Miriam and I left the house at 3.30am. First we collected Heather, a staff member from the WHSCT. Then we picked up Caroline and her young daughter Nadine.
Caroline and I each lost a child due to illness this year. Caroline and Damien’s beautiful little boy Niall died in the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children in April 2014.
We arrived at Belfast International Airport around 5am. I had pre-booked for the main-stay carpark. I thought £10 was worth it for the convenience of being 2 minutes walk from the Airport entrance.
Once we had arrived in the check-in area we encountered lots of wide-awake very excited families. Following check-in we were issued with our antlers.
My worst moment was when I caught sight of the NICTLT poster with the words “With a little hope he may just see Christmas” – for Caroline and I, our ill children had already had their last Christmas in 2013.
I battled with my emotions. Miriam hates it when I cry and I’d promised myself that this day was going to be all about her. With a lot of will power I stemmed the flow before anybody noticed.
Not that I forgot about Leah completely – a grieving mother never forgets her child – never. At times during the day I wondered if Leah had lived, whether she would have been making the trip to Lapland this Christmas? What would that have been like? What would her favourite part have been?
Many of us have to live with the “what ifs?” and the “if onlys”. We have to find ways of living with these without either cracking up ourselves, or driving those around us crazy.
The Thomas Cook Airbus 321 departed at 8am with 220 very excited parents, children, medical staff and members of the N.I. Children to Lapland Trust.
During the flight we received a cooked breakfast. Then the children were issued with colouring books and crayons for the colouring competition. They were also given an opportunity to write a letter to Santa if they hadn’t already done so. We sang some Christmas songs and had our faces painted.
Three hours later we arrived at Rovaniemi airport in Lapland. The first thing you notice is snow – lots of it. “Elves” were there to greet us and four coaches to transport us to the nearby Santapark resort.
On the bus an elf explained the program for the day and issued us with maps and passes. For the rest of the day, if you had a query or a question you asked an elf, they had excellent English and were friendly and good natured.
The first activity that Caroline and I took the children to was Elf School – an interactive Programme where the elves explained to the children how they had trained to be elves. At the end of that we were issued with certificates and Santa hats.
Then we felt hungry so we made our way to the cafeteria where a cooked meal was being provided for us. I was the only one at our table to choose meatballs. Someone had suggested that they could be made of venison (deer) and it would be like eating Rudolph – that had put the rest of them off. The meatballs tasted ok to me, although the accompanying bread wasn’t to my taste. The coleslaw and potato wedges were lovely.
After eating, we split up for a while. Miriam and I went to Mrs Claus’ Bakery where Miriam decorated a gingerbread biscuit, which she brought home for her daddy.
Then we went to the Elf Workshop where we each designed an elf.
After that it was time for Miriam to write her wishes on paper using a feather quill and post them in the drum of dreams.
Next we went on the “Four Seasons Sleigh Ride” through the elves toy factory. This is like going on a ghost train only it’s very nice instead of scary. We liked it so much that we went twice.
After this we donned thermal coats and visited the Ice Gallery where it’s -10C and met the Snow Queen. It was a bit too cold for my liking, but Miriam enjoyed it.
Then it was time to put on the supplied ski suits and snow boots and head outside. There was squeals of laughter and lots of muttering, as people of all ages and children of all abilities were heaved into these suits. Walking in our new clothes was an acquired skill for some.
Caroline & I along with Miriam and Nadine, headed for the animal rides first. We sat in sledges and were pulled along by reindeer. It was dark by now. The smell of the animals, the sound of their bells, the glistening of the snow, it was all quite surreal.
We were each given a Reindeer Driving Licence – valid for five years!
Then it was time for the husky dog sleigh rides – Miriam’s favourite bit. The four of us piled onto a sledge and had a fast ride through the snow pulled by a pack of husky dogs.
While we were waiting for this, Miriam and Nadine enjoyed doing what kids generally enjoy – just playing in the snow!
We then walked around to see some of the other outdoor activities, but after a short while we decided to head back indoors instead.
It was time to visit Santa – the main man!!!
There was a dance show but we missed it while queueing for Santa. Nadine then had some time on the slide in the Angry Birds play area, ably supervised by Miriam, before the entire group assembled for a photo with Santa.
Unbelievably it was now time to get in our coaches and head back to the airport.
On board our return flight we again got a hot meal. Then it was time to party, with party hats, blowers, streamers, crackers and singing. We enjoyed the company of the two Health Service staff who sat with us on the flights both ways – Heather and Becky.
They announced the winners of the earlier colouring competition and some children received large cuddly teddies as their prizes.
Then there was communication from Santa that our flight had won the international colouring competition, so every child received a lovely Santa sack containing a really nice soft toy reindeer – my daughter was thrilled – she will treasure those items.
Towards the end of the flight little Nadine finally succumbed to sleep – all the children had been so good.
Miriam and I arrived home just before midnight, having had a wonderful day, creating some very special memories together.