God has, I accept it. It’s not easy to accept but I accept it is His plan for her life and my life.” Like last year, Paul and the boys have put up a Christmas tree. He had agreed with Alison that everything should be kept as normal as possible.
“Last Christmas I got myself really busy,” he says. “Throughout the whole thing Ali and I had talked about keeping things as normal as possible so I organised Christmas and we put a tree up.
On Christmas Eve I stayed in our own house with the boys and on Christmas morning we got up together, just like when Ali was here, opened our presents and had a great time.
Then we went to church, which was just great, to see all our friends — our big extended family — and then my family got together later. Yes, there was a big gap because Ali was missing, but every time I got upset Mark would hug me, and he’d say ‘Daddy don’t cry, Mummy’s in heaven’. Coming from a five-year-old, that was amazing.
“We just try to keep busy and help each other. I went back to work part-time in November and full-time in February. Of course, there are times when we are sad but we hug each other and we’re fine. I just know we’ll all get together again and that’s so comforting.”