A mother's promise: Joyce and her son facing the future alone
When Belfast Telegraph Mum of the Year Joyce Craig lost her disabled daughter Nicola four years ago she was devastated. Last month, her son Michael (25) died from a brain tumour. Now, she and her only surviving child, Christopher, who has cerebral palsy, must face the future alone.
The loss of one child is unthinkable for any parent and to lose two is a pain which no mum should ever have to bear, but Joyce Craig is currently living through that nightmare.
The newly-crowned Belfast Telegraph Mum of the Year 2015 nursed her severely-disabled daughter, Nicola, around the clock for 26 years only to lose her in 2011.
Then, last August, her elder son, Michael, had just graduated from university and was planning to start a new life in Australia when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour and given just six months to live.
Michael passed away on February 2, aged 25.
Joyce's world has been completely shattered and the only thing keeping her going is her love for her younger son, Christopher (23), who has cerebral palsy and also requires round-the-clock care.
The recent loss of Michael is still a shock and Joyce is understandably emotional as she talks with great pride in her brave son, mingled with the terrible pain of having him taken from her.
Even though Nicola was not supposed to survive beyond her first birthday, her death at 26 still came out of the blue and was a heartbreaking loss.
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That Michael, her only healthy child, who adored his sister and brother and helped out with their care, was taken just as his adult life was about to start is a cruelty which Joyce still can't bear.
For the first time since his diagnosis last August, her spirits were given a lift when she was presented with the Belfast Telegraph Mum of the Year 2015 award, which she is convinced was a gift from Michael.
She says: "I couldn't face Mother's Day, because Michael was always so good on Mother's Day and I couldn't bear it without him, so I booked to go to France with a friend to get away.
"Then I got word that I had been nominated for the Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year award and I just couldn't believe it.
"I arranged to come home early from France so that I could be at the awards.
"Even that - just going to the awards - was like a present from Michael. He got me dressing up and getting back out again. It was unbelievable just to be nominated, but then to be a finalist and to win was such a shock.
"I was a blubbering idiot when I went to pick up my award and I couldn't even carry it off the stage."
Joyce adds: "Michael and I had a favourite song, by Anne Murray, You Needed Me, and getting the award reminded me of a line in that song, 'You gave me strength to stand alone again to face the world out on my own again', and that's what I believe he did for me through the Woman of the Year awards.
"He didn't send me a card and flowers this year - he sent me Mum of the Year. Winning the award has given me a big lift; it really has lifted my spirits."
Joyce (58), who is divorced and lives in Bangor, describes Michael as her "best friend and hero".
He had just graduated last summer from Edinburgh University with an Honours degree in physics and had been given a visa for Australia.
He wanted to start a new life in the country and Joyce had bought him his flight ticket as a present for his graduation. She had planned to travel with him, along with Christopher, and stay a month to help him settle in.
But, just as adult life was about to begin for Michael, he was dealt the cruellest of blows, which he accepted with courage and dignity.
His heartbroken mum is brimming with admiration as well as love for the way her son dealt with his terminal diagnosis, making it as easy as possible for his loved-ones.
She says: "He was amazing. His attitude from the start was, 'Mum, it is what it is' and he just accepted it with such dignity. He was diagnosed on August 11 and died on February 2. It was so quick."
In a terrible twist, when Michael was first diagnosed, the family was initially told that he had a slow-growing, low-grade, treatable tumour.
For 10 days, there was optimism, but after a biopsy the news that the tumour was aggressive, fast-growing, the highest grade and inoperable was an unexpected and shattering blow.
Michael was offered an aggressive form of joint chemotherapy and radiotherapy to stabilise the tumour, but while it might have bought him a few weeks it was never going to cure him.
He spent hours talking to his mum as he wrestled with whether he should, or should not, take the treatment and in the end decided against it. It was a brave decision, which meant he did not risk enduring what can be severe side-effects from the treatment and, instead, gave him some quality of life in his last months, sparing his mother and entire family from the agony of watching him suffer.
Joyce adds: "I have so much admiration for him. He didn't suffer, because he didn't take the treatment and what a gift that was for him to give to me.
"When we got the results of the biopsy, we were just stunned. I just thought, 'What has happened in the last 10 days? How can it go from being a slow-growing, low-grade tumour to the worst possible diagnosis in that time?'
"They couldn't stop it growing and they couldn't operate. Michael took his time deciding and it was his decision and I supported him.
"I realise now that it was a decision which spared him - and all of us - from so much suffering. It was such a brave thing to do."
Michael was admitted to the Marie Curie Hospice on November 17. On the same day, he collapsed and it was believed he was dying.
However, in what Joyce is convinced was another precious and miraculous gift from her son, he managed to pull back from the brink so that they could spend one last Christmas together.
"Michael collapsed and his breathing was going and he was leaving us. I said goodbye and told him how much I loved him and how proud I was of him and then there was just silence," she says.
"The nurse nodded to me to confirm he had gone and I just broke down and begged him not to leave me yet. I just said, 'I don't want you to go' and he came back to me. I love Christmas and afterwards he told me he wanted to stay for Christmas to be with me.
"I moved into the hospice that day and never left his side. I slept on a camp-bed in his room and managed finally, after a battle, to get my other wee son, Christopher, into respite care, so that I could be with Michael."
Joyce describes Michael as a natural academic, very intelligent, caring, hard-working and loving.
He was a thoughtful young man, who adored his brother and sister and his mum and was also popular with his peers, making friends easily.
"The only way I can describe it is that he was not just a son to me, but also my best friend. We were incredibly close. He would have included me with his friends, bringing them over to the house in the summer for parties and always making me feel part of the group.
"He grew up with a disabled brother and sister and he was so caring towards them. He never saw their problems and wee Christopher just adored him, and he adored Christopher.
"He was such a gentleman and so well-mannered and so beautiful. Everyone who met him commented to me about his manners."
Nicola's loss was also a devastating blow, which Michael and the whole family found very hard. She was born with a rare condition, which meant all of her joints were locked and she couldn't move, or speak.
"We were told she wouldn't see her first birthday, but she was fantastic. She spent most of her time on the floor, as she couldn't move and that was most comfortable for her," says Joyce. "When she passed away, it was such a shock. She was well one day and the next we lost her - it was that fast.
"When I lost Nicky, it was hard. Then, when Michael made that decision not to take treatment, it was the strangest thing, getting to spend that last two months with him entirely, night and day.
"I remember the day he was diagnosed and we were told he had six months to live. I went out to the car park in the hospital and I just broke down and I shouted: 'God, what are you doing to me? You've taken Nicky and now you are taking Michael. Have you put me on this earth to watch my children die?'
"Then I looked down and saw a white feather and a feeling of peace came over me. I told Michael we would fight it together and I would be with him every step of the way."
Joyce's focus now is on Christopher, whom she describes as "a happy wee thing, who loves computer games".
She has also found time in the midst of her loss to champion Marie Curie, increasing awareness of the charity's vital work.
She adds: "We are so lucky to have a Marie Curie hospice in Northern Ireland and the care they provide is second-to-none.
"We need to appreciate it and I would just say to anyone, if they are thinking of donating to a charity, or supporting a charity, to consider the vital service provided by Marie Curie."
Paying tribute to worthy cause...
Joyce feels so indebted to Marie Curie that she plans to offer her services as a volunteer for the charity.
She has already been asked by a doctor at the hospice to consider becoming a volunteer counsellor and is eager to help out in any way she can.
She says the hospice staff went out of their way to ensure that Michael's last months were as comfortable as possible for him and they also accommodated Joyce as she stayed by her son's side night and day.
As a tribute to the charity, she asked those attending Michael's funeral to wear something yellow, the colour of the daffodil, which is the symbol of the charity's main annual fundraising appeal. She also placed yellow roses on Michael's coffin.
"I can't say just how amazing the staff in the Marie Curie Hospice are," says Joyce. "I felt like I became part of a family there and I felt so at home - that's how much they went out of their way for me. I hadn't slept in two months and they moved my camp-bed into a lounge for a couple of nights to help me get some sleep. They fed me and they were there for us in the end.
"We only have one Marie Curie Hospice and they need and deserve all the support we can give them."
Marie Curie provides care and support for around 2,500 people living with a terminal illness in Northern Ireland each year.
There are more than 120 Marie Curie nurses working in Northern Ireland and the hospice in Belfast cares for around 500 people each year.
Volunteers regularly visit terminally ill people at home, or talk to them on the phone, offering emotional support as well as practical help.
The charity needs to raise around £3.5m a year to fund the hospice and nursing care in Northern Ireland.
To find out more about Marie Curie in Northern Ireland, go to www.mariecurie.org.uk, or tel: 0800 716146