Why this Christmas will be different for us: Four people, four life-changing events

Kate Hilpern hears how the events of 2014 have given four people a new outlook on the festive season

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Rob Jones, 32, and Sam Foot, 30, became adopters this year, making this their first Christmas with children. Rob says:

Sam and I met at university in 2003 and we knew immediately that we wanted a family. Sam has younger siblings and we loved having them over for weekends. Once we'd graduated and got our own place, we officially registered our interest in 2007.

But after getting the information pack, we realised we weren't ready and spent the next few years enjoying our twenties.

Then, at Christmas 2012, we were at a family party when a friend arrived with two adopted children. Sam burst into tears and said: "I think it's time." I felt the same, and we began our journey to adopt the following month.

The home assessment is the longest part, and often gets a bad press for being intrusive, but if anything, we felt it was like therapy, enabling us to reflect on things like why we wanted to adopt, and who were our support network. In one session, when we were talking about me coming out as a teenager, I broke down in tears. But it is far better to work through such emotions before any children arrive.

We took a long time finding the right match, not least because we were dead set on a brother and sister who were both pre-school age. In fact, last Christmas was quite hard because we thought we'd found a match, but it all fell through.

But on Sam's 30th birthday this spring, we went to an adoption activity day, where we met a same-gender sibling group aged seven and four and had an instant connection with them. After returning to the panel for matching, the children joined us this summer.

Sam and I have both been amazed how quickly we've adapted to becoming parents, despite our lives being turned upside down.

Christmas is the icing on the cake. Sure, we'd put up our tree every year, but this time, it was magical. We've also found ourselves doing things we haven't done since we were kids ourselves, like going to a school play and visiting Santa in London. Sometimes it feels surreal and I think I'll need to pinch myself.

That said, memories of Christmas aren't happy for the children, especially for our older one, so while we want to make it big, special and exciting, we must make sure it's not overwhelming for them.

As a gay couple, we fully expected some challenges, either in the way we were treated by social workers or by the local community. I even wrote a blog about it, becomingpappy.com. But that hasn't happened once.

Surnames have been changed

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Claire Heard with her father and half siblings

Claire Heard, 34, will be spending Christmas with her father, who she met for the first time this year

I grew up very happily in Norfolk, but my view of who I was changed dramatically at 15. By chance, my younger sister found some paperwork which showed that my name had been changed by deed poll when I was a baby.

I confronted my mum and she explained that her husband, David, wasn't my dad at all. My real dad, she said, was a man called John, whom she met at 23. After she'd had me, they split up. He visited for a while, but when she met David, John felt it better to leave us to it.

I was devastated and for a time, it ruined our relationship, although we worked it out soon enough. I wanted to meet my real dad, but was scared. What if he didn't want to know me?

I thought about him a lot and even started a search a few times. But I got nowhere. Then, last summer when I was watching Long Lost Families on TV, I got serious and went on the programme's website, where the people-tracing service FinderMonkey was listed.

They found him within 10 days. I asked them to write a letter to him, which his sister opened, as John was on holiday. She knew all about me and was lovely when she called. I found out that I had half-brother twins and a half sister.

When my dad returned, he called me and we chatted for two-and-a-half hours. It was incredible. The following weekend, my boyfriend and I went to stay with them. I fitted in immediately.

I'll be making my second visit this Christmas, when I'll be meeting even more of what turns out to be a very big family. I'm so excited, particularly as my children, aged six and 13, are coming, too. My mum and David, who are no longer together, have been so supportive and I don't think of David as any less my dad. It's just that I have two now.

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Sarata Silla (centre) in Sierra Leone

Sarata Silla, 49, will be in in Lunsar, Sierra Leone, over christmas this year, where she is head nurse at the International Medical Corps Ebola Treatment Centre. This will be her first Christmas away from her family

It's a huge sacrifice for me to be missing out on family festivities this year. I'm a single mother with one 24-year-old son. We've always been incredibly close and have never missed a Christmas together. But I couldn't turn down this work to support the Ebola efforts in Sierra Leone and I know he will be well looked after by my sister and her two children.

Most of my career has been in management in the NHS. But back in 2011, I lost both my parents. Coupled with the fact that I was reaching my late forties, it made me think about how I didn't want to regret doing certain things with my life. So I took a break from the NHS to travel to Sierra Leone to work in a children's hospital, where I supported the nursing staff. It was traumatic, particularly as the death rates were so high, but implementing lasting changes during my seven months there was tremendously rewarding.

Once I got home, an opportunity came up to return to Sierra Leone, this time helping to run sexual-assault clinics. There's a high rate of sexual assaults here, particularly for very young girls, and the justice system is a stumbling block. So again it was harrowing work, but very satisfying when we did achieve justice. That work finished in June and my latest offering was coming here to work at the Ebola clinic. We've only been open two weeks, but already we've had 24 patients, who are usually very weak by the time they reach us. It's my role to support the nurses who care for them and, where necessary, to help the patients, along with their families. Both medical and emotional help is required from us and as many of these families come from very rural areas, we travel round quite a bit.

It's devastating to see what Ebola is doing to these communities, particularly the villages that have been struck badly. One woman passed away last week, leaving three children, while another family lost 13 members to Ebola.

Here in the clinic, many patients die. If only they'd come in earlier, I think, there might have been a chance as our medical support is good. But there is hope, too, with many others getting better. We had two discharges today alone.

There will be no strong sign of Christmas here, although we are trying to get little parcels of sweeties for children in the villages, just to bring a little cheer.

Sarata Silla's work is funded by ECHO, the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department

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Rebecca Armstrong and husband Nick

Rebecca Armstrong will spend Christmas at the residential care home where her husband, Nick Grange, is recovering after a serious road accident earlier this year

On Christmas day, I will wake up next to my darling husband, Nick, and kiss him good morning. He might have already woken me up once or twice in the night, calling out because he’s cold, or because he’s wet. The carers who look after him will probably have been in on each occasion, to clean him and to check on him. There’s always someone outside his door, whether I’m staying on the camp bed next to his hospital one or if I’m miles away in London working, because he needs 24-hour, one-to-one care after a car accident earlier this year left him with a traumatic brain injury and three out of four limbs of next to no use.

Like last year, I’ll give him his presents to open, but unlike Christmas 2013, I’ll have to help him unwrap them. I’ve been wondering whether to buy myself something “from him” so that we can share the ritual.

The most important thing is, though, that however much our lives have changed over the past year, we’ll be together and able to wish each other happy Christmas. Until June, I didn’t think that I’d ever hear his voice again. Now he tells me he loves me, and that I’m amazing (I concur).

I won’t cook us lunch this year (his will come from the care home’s excellent kitchen, mine will be a pre-bought turkey sandwich) but I will cut his up and feed it to him.

Booze is off the menu because of the sheer number of drugs that he is on, but I reckon that having survived punctured lungs, intensive care and months of unconsciousness (him), plus terror, loneliness and becoming the breadwinner (me), it will be a very merry Christmas all the same.

To read Rebecca’s columns about life since Nick’s accident, go to: independent.co.uk/biography/rebecca-armstrong

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