Carrie Vessels says she and her siblings were “devastated” when they learned in early August that small cell lung cancer had spread throughout their father, Ronnie “Joe” Bell’s, body.
With Ronnie and his wife, Carol Bell’s, 29th wedding anniversary fast approaching, Vessels, her five siblings and two aunts decided to plan a special dinner for the couple to celebrate their love.
“We weren’t even sure he was gonna make it to that day, but he did. He’s still here,” Vessels, 41, tells PEOPLE of her father. “We knew it would be the last one. We wanted to do a big 30th one, but he’s not gonna make it to their 30th [anniversary]. So we wanted to make the 29th special.”
The group began planning the surprise just three days before the big day, August 25th, Vessels says. On the couple’s anniversary, Vessels and her relatives gathered at Ronnie and Carol’s Otterbein, Indiana, home. When their parents were out of the room for just five minutes, the family sprung into action.
Vessels says she, her siblings and aunts quickly decorated a table with a candle, flowers, old photos of the Bells, and their favorite meals.
“When he walked out he said, ‘Awe man!’ He was just smiling. He hadn’t smiled in a while. My mom immediately started crying,” Vessels recalls of the sweet surprise. “We wanted my mom to remember this day as special, not just another day that he was dying.”
After unveiling the surprise, the group stepped outside so Ronnie and Carol could enjoy their anniversary dinner in private.
“There’s been so much emphasis on the death that we wanted to make it a happy day,” Vessels says. “I came outside and I pretty much lost it because I knew this would be the last one. They love each other so much.”
Ronnie was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer in 2016 and, on Aug. 13, he decided to spend his final days at home with his family after learning the cancer had metastasized.
“He’s a fighter and he tried to fight it so hard. These last few weeks have been horrible,” Vessels, who first shared her story with Love What Matters, tells PEOPLE.
“I can’t imagine not having all the kids calling their papaw, not having papaw around. But we know it’s gonna happen. He knows, he’ll tell you, ‘Don’t cry for me, I’m going to a better place.’ “
With the end drawing near, Vessels tells PEOPLE that she and her siblings plan to be there for her mother as much as possible.
“We worry about my mom,” she says. “She’ll be left alone but we won’t let her be alone. We’ll be right here with her.”