WRAPPING up the mountain of new dolls, clothes and Avengers toys, Michelle Pearson smiled as she thought of her children's delighted faces on Christmas Day.
But tragically, the mum-of-six would never get the chance to give them their gifts – after an arson attack ripped through their family home, killing four of the youngsters.
Michelle's children Demi, 15, Brandon, eight, Lacie, seven, and Lia, three, all died after two lit petrol bombs were hurled inside their home as they slept in December 2017.
The four kids, excited for Christmas, died from smoke inhalation and burns after the blaze tore through the Manchester house, turning their presents into piles of ash.
And 20 months later, severely-burnt Michelle, 37, also died in hospital, having lived long enough to learn of her beloved children's fate.
I hear Michelle shouting me – ‘Mam’ – all the time. I know they’re here. They'll definitely be here to share Christmas with us
For Michelle's grieving mum Sandra Lever, Christmas is now the "worst" time of the year. Yet, through her anguish, she says she finds comfort in her late daughter and grandchildren's 'presence' in her home – and it will be no different this Friday.
“We hear them," Sandra, 59, exclusively tells The Sun Online.
"I’ve been in this house 38 years and I’d never heard or seen anything, and now I hear all sorts. I hear Michelle shouting me – ‘Mam’ – all the time.
"I know they’re here. They'll definitely be here to share Christmas with us."
This year's festive season is particularly difficult for Sandra.
"People always say to me, 'oh, it must be getting easier now, three years on', but it’s not. I think it’s getting harder," adds the heartbroken gran.
"And this year, because of the pandemic and everyone staying in, I think it’s been even worse. We’ve just been thinking more about them.”
Years of festive joy
For Sandra's "kind-hearted" daughter Michelle, Christmas was always a time of joy.
As a mother of six, the Christmas tree at her home in Jackson Street, Walkden, was always swamped by heaps of presents from her and other generous relatives.
“You couldn’t see the tree because of presents!" laughs Sandra.
"She used to stack them that high!
"We used to say, ‘oh my God, Michelle!’ She’d go, ‘Ohhh it’s Christmas!’ The kids absolutely loved looking at all the presents.”
She adds: "Michelle always made it dead special. She’s like a child herself. She absolutely loved Christmas – she was more excited for the kids.
“They were never short of presents."
But Michelle also made sure other, disadvantaged youngsters didn't go without: she would do a deep-clean before Christmas and give away any decent old toys.
"She'd give them to other children who didn’t have owt," says Sandra.
A doting mum
Every Christmas Eve, Michelle let her children open one present each.
They'd then spend Christmas Day together, before visiting Sandra's home on Boxing Day – where her grandson Brandon would make the most of her 'help yourself' spreads.
"Michelle loved being at home on Christmas Day," says the brave gran, also from Walkden. "She loved just doing her own dinner and letting the kids play with their toys.”
The year of the fire, Michelle had done all of her Christmas shopping
“She’d bought them all, she had everything," recalls Sandra.
"She always started early. She got all the boys their clothes, the girls their dolls, prams and everything. And it was stacked up in the bedroom ready to put under the tree.
"I remember her wrapping them."
Boy's heartbreaking final gift
Even little Brandon had made a start on his own Christmas gifts – writing out festive cards for his schoolmates and placing a stick of "chuddie" in each one as a treat.
“He did a mixture – chocolate and chewing gum," Sandra tells us.
"He was so kind and loving, Brandon. He was always picking flowers. If he saw anyone on the street who he knew, he’d go ‘here’s a flower!'"
But sadly, neither Michelle's presents, nor Brandon's cards, would be opened.
They were found scorched – with the gifts completely unsalvageable – after the family's home was petrol-bombed in the dead of night on December 11, 2017.
"They all got burned," Sandra says of the Christmas presents.
"Not much was saved."
My daughter bought Lacie a Frozen suitcase… we got that out actually. There was just a bit of dust on it
During the blaze, Michelle desperately tried to save her babies, even carrying young Lia to the bath. Neighbours heard her screaming, "Not the kids! Not my kids!".
Among the very little salvaged from the ash was a Scooby Doo set for Brandon and a Frozen suitcase for Lacie – both of which were passed on to young relatives.
"My daughter bought Lacie a Frozen suitcase because they always go to Pontins and she wanted her own," says Sandra.
"We got that out actually. There was just a bit of dust on it."
Sandra had also bought and lovingly wrapped some gifts for her grandkids herself.
For more than a year after the blaze, she kept them tucked away, untouched, in her wardrobe. But last year, she made the courageous decision to unwrap them.
'I still have my grandchild's gift'
The items have since been given to Sandra's grandson and great-granddaughter. Today, she has only Lacie's present left – an adorable set of zebra pyjamas.
“I’ve still got Lacie's because I haven’t got anyone that age really," she says.
“I didn’t want to part with the presents but I thought, it’s time.”
She adds that it wasn't too difficult in the end because she knows the items remain within the family. "I know they’ll look after them because they’re special," she tells us.
Following the arson attack three years ago, Michelle – who has two surviving children – spent months in a coma in hospital, with burns to 75 per cent of her body.
When she awoke, she had to be repeatedly told her children had died due to memory loss and 'denial'. "Her kids were her life. She absolutely adored them," Sandra says.
As a mother, it’s hard when your kids are not here. I only lost Michelle – Michelle lost four
Devastatingly, Michelle was unable to attend her own kids' funeral in 2018. And in August 2019, she passed away in hospital, clutching a picture of her children.
Sandra, who still has flashbacks of the fire, told us that while she was desperate for Michelle to stay with her, she "knew she would be happy being with the children."
"As a mother, it’s hard when your kids are not here," she said.
"I only lost Michelle – Michelle lost four."
Last Christmas – her first without Michelle – was really difficult for Sandra. "When you have five children and you only write four cards out, it’s hard," she added.
And this year, the coronavirus crisis has only made her and the rest of the family's grief harder to bear, preventing them from supporting each other in person.
“We’ve all been thinking about the kids,” says Sandra today.
"My son can hear them walking across the landing.”
A special visitor
A couple of months ago, one of Sandra's other daughters was visiting her when she spotted a small figure in a mirror in the corner of the room.
"She said, 'mam, there’s a girl in the mirror'," Sandra recalls.
"She took a picture and you could see – it was Lacie."
A medium later confirmed to the gran: "It was Lacie, she’s come to see you."
Today, Sandra is still living a "nightmare" from which she can't escape.
“The past three years have just been awful," she admits, adding that Michelle should have been celebrating her 39th birthday this week.
"[But] Christmas is the worst."
On Christmas Day, Sandra plans to spend time with her son and his children at her home – where they will pay tribute to Michelle, Demi, Brandon, Lacie and Lia.
"We'll sit at the table, light a candle and do a little prayer," says the gran, who has personalised baubles hanging up on her tree in memory of her five "angels".
“We talk to them all nearly every day.
"If I’m having a bad day, I’ll go, 'oh Michelle, I wish you were here'.
"We’ll definitely talk to them on Christmas Day."
And while she has no doubt Michelle and her children will be "here" with her on Friday, Sandra also believes they'll be celebrating Christmas themselves.
"She’ll definitely be celebrating it up there with the kids, looking down at us," she says.
"They’ll definitely be here too.
"Michelle loved any special day like Christmas. She loved celebrating it with everyone, so I know she’ll be happy this year with the kids."
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