April 06, 2015 12:00 PM

Celine Dion is in her element. It’s mid-March and she’s onstage at Caesars Palace’s the Colosseum for the first time since her abrupt hiatus last year, delivering a few bars on a whim and cracking jokes. But at one point she takes a step back to share a quiet moment with her husband of 20 years, René Angélil. Holding his face, grown visibly thinner from his ongoing battle with cancer, she whispers in his ear in their native French and plants a kiss on his cheek. “I always remember that saying when you get married: ‘In sickness and in health,’ ” Dion says later. “I am scared of losing him, because it’s bad … but I have to show myself, my husband and my kids that I’m strong and we’re okay.”

Dion has been working overtime to ensure her family’s well-being, leaving her Las Vegas residency indefinitely in August to be with Angélil, 73, and their three sons, René-Charles, 14, and twins Eddy and Nelson, 41⁄2. “It really took a toll,” explains Dion of juggling her career with caring for her ailing husband, who had been recovering from throat cancer surgery, and their kids. “When I stopped performing, I wanted to be just a wife and a mother.” But after some months at home, they began planning her comeback before receiving another blow: Angélil’s cancer had come back for a third time. (He was first diagnosed in 1999.) Yet they decided to move forward with her return – kicking off Aug. 27 – at the urging of Angélil. Says Dion, tearing up: “He wants me to sing again, and I want to do this with him.”

The couple, who began dating when Dion was 20 and Angélil, her manager, was 46, have a marriage that has always thrived in adversity. “It’s made us stronger,” she says of their struggles, which, besides Angélil’s health issues, have included a miscarriage, fertility problems and Dion’s own throat illness that sidelined her last year. “We’ve been through a lot and we’re not questioning, ‘What happened and why? And how come again?’ We just have to get through it the best possible way.” Still, she admits, “sickness is tough; it’s not something you choose.” Today, Angélil remains unable to speak due to extensive throat surgery, has difficulty hearing because of past radiation treatments and eats through a feeding tube. Dion’s return to the stage is just one of several “baby steps” the family is taking. “You just have to live every day to the fullest…. We don’t know what the future will bring, so we decided to just go for it.”

Days at home in Las Vegas are indeed full– and happy – with the center of their lives being their three children. “The twins are fine because they’re young,” says Dion. “But I’m worried about RC. He understands what’s going on, and I feel a lot of empathy for him and I want him to feel like he can talk [about things].” Still, the teenager, who is homeschooled, is thriving and coming into his own. “RC is very athletic,” says Dion with a proud smile. “He’s playing a lot of golf and hockey. We’re always going to the games supporting him.” As for her vivacious twins, “they go from the pool to the sandbox to the crayons, and then there was potty-training,” she says with a smirk. “That took us a while!” It’s these three energetic faces that give her strength. “They help me to keep busy and stay positive,” she says. “I just can’t sit around and worry.” Even when she has “those days,” it’s about keeping life moving. “I’m enjoying the time I have with them and my mommy life and my wife life. It’s wonderful.”

She’s also finding renewed joy in music. “At one point,” says Dion, “it was too hard” performing night after night. But with some help from her husband, she has found a way to come to terms with being an entertainer and a wife and a mom. “He was ready before me!” says Dion with a laugh. “He amazes me. I feel very fortunate I still have him…René has a little written destiny, but what exactly and when, nobody knows, and we’re not waiting for it.” In the weeks and months ahead, they’re looking forward to Easter-egg painting and a busy, fun summer before Dion gets back to work. Envisioning that opening night in August, the singer take a deep breath. “René will be in the audience,” she says. “I promise there will be high, happy notes, but it’s going to be very emotional for me. Music is my passion, and my family is my life.”

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