‘Our tree is hung with love & mem­o­ries’

Why dec­o­rat­ing their fes­tive pine is so spe­cial for Cass Hunter and her sons

Prima (UK) - - Contents - The Af­ter Wife by Cass Hunter (Trapeze) is out now

My eight-year-old son Matt knelt on the floor of our flat, ar­rang­ing tin­sel and dec­o­ra­tions on our small tree. We’d made a star with card­board and tin foil and, as he stuck it on the top, his face was full of pride. Dec­o­rat­ing the Christ­mas tree is a rit­ual in many homes, but for us, the tra­di­tion holds bit­ter­sweet mem­o­ries, a spe­cial poignancy that will stay with both of us for ever.

Matt was just five when our lives were ripped apart. His father, Glen, suf­fered a heart at­tack and had died in the night, aged just 37. Matt had found him, sim­ply say­ing, ‘Dad won’t talk to me.’ The shock was unimag­in­able. It was Novem­ber 1997 and Glen and I had di­vorced a cou­ple of years ear­lier but we’d re­mained close and I couldn’t be­lieve he’d gone. Matt had been stay­ing over with Glen and, that morn­ing, I had the dev­as­tat­ing phone call from Glen’s mum, who lived in the same block of flats. In a daze, I went to col­lect my boy. He was too young to really un­der­stand what had hap­pened, but as we drove home, he said: ‘When we get home, can we put up the Christ­mas tree?’

I was puz­zled. It was only Novem­ber but I wanted to do what­ever I could for Matt at this time. ‘Of course,’ I replied. ‘Why?’

‘Be­cause Dad won’t be here for Christ­mas,’ he said. ‘But he’s an an­gel now, so he’ll make Christ­mas in­stead.’

I looked at him in the rear-view mir­ror. Christ­mas was the fur­thest thing from my mind, but if that was what he wanted to do, we would do it.

At home, I dug out our Christ­mas tree. Al­though it was more than six weeks early, we dec­o­rated it, string­ing lights and

hang­ing baubles. I couldn’t even feel the emo­tional im­pact of what had hap­pened. The prac­ti­cal im­pli­ca­tions were enor­mous. I was 29, a solo par­ent, with­out the sup­port of my par­ents as they had both died. I was alone, and I had to sup­port my lit­tle boy who had lost half of his world.

But of course, Matt was the rea­son I got through it. The prac­ti­cal­i­ties of par­ent­hood kept me busy and kept me sane. That’s how the tree came to sym­bol­ise our grief and our hope. I knew I owed it to Matt to stay strong.

MOV­ING ON

That year, the tree stayed up be­yond Christ­mas, as we came to terms with the enor­mity of our loss. We took it down on Twelfth Night, and slowly we be­gan to move for­ward as a fam­ily of two.

We went through so many emo­tions in those first months. I found my­self fu­ri­ous with Glen for not be­ing there, and bereft be­cause it was so hard to make de­ci­sions with­out him. We kept his mem­ory alive, talk­ing about him and look­ing at pho­to­graphs. Matt of­ten asked about his dad’s taste in mu­sic, and liked to lis­ten to the rock and heavy metal Glen had loved.

Matt had to reimag­ine his fu­ture, one with­out a father. He was brave, strong and prac­ti­cal, but he did seem to strug­gle phys­i­cally. He was small for his age, and de­vel­oped asthma for a few years. I of­ten thought this was brought on by shock.

I had no idea how to help Matt, so I did what felt nat­u­ral. He had ques­tions about his dad’s death, and I an­swered them as hon­estly as I was able. I think this hon­esty formed the ba­sis of our re­la­tion­ship. For the next seven years, it was the two of us against the world, and the only way we could do it was to be truth­ful, di­rect and work as a team. Ev­ery year, we put the Christ­mas tree up to­gether. It had be­come a tra­di­tion, our way of re­mem­ber­ing Glen.

PLANT­ING NEW ROOTS

Three years af­ter Glen’s death, a work op­por­tu­nity meant Matt and I moved to Lon­don. It was that Christ­mas, when he was eight, that was par­tic­u­larly poignant and he hung an an­gel on the tree to rep­re­sent Glen. A few days af­ter Christ­mas, snow fell. It was the first snow Matt had ever seen – he was awestruck.

Yet life was hard in Lon­don; I strug­gled fi­nan­cially and had no friends around me. If I hadn’t joined our lo­cal church, I don’t know if I would have stuck it out. They had an ex­cel­lent choir and I signed up just be­fore Christ­mas in 2001.

Matt and I were drawn into a com­mu­nity of friends with their own tra­di­tions. Some were an­cient and church based, and some mod­ern, like the Christ­mas Eve curry and pub visit be­fore Mid­night Mass.

It felt that we had a new ‘fam­ily’ and it was here that I met Tom, the man I fell in love with. We got to­gether in 2005, and mar­ried in that same church a few years later. Matt, then 16, gave me away. He de­liv­ered a beau­ti­ful speech at the re­cep­tion, wel­com­ing Tom to our fam­ily. I know it’s a cliché to say it’s the hap­pi­est day of your life, but it was.

As that year’s fes­tive sea­son came around, my hus­band’s fam­ily dec­o­ra­tions joined ours on the tree. Even when Matt was a teenager, the tree re­mained an im­por­tant part of our Christ­mas and he never missed the chance to dec­o­rate it.

In Christ­mas 2008, we hung a pair of booties on the tree, a sym­bol of the new fam­ily mem­ber who was to join us. The next year, Ted was born, a much-wanted ad­di­tion. Matt was over­joyed and de­spite the age gap, they are very close.

CHRIST­MASES TO COME

Now, 21 years af­ter the morn­ing that changed our lives for ever, dec­o­rat­ing the Christ­mas tree is still a tra­di­tion in our fam­ily. On a crisp De­cem­ber evening, Matt, Ted and I will go to the gar­den cen­tre. There, we’ll choose our tree and wedge it into Matt’s car. In the liv­ing room, we un­wrap it and I al­ways put on cheesy Christ­mas tunes (they both love Wham!’s Last Christ­mas) and leave the boys to de­cide on the place­ment of each dec­o­ra­tion. Matt, 26, likes the tree to be sym­met­ri­cal and stylish; Ted, nine, has a more eclec­tic style. There may be more than 16 years be­tween my sons, but when it comes to dec­o­rat­ing the tree, it’s hard to tell who is the most ex­cited.

One les­son I have learnt over time is to trea­sure happy mo­ments, no mat­ter how mun­dane. I cher­ish this one ev­ery year − my boys, laugh­ing to­gether. As Matt lifts up his lit­tle brother to place the Santa on the top of the tree, I watch them and re­flect on how far we’ve come. I don’t think I be­lieve in an­gels, but if fiveyear-old Matt was right, I’d like to thank his per­sonal an­gel. That aw­ful Christ­mas broke us, but it also made us. Our tree is no longer a sym­bol of sad­ness and loss. It’s sprawl­ing, abun­dant and hung with love and mem­o­ries.

‘The tree is our way of re­mem­ber­ing Glen’

Clock­wise from left: the fam­ily’s spe­cial an­gel; Matt when he was a tod­dler; father and son were so close

Cass and son Matt on her wed­ding day

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