WHEN cancer sufferer Angie Stephen asked her best pal to raise her 13-year-old, Joanne Wilson didn’t even hesitate.
After 13 years of living with cancer, Angie Stephen knew she was dying, and she had two final wishes.
The first was that when the time came, she would die at St Columba’s Hospice. Its staff had given her so much support and happiness over the years that she wanted to spend her last days in its comforting, familiar surroundings. The second was for her 13-year-old son, Connor, to be raised by her best friend Joanne Wilson.
Lying in her bed at the hospice in the days before Christmas, she knew that both wishes would be granted.
Joanne and her husband Kevin had pledged without hesitation to take Connor in, but Angie, 43, didn’t want them to feel any pressure.
“Even on her death bed, she said ‘You can still change your mind’,” Joanne says.
“And I said ‘No way.’”
It might seem like a big commitment even for close friends, but there was never any doubt in Joanne’s mind that her family would be there for Connor.
Their friendship had started shortly after Angie’s cancer diagnosis, and their families grew up together, Connor and his brother Matthew, now 21, and Joanne’s sons Dean, eight and Daniel, 13.
Joanne says: “We met as neighbours when the boys were not even a year old. Obviously with the children, it made us then speak to each other and to be honest we were actually quite opposites, and I think that’s why we got on so well.
“Me and Angie had this special connection, I don’t know what it was.”
Whatever it was, it’s clear that the bond has been passed down from mother to son.
Cheerful and relaxed at home with the Wilsons in Boswall, Connor is a pleasure to spend time with. A sunny, smiley teenager, happy to talk about his mum, who had cancer for as long as he could remember.
He says: “The first time that it ever kicked in was when I was in primary school, because I can remember me coming in from school and she said ‘Are you ready to see your mum bald?’
“And it was about six years after that she told me I’d be moving in here. When I was 11 or 12, I started to learn more about what was happening. I wasn’t really concentrating about my mum dying, it was just about moving in here.
“It made me a wee bit happy because I knew who I was going to live with so I could continue with the rest of my life.”
When Angie and Joanne first met, Angie had just started her cancer treatment. As the years passed, especially with Angie raising her boys as a single mum, their friendship grew stronger. Joanne says: “I think because she was a single parent, I was there for her 100 per cent. It was me that went to every appointment and operation.”
And there were a lot of appointments. Angie was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999. There was a diagnosis of bone cancer in 2008 and in 2010 she had brain surgery to remove a tumour. In January 2011 she found out she had secondary cancer in her liver and lungs.
As Angie realised that she might not be around to care for her children, she knew she had to make preparations for their future. It became clear that Joanne and Kevin were the people to make sure Connor would not be alone.
Matthew now lives independently, but Joanne says: “Eventually the bond was so strong between myself and my husband with Connor. I remember her saying ‘I would like you and Kevin to become legal guardians, but I know that you have to discuss that with Kevin.’ The moment I said that to Kevin, he said ‘Without a doubt’.”
As Angie’s illness progressed, St Columba’s helped her. She would check herself in for pain relief, and received emotional support.
In July 2010, she gave her backing to the hospice’s Buy a Brick campaign when she appeared in the Evening News discussing her experiences. She told the News how difficult – but important – it had been for her to make sure her sons would be cared for after her death: “I have told them they will always have a home with Joanne,” she said.
“This has been the worst thing I have had to do, but it is all sorted. There have been a lot of tears and a lot of humour along the way.”
Whenever Angie went into St Columba’s for respite care, Connor would stay with the Wilsons, getting used to his new room. He says: “I stayed here for a day at a time, and then went back round the corner with my Nana, and I gradually took more and more stuff round. Eventually I just got suitcases and brought it all round.”
To start with, he felt like a guest in the house, but it is clear he is now completely at home.
“It didn’t used to feel like my room when I was staying up there,” he says. “Coming down in the morning I used to always ask if I could have my cereal – now I just help myself. The food is completely different from round at my house, because Kevin’s a great cook!” he jokes.
In December last year, Angie checked in to St Columba’s for the last time. It was an event they had all wished would never come, but in some ways a relief for Angie.
With the hospice’s major rebuild looming, its patients were due to be moved to a temporary site in Gogarbank, a transfer which eventually took place last month. Angie had always said she wanted to die at the hospice in its original site, where she had received so much love and support.
Joanne says: “It was an awful thing, dying, but she couldn’t have got a nicer place to die.”
Connor couldn’t agree more. On December 1 Angie sat him down and told him that she was going to die soon. It’s a heartbreaking scenario, but even amid the sadness, he found a little comfort. “I’m glad that she went away happy rather than having all this fuss and getting rushed into hospital,” he says.
As other families and friends were preparing to celebrate Christmas, the Wilsons and the Stephens were gathering at St Columba’s. On December 22, Angie slipped away.
Joanne says: “She died on the Thursday, and on the Wednesday I said ‘You’ve got to hang on for Christmas’, and she said ‘I wouldn’t put you through that.’ She knew she wasn’t going to last.”
Connor spent Christmas at home with Matthew and his grandmother, and in January moved permanently to his new home.
It was a sad time, but one they were all prepared for. Joanne says: “With my two sons, it was always about when Connor comes to stay, not if.”
Dean and Daniel have taken well to Connor moving in, and Connor himself is thriving.
Joanne says: “He’s been doing excellently. He’s so like his mum in that way, he’s practical, he says ‘I knew this was going to happen’, he’s got a good support, lots of friends and school have been good. He’s just settled in so well.”
And if Angie were a fly on the wall of her son’s new home, what would she think?
“She would just be so happy,” says Joanne. “She always said it means she can die in peace. She’d certainly be proud.”
Connor agrees: “I think she’d be very happy.”
Just like her son.
• Get ready to race
Joanne is one of 31 of Angie’s friends who are taking part in the Race for Life in Holyrood Park on Sunday.
Angie’s Angels hope to raise more than £1500 for Cancer Research UK in memory of their much-missed friend.
She said: “Angela would want us to help raise awareness and funds for research and I believe she will be there with us on Sunday. She used to always talk about the excellent treatment she received.”
The charity’s Edinburgh events manager, Gillian Forsyth, said: “We are very grateful to Joanne, Angie’s Angels and everyone who has signed up for Race for Life in Edinburgh”.
Thousands of women and girls are expected to take part in the event’s 5K and 10K routes to raise money for the charity.There will also be the chance for supporters to enjoy themselves with a Challenge Arena on site including gladiator joust, bungee run, kids’ sumo and beach volleyball.
Activities range in price from £3, with all the money raised going to Cancer Research UK. There will also be a donation station for bags of quality clothes, books and accessories. For more information see www.raceforlife.org. To support Angie’s Angels, see raceforliefsponsorme.org/angies-angels.