Our elf Max makes us all smile…
When Mandy Pedelty, 42, from durham, was at her lowest ebb, someone very special brought hope back into her life...
Each day brought new terror, a fear our son wouldn’t make it
The jaunty strains of Jingle Bells floated down the hospital corridor. A choir was visiting a nearby ward, trying to bring a bit of festive joy to the poorly children there.
Occasionally I’d hear the bang of a cracker, or the laughter of a child.
Happy sounds to match the twinkling tinsel and glittering baubles that festooned the corridors and wards.
Christmas was nearly upon us. Only, the jubilation seemed misplaced here on the children’s cancer ward of the Royal Victoria Infirmary.
Nurses in Santa hats moved between the beds, trying to raise the spirits of the families cooped up in this hellish scenario.
‘Thank you,’ I said, trying my best to muster a smile as a nurse handed me a sausage roll.
But the pastry clogged in my mouth.
It was Christmas
2011, and I had all my family beside me – my husband Trevor, 38, our children Mollie, 12, and Joe, 4, and their grandparents.
They quietly ate crisps and cold meats, gazing thoughtfully at the presents they’d received that morning.
And in the middle of the room was our youngest, Max, wires sprouting out of him, an occasional whimper seeping from his lips. His skin was like crepe paper and he seemed to have a constant frown.
A few weeks before, he’d had his first birthday.
Now he was here on the cancer ward, gripped by leukaemia.
Each day brought us new terror, a fear our son wouldn’t make it through the next day.
And Christmas Day would be no different.
We’d fought from the start with Max, even in the years before he was conceived.
You see, we’d suffered three devastating miscarriages before he came along.
Max was the miracle we thought would never happen.
But I finally fell pregnant with him in January 2010.
He was so desperately wanted.
When he was born and we saw his slanted eyes, his flattened nose and small mouth, I knew he had Down’s syndrome.
But it truly didn’t matter to us. He was our son and we would fight for him every step of the way.
And boy, did we have a fight on our hands.
Hours after Max was born on 10 September 2010, we’d been told he could have leukaemia. Contracting pneumonia
11 times over the next few months and even developing septicaemia, he’d been so poorly. And then, a month before his first birthday, Max had finally been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia.
He started chemotherapy straight away.
During the treatment, Max would scream out in pain – and all we could do was stroke his hand, tell him everything would be OK.
But, of course, we had no idea if we could keep that promise. Before we knew it, Christmas cards had started arriving in the post and I’d been desperately trying to remember to buy Mollie and Joe an Advent calendar. They’d been staying with my mum and visiting the hospital when they weren’t in school. Trevor and I had tried so hard to divide ourselves between the family, making sure one of us was always with Max. Mollie and Joe were hurting, too. ‘You’re such good children, I promise next Christmas will be different,’ I’d reassure them. Another promise I didn’t know if I could keep... I wanted them to have a good time, feel treasured, too, even
The mood of the room had been lifted. There were smiles and laughter
though Max was so ill.
But it was tough for everyone. How could we possibly celebrate when our boy was suffering?
While Trevor stayed with Max one day, I’d rushed out to the shops to buy presents.
Seeing children Max’s age, looking so healthy and excited about Christmas, my heart broke.
He should’ve been enjoying the celebrations too.
Yet here we were again, celebrating Christmas in the children’s cancer ward.
Looking around at the other families going through the same unbearable agony, I was devastated.
Being on a child’s cancer ward at Christmas is like an exclusive club nobody wants to be a part of.
‘Do you like your presents?’ I asked Mollie and Joe, trying my best to keep their spirits up. They smiled.
‘Yes, Mum,’ Mollie said, reaching out for my hand.
The silence in that moment was simply agonising.
Nobody knew what to say as we watched Max in pain, often gasping for breath, not even the strongest painkillers helping him.
Dressing Max up as an elf, I laid him on my lap and tried to smile.
Gently stroking his head, a clump of hair fell out into my hand.
Right at that moment, on a day that is meant to be the happiest of them all, the reality hit.
Bursting into tears, I couldn’t bear this any longer.
That’s when the door suddenly swung open.
We all looked up to see Father Christmas and two kids dressed as elves come bouncing into the room, bags of presents swung over their shoulders.
I smiled, despite everything, when one of the elves came straight up to us.
‘I’m Cory, I’m 6. I’ve spent the two last Christmases in the cancer ward,’ a beaming little boy said in a strong Geordie accent.
Santa came over to me, put his arm around me and smiled.
‘Don’t cry. It’s all going to be all right,’ he said, wiping a tear away from my cheek.
We felt a warmth and positivity we hadn’t experienced in so long.
‘My name is Steve and these two lads are my identical twins Cory and Cain,’ Santa said, pointing to his elves.
He explained that Cory had a rare brain tumour, with an extremely low survival rate.
Blind in one eye, paralysed down one side, he’d fought hard to beat it.
And here he was, delivering hundreds of presents to children with cancer.
What a superstar! I thought. Chatting away, we discovered we were all avid supporters of Newcastle FC.
As Trevor and Steve cracked up over a footy joke, Cory was talking to Max, and Cain to Mollie and Joe.
Suddenly I realised the entire mood of the room had been lifted.
There were bright smiles and laughter.
Finally, it actually felt like Christmas Day!
Even Max was looking up, grinning, crinkling the wrapping paper of a present.
I sensed that he, too, could feel the unusual warmth in the room.
They didn’t just give Max a sackful of presents, but there was perfume and jewellery for Mollie, Hot Wheels for Joe.
Chatting and laughing away, I forgot for a moment the horror of our situation.
Then the trio were off to the next family, handing out presents, spreading the joy we all so desperately craved.
But their kind nature and positivity left a mark on us...
Over the next few hours, we tried to laugh and smile, even if it was just silly giggles over a cracker joke. We could see it had helped Max – and us – so much.
The next few months were tough, but by May 2012, Max was in remission and finally well enough to come home.
Joe and Mollie were so happy to be back together with their little brother.
We chatted over the phone to Steve and the boys as much as we could.
And before long, Christmas was approaching yet again.
‘I want us to help Steve and his boys on the ward,’ I told Trevor, remembering the joy he’d brought us all.
But Max was still too weak, fighting off an infection.
Next year... I vowed. And by Christmas 2013, Max was well enough to help, although he still needed a wheelchair.
We were ready to share the Christmas joy that had been shared with us.
‘We want to join you, Steve,’ I told him over the phone.
Heading back to the hospital where so many of our darkest memories remained, Max – dressed as an elf – was wheeled into the children’s ward by Cory.
I cried tears of joy as I watched them both in action.
‘My name’s Cory and this is my friend Max. We’ve both had cancer and have brought you a present,’ Cory grinned to the sick kids.
As they handed out gifts, Max was beaming away.
I was so proud. Seeing one girl receive a toy dog, her face lighting up, my heart melted.
She had a serious brain tumour and it may have been her final Christmas. It brought back memories. I understood the pain. And I knew nothing I could say would make it better for the families.
So I’d give them a hug, a
knowing smile. I hope that it helped. Since then, Max has been helping Cory as much as possible, collecting donations and gifts from the community.
Every Christmas, our house is filled with toys, ornaments, decorations, toiletries – all to be taken by Cory to the hospital.
We try to see Steve and the boys as much as possible, watching Newcastle FC together at the weekend!
I tell Cory all the time how much he transformed our lives when he walked into the cancer ward on Christmas Day 2011. Now 14, he’s such a cool kid. ‘It’s nothing,’ he shrugs. Cory is in remission but there’s a chance that his brain tumour could return – a day we hope never comes.
Max is also in remission but he’ll always have complications – a cold could floor him for months, and he’ll be on antibiotics for life.
Now 8, we call him Prince Charming because he makes everyone smile.
‘We are united by cancer, but now united forever,’ Max smiles, when talking about Cory. This Christmas, we’ll be like any other family, gathering around the tree, in our Christmas PJS, pulling crackers...
But we’ll be thinking about Cory, who’ll be on the children’s cancer ward delivering gifts.
And remembering the Christmas Day he changed our lives forever.
We call him Prince Charming, as he makes everyone smile!
Baby Max with Mollie and Joe and (right) in hospital in 2011
Max and bighearted Cory on their ward rounds
Happy Christmas, from me and Max!
United! Max and the twins Cory and Cain this year
With his daddy