Snuggled up in her mum’s arms, Bella McCallum smiled when she realised Father Christmas had come to visit her. The five-year-old had endured months of suffering but even as her eyesight was failing, her spirits were lifted by a very special moment surrounded by those she loved most.
“Santa Claus arrived to give Bella a little key with bells on it,” recalls mum Beccy, 33. “We knew she could hear him but her sight was going.
“After he left she carried on shaking the bells. It was really magical and we’ll always be grateful for that.”
Just two days later, on September 16, 2019, Bella passed away.
Her mum, dad Craig and sister Madison, now 10, were by her side.
Beccy says: “At first it was very hard to look back on the pictures of that special Christmas. It was bittersweet because they were a reminder that within two days she was gone.
But now they’re a comfort. They give us more fond memories with our little girl than we would have had otherwise.
“As awful as all of it was, that experience eased the last days of Bella’s life. It allowed all the family to be together and for all of that love to surround her.”
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Bella’s troubles began in late 2016 when she struggled to sleep. Beccy says: “She seemed fine during the day.
“But when she went to bed it was as though she was struggling to breathe. We went back and forth to the doctor and even A&E a few times but it wasn’t until January 2017 we had a diagnosis.”
Doctors found a tumour on Bella’s lung. Beccy recalls: “I was at the hospital with my mum Tracy because Craig, who is in the Navy, was away.
“I couldn’t bring myself to tell him.
“The tumour was taking up almost her whole left lung and was going into her right one. I couldn’t get the words out. Mum had to do it.”
Help a sick child’s dream come true
By Jason Beattie
For the majority of families this Christmas will be a joyous time of presents, food and fun.
But for some children the festive season will be very different.
Across the country there are more than 63,000 young people who are critically ill.
Many will be spending what should be a special time of the year in hospital.
Others will have to have treatment, scans or blood tests.
With your help we can give them a Christmas that they will always remember.
This year’s Mirror Christmas Appeal is raising funds for Make-A-Wish UK that helps seriously ill young people make their dreams come true.
It could be they want to meet their hero or heroine or feed an animal at the zoo or travel to see Santa in Lapland.
The money raised could help Joshua, six, who has severe epilepsy, achieve his wish of a bedroom makeover or Summer, also six, who has acute leukaemia and dreams of a bouncy castle.
Each year Make-A-Wish helps hundreds of critically ill children achieve their lifetime’s ambition.
But to make a wish come true takes an army of volunteers, supporters and donors.
That’s why every penny you donate could make a difference.
Granting a wish can transform a child’s life. It gives them something to look forward to.
For others it provides a special memory which makes the treatment they need more bearable.
It can also help their parents who, despite doing everything they can for their sick child, feel it is not enough.
Jason Suckley, Make-A-Wish UK chief executive, said: “I met the family of a boy who was recovering from brain surgery.
“His grandmother told me how difficult it had been for her to watch her daughter struggle with the challenges of her son’s condition.
“But while they were enjoying his wish together, her daughter turned to her and said, ‘There is still magic in this world isn’t there mum?’ .
“That’s just one instance that illustrates how the power of a wish lies in sharing positive memories with loved ones.
“Every donation from Mirror readers will help us create those memories – bringing joy to ill children and their families during the darkest of times.”
Once an initial course of chemotherapy and radiotherapy came to an end by the summer, the family were hopeful that things were looking up.
Aged four and with her health much improved, Bella started school.
But in April 2019 things took another devastating turn when she had a stroke. Beccy, who lives in Devon, says: “They found another tumour, this time on her brain. It was horrendous. She had gone from going to bed as usual to suddenly not being able to speak or walk.
“She was paralysed down one side. They removed the tumour but there were still cancer cells left. Within a couple of weeks it was really hard to communicate with her and poor Bella would get frustrated.”
Weeks after the surgery, Beccy and Craig took their daughter home.
Beccy says: “She was getting distressed in hospital so we brought her back to Plymouth.
“She did a lot better and within a couple of weeks she was crawling round. As time went on, she was walking and talking more and more and most things really started to come back.” Although Bella was doing well, the family accepted that her condition could never be cured.
But they hoped chemotherapy could slow the disease’s progress.
Beccy recalls: “We continued that for a while. But it was no quality of life.
“We decided to stop in July 2019.
“It was incredibly difficult but we knew the tumours would just grow.
“We filled so much into that summer.”
Beccy and Craig dreamed of sharing one last Christmas together as a family.
Beccy, who runs a dog-walking business, adds: “The people at Make-A-Wish UK were amazing. They were able to move really quickly for us because we realised we didn’t have long.
“Lots of our extended family got together at a big house in Challaborough, Devon, and we had our very own Christmas – in September.
They had organised an amazing lunch cooked by two chefs at a local pub. There were presents for everyone, a tree, a huge snow globe and games for all.
“Santa turned up and gave Bella her key with bells on and she loved listening to the sound as she shook it.”
Looking back on those final days, Beccy says:“There’s no way we could have organised what they did. They did an incredible job in such a short time and treated us with such kindness. It’s something we’ll never forget.”