Moira

I heard your voice in a supermarket the other day, Moira. I turned around, really expecting to see you standing there. The woman who the voice belonged to regarded me quizzically while I stared at her face expecting yours to materialize. For a moment I forgot that you are dead.

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There is no light way to say that. It is what it is.

Dead.

A young life snubbed by a disease no one ever wants to encounter.

Cancer.

I haven’t seen you in person in more than ten years, as you emigrated to Canada ages ago, but I remember your smile and infectious laugh so clearly. And how you used to put your fingers on either side of your tummy when you were pregnant with one of your boys to block their ears if someone swore nearby. You loved your two precious boys, Calvin and Julian, with all your might.

Facebook kept us in touch over the years, albeit superficially. Liking each other’s statuses and oohing and ah-ing at each others’ growing children’s photos. And then Gary was diagnosed with kidney cancer and you told me about your headaches and needing to go for a brain scan. It was nothing really, you said, and that you had tried everything to make the headaches stop. Drugs, physio, nothing helped. So the MRI was a last resort. They found a massive lump in your brain, which turned out to be cancerous. They operated, removed all of it, and you were in good spirits, and then some belated post-surgery complication a while later knocked you for six.

Dead.

It has taken me a few months to digest this, and write this post. Gary’s cancer was still very much an open wound when you died.

Dead.

Just like that.  I still have the last email you sent me; you were so positive: the headaches were gone, you were feeling stronger. Telling me how you had (almost) beaten cancer. You were commending me for being strong during Gary’s ordeal, encouraging me to be positive, even after the huge ordeal you had been through. You were going for radiation and joked about them frying your brain. You were struggling to sleep, but remained so upbeat, despite the doctors also having found lesions on your liver. So positive. Oblivious of the ticking time bomb in your own body.

And then a few days later I saw a mutual friend’s Facebook status: “RIP Moira.” And I was like “WHAT!” A few emails later confirmed the unthinkable. You were gone. Your boys were unmothered.

I think about your boys often, wonder how they are doing without their mom. (One of my biggest fears is dying while my children are still young.)  I think of your husband, I wonder if he feels lonely, or sad, or if he is angry at you for dying. I’m sure they all miss you more than anything. How does a child get over their mom dying prematurely?

I also think of how closely our lives were intertwined for those moments: Gary and you both dealing with cancer.

I still cannot process the fact that you are dead. It rips my soul apart every time I think about it.

Young people shouldn’t die.

Moms shouldn’t die dammit!

RIP Moira. (May God hold you safely in a special place.)

The trouble with being little

Barring the last week, Alex has been having a bit of a rough time since school started again this year. Being quite a reserved child, he sometimes struggles to fit in with the crowd. I can relate, because I was never really a mainstream kid. He has always been quite an intense child, we even saw him frowning in-utero during his 4D ultrasound! Even from tiny, he would suss things out before engaging with a new group of kids, or trying out a new activity. He doesn’t particularly care for crowds and much prefers one-on-one attention. I always assumed that it was because he only started school at three, and was naturally shy, but the more I observe him, the more I realise that he is a little different to the other kids. And specifically to the other boys. But not in a bad way. Alex is a sensitive child, and is clearly a thinker (a trait he has gained from me, and from his dad, so he has a double dose!) He is always polite and waits his turn, sometimes to his own detriment, as the other kids barge in front of him. He is a worrier and seems to carry the weight of the world on his tiny shoulders some days.

When I see the boys in his class playing fighting games and running around pretending to shoot each other, I can understand why Alex prefers the company of girls; he is just not into that stuff. So as a result, all of Alex’s school friends are girls. But by the same token, he loves typical boy things such as cars, planes, ball games etc, and his latest obsession: vikings and dragons. He has told me on many occasions that he does not like the fighting games that the boys play, because they are too rough. (But he is perfectly happy to rough-house with Gary or his older brothers, go figure!) He loves anything to do with animals, and I could fully see him being a vet, or an animal rights activist, in the future. While the other boys are watching Ben 10 and Spiderman, Alex prefers “A dolphin tale” and “How to train your dragon” (and mainly because the dragon is a pet!)

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So the trouble began when we started school again this year, and his friend Bianca was not there. (She has some medical issues requiring surgery this year and her parents decided to home-school her.) The classes are always mixed up at the beginning of the year, and as a result there are new kids in his class, and only a few from last year. And more importantly, the girls are starting to only play with girls. Which leaves poor Alex in a bit of a quandary. We have many conversations on the way home that go something like this:

“Did you have a nice day boy”

“No. I had a terrible day”

“Why?”

“Somebody hurt my feelings”

“Who, boy?”

“Carmen…” (or Vicky or Jessica etc…)

“What did they do my love?”

“Nobody wants to play with me … ” (tears at this point)

“Why don’t you play with the boys then, sweetheart?”

“I don’t like fighting games.” (now full-on sobbing)

And my heart breaks for him.

Alex has been teary quite a lot at school too. His teacher has mentioned this to me on a few occasions and asked me if there are any major issues in Alex’s life right now. She told me that she has asked him if anything is bothering him, and he sometimes gets very teary and (after a lot of coaxing) says things like his tummy is sore or he is missing his brother (Stuart has been away in New Orleans since November last year.) And whilst on some days he is perfectly happy and full of the joys of spring, the kid is clearly on an emotional roller coaster. Being in grade 0 this year also means that the pressure has increased big time, so it is important that he feels settled. By the same token, if I see that he is feeling down at home and ask him what is wrong, he gives me lines such as “I don’t like that movie we saw… ” or “I don’t want to swim because the water goes in my eyes…” or some other random statement, but I never get to the bottom of what is really going on. And the more I ask him what is really troubling him, the more upset he gets.

As parents we just want our kids to be happy, but no matter what I do to try to understand what’s eating him up inside, I just can’t seem to get through to him!

Which brings me to another issue: the sore tummy. I have also been at the receiving end of many complaints of “my tummy is sore”, usually preceded by something he does not want to do, which at the moment is just about everything. Not wanting to go swimming, not wanting to go to bed, not wanting to go to soccer, not wanting to eat dinner, not wanting to tidy up, being refused a new toy at the shops etc. So to be honest, I have doubted that there is anything physically wrong with his tummy, and that he has just been using it as an excuse to get attention. However, I am also not insensitive to the impact that Gary’s kidney issue last year has had on Alex, as he has asked me many times: “What will happen if I get a lump on my kidney? Will I die?” And “What happens if daddy gets a lump on his other kidney? Will he die?” etc. I always try to reassure him that he is fine, and daddy is fine, and no-one is going to die right now. So for good measure, I decided to take him to the paed just to be sure, and the doc confirmed that there is nothing to be concerned about. I also got the good doctor to check his kidneys too, which are obviously fine, but I felt terrible when the poor boy whispered to me as we got into the car: “I was very nervous when Dr Slowatek checked my kidneys mommy!”

Breaks my heart some more.

So as much as he seems a little happier at the moment, I still think that he is carrying around some issues, which I don’t know how to help him resolve. I would guess that the problem lies somewhere between Bianca being gone, Stuart being away, and Gary’s health-scare, but when I ask him about any of these things he just gets upset, and cannot verbalise his true feelings. Maybe its none of these things and I am jumping to conclusions.

I have considered taking him to a play therapist, but I have heard so many mixed reviews about these types of therapies. Some kids blossom during the process, and for some it’s a total waste of time (and money.) And my cynical mind thinks that we never had the luxury of therapists to sort out all our problems when we were kids, and we ultimately turned out just fine. But I also appreciate that kids these days are under a LOT more pressure than we ever were. I also don’t want Alex to become completely withdrawn as he clearly already struggles to express his feelings.

So later today I have a meeting with the school psychologist… wish me luck! (And here’s hoping we get to the bottom of this!)

Is this a dream?

I started writing this post almost two weeks ago, amidst the craziest, most emotionally draining week of my life. I could not bring myself to hit publish, as if saying the words out loud made them real, and the real-ness of all this was something I was not quite ready for. The temptation to predict an outcome would have been too great. I just didn’t want to go there.

So now, with the clarity that only hindsight can bring, I have the courage to say this out loud. (Well, write it down anyway!)

Three weeks ago, my husband had cancer.

I say had, because right now the cancer is sitting in a jar in a lab somewhere. Along with his right kidney.

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(Post originally written in the early hours of the morning on 17 November)

Is this a dream?

I have possibly just had the most bizarre ten days of my life. As I write this, Gary is lying in a hospital bed recovering from major surgery.

… On Wednesday the 6th of November I received a call from my husband who was on his way to an early morning  meeting. He told me that he was in so much pain that he could hardly drive. As if someone had stabbed him in the back.

I was in the middle of the school run, so I told him to go to casualty at the hospital. (There had also been some blood in his urine that morning, so we suspected that he perhaps had kidney stones.)

When I got to the hospital, he was busy having an MRI scan, and then we waited (sort of) patiently for them to tell us he had kidney stones. The ER doctor came in and told us that he didn’t have kidney stones, but that the scan showed some sort of mass on his right kidney. (Which was bleeding…) It was one of those moments where time seemed to slow down and I could hear my heart beating in my ears. Apparently the severe pain was caused by the blood passing through the ureter, which also explained why his urine was the colour of Merlot.

He was admitted to the hospital, and before we knew it, he was in ICU hooked up to machines and monitors, and being pumped with pethidine to manage the pain and various other drugs to stop the bleeding, under the care of a (very brilliant) urologist. (Side note: the ICU is absolutely crazy. It’s filled with people who are incredibly ill, high on serious prescription medication, and who demonstrate some hectic, totally insane behaviour, like screaming, demanding attention, shouting for their spouses, undressing themselves and threatening the (very jaded) nurses. One guy apparently had to be restrained in his bed that night.)

A few more MRIs and a needle biopsy later, it was established that the tumour was about 8cm in diameter and cancerous. (Kidneys are about 12 x 6 cm.) My heart nearly stopped. I could feel the blood draining out of my face, making me feel light-headed. Every test that was done after that just seemed to give us more and more bad news.

The few days that followed that Wednesday morning are a complete blur. I cried myself to sleep every night, and spent my days in a haze of worry. I was so scared. I cannot even begin to imagine the thoughts that were going through Gary’s head while he was lying in that hospital bed. We did not dare have a conversation about what might happen. NOT knowing was absolute agony.  He was so strong. So positive. I tried so hard to be strong, for myself, for Gary, for my children, for everyone. I knew that he was angry that this had happened, as he lives so healthily, he eats well, exercises, hardly drinks alcohol and doesn’t smoke. This was a complete slap in the face of healthy living. By Wednesday evening, he was feeling terrible. He was in a lot of pain, and constantly retching and vomiting from all the drugs. At that point we still didn’t know what the mass was, so the what-if scenarios in our heads were playing havoc with our emotions. I left the hospital feeling petrified.  I did not dare allow myself to cry in front of the kids, the babies and the older boys included. The little ones knew daddy was away for a few days, and we left it at that. (Gary was actually supposed to be leaving for a golf trip the next day.)

On Thursday morning, I had an emotional breakdown outside the locked ICU door, begging them to let me see my husband. (There are no visitors allowed in the morning.) I did not mean to cry when they finally let me in, but I honestly could not stop the tears from falling out of my eyes. I felt so bad for letting Gary see me so upset, when he was the one stuck in a hospital bed, but I have honestly never been so scared in my life. My heart was completely broken. My mind was in over-drive, conjuring up all the worst-case scenarios, despite trying so hard to have only positive thoughts. I spent the rest of the week going backwards and forwards to the hospital, and trying to keep my sanity intact, and stop myself from crying every time I spoke to someone, or each time someone said that they were praying for us. My coping mechanism was to keep everything as normal as possible, despite offers from friends to help with the kids. So I just carried on as normal. Hard-core as someone pointed out. Little did they know that my emotional state was more fragile than a new-born baby bird.

But living in limbo is exhausting.

I feel guilty for feeling so broken when I am not even the one that this is happening to.

He was released from the hospital on the Saturday morning following the needle biopsy, and by Monday we knew that the mass was a cancerous tumour. The surgeon had literally spent hours analysing the various scans and test results to determine the best way to deal with the situation. It sounds crazy, but because of the bleeding, he could not see where or how the tumour was attached, and what had caused the bleed. The options were to remove the tumour and try to save some of the kidney function, which posed a risk of spreading the cancer, or remove the tumour and the kidney to be 100% sure that they removed all the cancerous tissue. And then we were thrown another curve-ball: the left kidney seemed to have impaired function, so he needed to be able to predict what was going to happen if the right kidney was removed.

The surgery was scheduled for Saturday the 16th of November. The surgery lasted almost six hours of (AKA the longest six hours of my life). The surgeon ended up removing the tumour, the right kidney, the adrenal gland and most of the ureter.

The kidney and it’s lump are gone from our lives forever.

And here I am, awake at 3AM, grateful that he is alive and that this awful experience is (mostly) behind us.

(Added today)

It is hard to describe the emotional roller coaster that we have all been through over the last three weeks since they found the tumour. I feel so jaded. My body has gone into survival mode following two weeks of little to no sleep, and I am now sleeping like I am in a coma. I feel exhausted all the time. I am still trying to digest the reality of all of this, and the impact that it has had (and will still have) on our lives. I am so grateful that we found out about the tumour, albeit in a very unpleasant way for Gary. The tumour was staged as T3A. Who knows what would have happened if it had continued to grow without us even knowing it was there. Oh. My. God.

Gary is doing well. He came home after only five days in hospital. The doctor was amazed at how quickly he has recovered, and he is getting stronger each day. He is in pain; a lot of pain, but each day he seems to move a little easier, and seems to feel a little better. He is a fighter of the highest degree. It’s a slow process, but in true Gary-fashion, he is embracing the healing process, being (sort-of) patient, and allowing himself time to heal. In fact he is already lecturing everyone on getting annual precautionary scans done of their organs. (A colleague was visiting Gary in hospital, and the doctor happened to be there and asked how he was. He replied “Clearly better than Gary!” to which the doctor replied “But how do you know?” A sombre thought, but a wake-up call for all of us to get ourselves checked.)

Incidents like this have a way of forcing you to take stock of your life, and question what is really important. They test your ability to survive, and how you react under pressure. They test the strength of your relationships. They test your belief in God. They make you consider your own mortality… I am grateful that our relationship is strong, and believe that we can get through anything together.

I found this quote posted by someone on Facebook a few days after this all happened, by Haruki Murakami, such perfect timing: “And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”

I am definitely not the same person that walked into this, I am still feeling quite jaded and emotionally fragile. I am still afraid. But just like the physical scar on my husband’s body, with time this will heal, and our perfect lives will be normal again.

Pain

Pain is the body’s way of letting the brain know that something is wrong. From a simple tooth ache, to a broken limb, the pain receptors send the messages to let us know that we must take some action.

In January 2012, while down in Ballito, I woke up one morning and literally had to roll out of bed. My lower back was in spasm, and everything I did hurt like hell. I could not pick up my then seven month old baby, I could not sit or stand without almost falling down again in agony. It was an effort to walk or move. My back felt broken, without any explanation as to what I had done to it. So I spent every third or fourth day of the holiday at the Physio, just to be able to move freely. She tried everything, including acupuncture, but I was still left feeling not quite right. (I remember one of the needles coming out of my back looking like a cork-screw in response to a muscle spasm as she tapped the needle in.)

Eighteen months on, and a small fortune spent on Physios, Chiros, Biokineticists, personal-trainers and anti-inflammatories, I still feel like my back is somewhat broken. In January this year I was advised by my Physio to see an orthopaedic surgeon, and after waiting four months to get an appointment, I finally saw him two weeks ago.

After spending an hour in radiography, and another hour in the waiting room, I finally got to explain my long sob-story of my always-fucking-sore back to the surgeon. After being prodded and poked, and being told to lift my legs, bend, move from side-to-side etc. (and listening to him relay my medical history into a hand-held tape-recorder while I changed out of the lovely green hospital gown that shows your bum to everyone) he told me that I may have a tear in one of my disks. Gulp.

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Fast forward two weeks, and I found myself lying in a tube being subjected to a major magnetic force. After removing any metal from my body: anything with zips, jewelry, underwire bra; I lay there wondering if people with metal implants in their bodies would stick to the inside of the machine or if the metal parts would try to make their way out of their bodies. I was feeling very grateful that I no longer have any metal fillings in my mouth. I was given some head-phones to wear during the scan, to listen to the radio and to block out the cacophony produced by the MRI machine. It was freezing in the examination room, so they covered me with two blankets, and braced my head into place.

I was slid into the tube at about 11.40 AM, and after what felt like forty minutes, I heard Alex Jay announce that it had just gone Mid-day. Surely I hadn’t been in there for only twenty minutes! What felt like another ten minutes passed. My heart started to pound, I felt the walls of the machine closing in on me, the noise became deafening, I could not breathe. My logical mind said “Calm down, you are in an MRI machine, you are not underground. Breathe. Stop panicking. Only twenty minutes left. You can do this. The machine cannot crush you. This is all in your imagination. Breathe dammit.”

My body felt hot, and I could hear my own blood pumping in my ears. (My mind: “So this is what a panic attack feels like. Calm down. This will be over soon. Don’t move.”) I have never been claustrophobic; I have never avoided crowded lifts, jam-packed cars or small spaces. I thought of a story that Johnny Clegg tells about his song African Sky Blue: How when the gold miners are up to 5km underground, all they can think about is when they will see the beautiful African blue sky above them again. I could see the surveillance camera on the ceiling behind the machine thru a tiny gap behind my head: It was like my blue sky, to help me try to calm-the-fuck-down. It’s a bit like staring at the shore when you are on a boat and feeling sea-sick. I could feel the bile rising in my throat, and wondering how I would be able to turn my head if I needed to puke. (Funny what the mind conjures up when you are stuck in a tube.)

A voice: “Are you okay, Mrs Lawrence?” Clearly I was looking somewhat stressed.

Me: “Um, yes. Sort of.” Voice inside my head screaming “Get me out of here, I’m drowning!”

The voice again: “We only have one section left. About five minutes”

Me: “Okay” *Gulp*

Pep-talk inside my head: “Five minutes. You can do this. Keep still. DON’T SCREAM. Breathe …”

After what felt like half an hour, the noise stopped and I felt the machine move. And then, suddenly the hospital ceiling was above me again. Beautiful blue sky.

And now I wait with baited breath for the phone-call to tell me what is really wrong with my back.

The Joys of Parenting. Not

Alex has a nasty bug brewing in his tonsils, and has literally been man-down since Saturday afternoon. (Unless you count the half an hour or so windows after the Neurofen Syrup has been imbibed, and he is bouncing off the walls for a little bit. What DO they put into that stuff?) It is heart-breaking watching him in this very poor state, and I have been having flash-backs of our time in December / January when he was so sick that I didn’t know what to do. His temperature has been yo-yo-ing between 38 and 40 degrees the whole time.

On late Sunday afternoon, we ventured out to the Linksfield Hospital, to see if someone could help my ailing boy, and help us get his constantly rising temperature down, but the whole trip was a disaster. The Casualty section was very busy, and completely disorganised. We waited for over half an hour, before we had even done the paper-work, and it was freezing in the waiting room. Poor Alex was sitting on my lap shaking, with his lips turning blue (despite having about 4 layers of clothing on) and his temperature rising even more. With no prospect of being seen imminently, we decided to leave. When we got home, I raided the medicine box to see if we had anything other than Calpol, Empaped or Voltaren suppositories, because clearly none of these were helping to sink the 40 degree temperature. I found a bottle of Neurofen Syrup that was still sealed, and thankfully had not expired. 5ml and half an hour later: temperature gone. A few SMS’s were fired off to one of my friends who is a GP, and an agreement reached to take him into her rooms first thing in the morning. I already knew he had tonsilitis, as he had that something-crawled-into-his-mouth-and-died smell on his breath.

Neurofen has about a 4 hour window of effectiveness it seems, as by 10 PM we were back to a 40 degree temp, this time accompanied by vomiting. Queue Empaped suppositories, as those at least stay in. (Despite the fact that having a suppository administered is probably number one on Alex’s list of stuff he hates. Poor little guy.)

So, bright and early on Monday morning, we were in the doctor’s office, Alex once again sitting on my lap like a hot potato and shivering because he was so cold. Temp reading: 39. The doctor confirmed tonsilitis and sent us packing with a script for antibiotics and more Neurofen to keep the temperature at bay. While filling the script, I asked the pharmacist to give me a dose of the Neurofen syrup to try and get a handle on the temp before we got home. As soon as he swallowed the gloopy liquid, it came straight back out again. Along with the only bit of liquid that had passed his lips since Saturday, which happened to be blue energade. I had to choice but to catch his blue vomit in my hands. Yuck. Not exactly a feel-good parenting moment.

He spent the rest of the day, and all of Tuesday pretty much like this:

(wash, rinse, repeat)

Thankfully, this morning, for the first time since Saturday he woke up without a temperature, and he even had enough energy to give me crap a challenge getting him dressed. So it seems he is on the mend. *crosses fingers*

Caris, however, woke up with the snottiest nose I have seen in a long time. Oh, the joys of parenting.

Give me a naughty child any day

Day six of forty degree temperatures on and off and I am at my wits end. My boy shows small glimmers of his usual demeanour in the “pumped up on empaped” window. The rest of the time, he sleeps, whines, or stares blankly at the TV. We usually have an energiser bunny on our hands, who can’t sit still for a moment. It’s driving me crazy and I don’t know what else to try. I’m missing my little whirlwind running through the house, laughing and playing. I would rather have him being on his worst behaviour than this. Give me a naughty child any day, this sick one is breaking my heart.

Hello 2012!

It’s January 1st and I feel like I have been out partying all night. Although my “hangover” is due to a lack of sleep and not over-indulgence. Alex has been sick for almost two weeks. Our holiday has included 2 trips to the emergency room (real trips this time) and one visit to a GP. He has had temperatures of 40, on and off for the last 4 days, so with doses of Calpol, 2 courses of antibiotics, voltaren suppositories and wrapping him in tepid towels we have been playing yo-yo with his temperature. Alex tends to vomit when his temp exceeds 38, so we’ve been cleaning up a lot of that too.

So last night, just after midnight while everyone was screaming happy new year and letting off noisy fireworks, I was running a tepid bath for my poor, poor boy. He spent the rest of the night sleeping in between us, feeling like someone had sneaked a hot potato into our bed. Wash, rinse and repeat at about 4, including more vomiting, and diarrhoea for good measure . To add to our woes, we found out from the chemist yesterday, when we filled the script for the top-up antibiotics and more voltaren suppositories that the casualty doctor grossly over-prescribed when giving us the suppositories, and the antibiotics. So I am hoping with all my soul that the 3 suppositories that were more than double the dose he should be having for his age and weight, have not caused any lasting damage. (Caris slept through the whole ordeal).

I’m definitely sending an email to hospital management.

So the start to the year has not been a good one, and I am really worried about my boy.

2011 was an interesting year, with a mix of highs and lows.

We were in Ballito last year as well, and I remember standing in the shower on the morning of January first, and crying my eyes out. I was 22 weeks pregnant with Caris, feeling very sorry for myself and my unplanned pregnancy. Gary was grumpy with me because we had stayed home on New Years eve, and to top it off, I had had a huge argument with Craig on Christmas day that was still creating an uncomfortable vibe in the house. Then to add more fuel to the fire, Stuart said something that really pissed me off, and as I stood in the shower drowning my sorrows, I contemplated walking away from everything, playing scenarios of being a single mom of two in my head. (Cue dramatic music) Step-parenting sometimes sucks in a big way, and I’m still waiting for my medal in the post.

So now that I think about it, 2011 got off to a shitty start as well.

Some Lows:

* “The terrible twos”: clingyness, whining, general non-compliance (exacerbated by the impending arrival of a new baby)
* My mother being hospitalised for pneumonia, which gave me a huge wake up in terms of my childcare “plan B”
* My father being diagnosed with macular degeneration
* Saying goodbye to some toxic friendships
* A divorce in the family

A Few Highs:

* The birth of my sweet baby girl, little Miss-happy, Caris. Watching her grow and develop and turn into edible cuteness.
* Alex starting school, and watching him blossom and learn new stuff every day. (Also, sadly seeing Alex “my baby”, become a “big boy” overnight)
* No more nappies for Alex!
* Having 6 months off work! And having had some time to reflect on whether or not I am still happy doing what I’m doing. I can see that 2012 will be a year of big changes for me.
* Starting a blog – it is amazing what a great outlet writing is. Even if no-one reads it, seeing my thoughts in black and white is incredibly therapeutic.

So, while the year has launched off with a rather bumpy start, I just have a feeling in my bones that it will be a good year.

Happy new year.