Thinking & Feeling

“The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.” Horace Walpole

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

The healing power of telling your story....

I was recently asked to talk at a friend's women's group gathering. I was surprised to be asked, and didn't know why I was chosen or what I was meant to speak about. When I was told 'just talk about yourself'. I couldn't imagine why. I mean what do I have to say that matters to anyone else??

But because the person who asked is simple lovely and I wanted to help her, I said yes. And I have to say that in the end it was the most enriching and fulfilling thing to do. I still feel the warm fuzziness of being able to share my precious children's stories. And for their stories to matter and for them and their names to be remembered through the retelling...

It was such a healing and heart warming experience. I am so glad I decided to do it!
This is what I said (and yes it's a consolidation of several of my other previous writings).
And it was accompanied by a large collection of photo memories in a slide show.

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Hello everybody. Some of you here sort of know me. Or know at least part of my story already. And you mostly know the story of one of the biggest tragedies and regrets of my life. It's not an easy story to tell, nor to hear. My intention is not to focus just on the tragedy though, but rather to tell the bigger story. The story of how Nathaniel’s story came to be, and what has happened since. It's quite a long story.

I have long-said that given a choice between stuff and an experience I will always choose the experience. I have come to learn that your life-memories and learnings are usually formed around connections & experiences. And they usually happen when you did something different. When you said yes, and tried something unusual, rather than just following your regular routine.

I mean, who remembers all the times you brushed your teeth, made your bed, went to the gym or did the laundry last year? Right? But I bet you remember the time you decided 'screw the laundry' and went to the beach instead. Not to say that you should always do that. The normal day-to-day stuff does need to be done, but sometimes you should mix it up! That’s where the LIVING happens.

This is why shortly after my divorce, rather than fix up my house (which actually really did need a makeover), I chose to take my 2 boys Griffin and Quinn, who were 6 and 8 years old at the time, on a trip to Thailand. On my own. As a 'start of our new family of 3’ adventure. And we had a wonderful & very memorable time there which they still fondly recollect often.

It is also why during that same divorce period I decided to do an egg donation. Which weirdly paralleled my divorce journey. Shortly after I got separated. My lovely friend Tertia started up an egg donation business. I was intrigued. So when I saw her branded vehicle one day, I took it as a literal sign that I should register. Which I did.

A couple of months later I had started the divorce proceedings. My lawyer called me after receiving an email to get some more information. As I put the phone down at the end of the call. My phone rang again almost immediately. I assumed it was her calling again... But no, it was the egg donation service saying I'd been selected as a donor! What!? Initially I thought the timing was bad, and that I’d be mad to do it… But almost immediately I thought, what the heck and said yes!

The egg donation process followed my divorce process so closely that I did the egg donation the day before I appeared in court to get divorced. This was not an easy or amicable divorce. There was a LOT of drama involved for everyone. And truth be told complicating that with the super-doses of hormones that egg donation involves might not have been the best idea I have ever had. But here's the thing. When I realised the timelines were coinciding that actually cemented my decision to do the donation. You see that's how I work.

My reasoning was that if I was going to be experiencing something bad, traumatic and an ending, then I liked the idea of also having something good, positive and worthy to focus on too. A new start... To take the bad and turn it into something good. To do something that mattered.
That's important to me and something I come back to often in my life, and which seems to drive me. Including now tonight. I am NOT a natural public speaker. I am not particularly good at it. I am really not very comfortable doing it. But when Cathy invited me, it felt like something different, challenging and something that might end up being meaningful to me. And so, much as I don't really want to be the one up here speaking, I said yes anyway. I chose to go with the experience. That's just me.

And I have had some incredible experiences in my life. Some phenomenally wonderful and inspirational, and others have brought me to the depths of despair with heart-breaking suffering. All have brought me to where and who I am today though.

A huge theme in the past 2 decades of my life has been pregnancy and birth. I was drawn to it from early childhood. Knowing it was something I was destined for. My first pregnancy was when I was 23 years old, in 1997. After seeing photos of a midwife-assisted home water-birth, I decided THAT was what I wanted. Everything about it just seemed right to me.

I had hired a lovely midwife and I was all set to replicate that birth scenario, but sadly that pregnancy did not go according to plan. At 6 months pregnant while travelling on the train from JHB back to Cape Town, I went into premature labour. At the time we thought I had a stomach bug… I was young and naïve and didn’t want to bother anyone, so while my instincts told me something was wrong, I just desperately, stoically tried to cope and hang-on.

Eventually, about 12 hours in, it was obvious I was not ok. I was taken off the train and to hospital in an ambulance in small Karoo town. After being examined I was told I was in full labour and was already 6-7cm dilated, and that there was nothing they could do.

When given the option to transfer to Kimberley, which has neonatal facilities I jumped at it. I was given medication to stop my contractions, and bundled back into an ambulance which sped off across the Karoo in pouring rain for over 3 hours in the middle of the night.

We finally arrived in Kimberley at about 5am, where we were greeted with extreme reluctance. The nurses wouldn't admit me and wanted us to go back! They were not in the mood for dealing with another case close to the end of their shift. When we explained that we were there for the neonatal ICU, they rolled their eyes and told us that 25 weeks was too young, and that the incubators are expensive. The whole attitude was that we were an unwanted nuisance and irritation to them. Finally, a doctor was called. I thought that, being a trained professional, he would know the right thing to do and would take charge of the situation and help us. I was wrong.

All this time my baby had been fine with a strong healthy heartbeat, my waters were intact and the contractions had been stopped. After that things happened VERY quickly. I wasn't consulted about anything, and the nurses were very abrupt. The doctor ruptured my membranes; I remember feeling so very sad then, knowing that was a point of no return. The doctor then proceeded to insert a Pitocin IV. WHAT?? He was INDUCING me! At the time this seemed strange and wrong, but I thought he knew what he was doing, so I didn’t question him. Then he walked out. I never saw that doctor again...

The Pitocin caused a massive contraction. It felt as if it was going to rip my legs off, I didn't know what to do with myself.  I started to panic, I didn't want this to be happening, I didn't want the baby to come out. I was frightened and in a lot of pain, a nurse simply told me to push and walked away. After just three pushes I gave birth to my baby. A small perfect little doll of a baby girl was born. A perfect little angel. Delicate, pink and alive. I felt desperately anxious that nothing was done to help her - but I knew that it was already too late...

There’s more to this story, and rest is just as bad. At the time I didn't know any better, but I now know that the reason for losing our little girl Angelique was incorrect medical intervention. I was treated like a problem, which needed to be eliminated before the inspection in the morning. It was simply awful. Profoundly traumatically tragic and it changed me forever.

I have shared this story often, it reaffirmed my belief that interference in birth can do much more harm than good. After that experience I had a conviction that I wanted a birth with NO interference, and I secretly actually wanted to have an unassisted birth – which is when you give birth on your own with no medical professional present.

I went on to have two successful mid-wife assisted natural births several years later – in hospital - with my boys Quinn & Griffin who are now 19 and 17. They were very healing and empowering experiences for me. I was so inspired by my wonderful gentle, kind and caring midwife Kate that I actually wanted to become a midwife after that. I ended up training and certifying as doula, and helping with about 20 births. And still wherever possible I try to help to empower other people to have positive; births without fear. I always felt like I wanted one last ‘perfect’ birth experience though. I wanted to have that gentle and calm home water-birth experience I had visualised.

Then in 2011 Tertia contacted me again, she had expanded her egg donation business into surrogacy. She asked me if I wanted to be a surrogate? By this time, I had been a single self-supporting mom for several years. I was intrigued by the idea, but as the bread-winner with no support it did not seem like a feasible idea. It didn't feel like something I could just say yes to. I juggled it around in my mind though...

Some months later she contacted me and told me about this guy she was communicating with, who was interested in having a child. She said he was potentially interested in contracting a surrogate, but was unsure about whether he wanted to commission a child on his own. He was exploring options to have a baby but hadn't yet visualised the option where he would be a single-parent. He also was apparently struggling to understand WHY anybody would go through a pregnancy and birth without the 'prize' of a baby at the end. In short, he knew nothing about parenting, pregnancy or birth... (Ok that's not true, as always with Andrew he had read fairly extensively. But he had no practical or first-hand knowledge.)

Eventually she did something 'unorthodox' and connected Andrew and I via email. With the view that I could pay a consultative role, in essence a bit of a doula-role really, to help him understand his options and to get perspectives on parenting on your own, as well as around what pregnancy and birth is like, and why anyone would want to be a surrogate.
We emailed back and forth for a month or so and then in July 2011 we met for dinner.
We got along well and chatted easily. And over the next few months we continued communicating intermittently via email and had the odd dinner or cup of coffee in between.

Andrew was warming to the idea of commissioning a child for himself and started skirting the topic of whether I would be prepared to surrogate for him. I remained non-committal explaining my situation; that I was intrigued and interested, but wasn't sure it was the right decision for me and my lifestyle set-up. But I felt a strange compulsion, there was part of me that REALLY wanted to just throw caution to the wind, say yes and do it. But this was a big decision, with potentially very high stakes. I had to consider the risks to myself and my boys etc. Also Andrew is a very methodical, deliberate and thorough decision maker. It was not something he was going to pursue on a whim and without serious due process.

So instead he read and researched extensively. He consulted with all and everyone for advice, warnings, and experiences. He started inviting me to dinners and introducing me to selected friends - I knew I was being not so subtly screened. For sanity? Suitability? Genetic qualities?? I wasn't sure, but took it at face value. An invite to a lovely social dinner! (I think I met Cathy & Paul in this time too) 

A few months down the line our relationship shifted and we both realised, or admitted, we had grown fond of each other. And well as humans have been doing since the dawn of time, we let nature take its course. Though in true Andrew style this was not before he had deliberately and explicitly paused the baby/surrogacy discussion with me. Knowing that would be clouded by a romantic relationship.

So we started 'dating', went on a few holidays and basically had a good time getting to know each other during 2012. Eventually the topic of a baby was raised formally again. It was something Andrew really wanted to do. He asked whether I would be willing to participate, or if he should look for another surrogate? I was still slightly unsure. But didn't really want him to look for someone else.

By this time, I had thoroughly screened HIM too, and I honestly felt that he more than deserved to become a dad. Moreover, I knew he would be a wonderful, dedicated, mindful and committed father. I felt compelled to ensure that he got a baby conceived, grown and birthed with mindfulness, dedication and intent. In the end my decision was based on doing something that mattered. What was the one thing I could do which would to make a meaningful, and significant difference to someone else? And that was it; decision made. I signed up...

2013 became about conceiving Natey. Surrogacy is a long, complex, expensive legal and medical process. Our agreement was that the pregnancy and birth would be 'mine' while the baby would be Andrew’s. And that meant that I got to make all decisions for the pregnancy and how the baby would be born. And for that I was planning a home-birth as this was a big part of my motivation and drive for being involved in the first place. I was striving for my 'fantasy birth'.

Since we were already having a physical relationship, it seemed crazy, unnecessary and even unappealing to me to medicalise the conception part just for the sake of the formality of a surrogacy.

And so, making a long story short after consulting with a host of people from doctors, lawyers, mediators, psychologists etc. We decided to go 'off script'. Instead of the full formal surrogacy, we proceeded with a civil agreement in 2 parts.  A Pre-Pregnancy Agreement to cover the period of conception, pregnancy and birth; covering rights, responsibilities and consequences for us each for an extensive array of situations. And then a Parenting Plan for once the baby was born - in effect what is usually done as part of a divorce agreement.

After conceiving; the pregnancy went very smoothly. I stayed active, fit & healthy throughout. A week before my due date we moved temporarily to Andrew's house to prepare for the birth. The idea was that I would birth the baby there at his house, help to get him settled in with Andrew, and then my boys and I would go back to our house. I hadn't thought too deeply about when or how, I just trusted that it would all work out somehow...

Eventually at 41.5 weeks I became aware of contractions a few hours after going to bed. I got up and laboured on my own for a couple of hours until Andrew heard me low-moaning through contractions and got up. The midwives were called.

Soon contractions picked up, I decided I wanted to be in the bath. After about 20mins in the water, the contractions started to get really strong and the pressure was intense. I said ‘I think I need to push soon,…’and next thing I was pushing!

The baby's head was moving down with each push and within just 2 or 3 he was crowning. I remember realising then that this was Andrew's very first birth experience and we were on our own, there was no one there to support or reassure him! In the next push the baby's head slowly eased out into my hands. I remember saying to Andrew ‘The head is out! - But don't worry it’s ok…’. I felt pretty calm and in control, but wanted to make sure he wasn’t panicking or worrying.

In the next contraction after a hearty push; one shoulder eased out, then the next and out slipped the baby into my hands. Still in his sac. I peeled it off him and brought him to the surface of the water. I felt his neck and the cord was wrapped around it, so I slipped it off over his head. I then patted and rubbed him. It took a minute for him to really respond. I still felt like I knew what I was doing, but I was holding my breath waiting for him to visibly breathe and ‘wake up’. I think we were both very relieved when he did splutter, open his eyes and start breathing! And there he was little Nathaniel Leonidas Thor Canter.

The birth team only arrived about 10 mins later. And helped us to finish up and clean up. The whole experience was very calm and peaceful just felt right. So I had had a spontaneous unassisted home water birth!!! Andrew was calm and quietly and gently supportive, watching but giving me space to do my thing uninterrupted and with no fear or panic. It was really amazing. Beyond even what I had imagined. I felt like my circle of healing from Angelique's tragic birth to Nathaniel’s triumphant birth was completed.

We basked in the glow of birth. Andrew and Nathaniel bonded immediately, fully and deeply. We all somehow seemed to have slipped into a new natural family unit. Soon the days rolled into weeks, then months. Despite the fact that I was breastfeeding the plan was still that I was there in a temporary capacity. Andrew being the official 'primary parent' as planned, had taken 4 months off work, and I went back to work 8 weeks after Natey was born.

The more time went by, the harder it felt to consider leaving, and the less likely it seemed. After our unusual start and strange plans, we'd created a pretty standard practical arrangement. One that felt whole, right and comfortable for us all. And we lived life knowing how blessed we were with this beautiful angelic and wild free-spirited little boy who became our literal son as we all revolved around him.

When Natey (as he grew to call himself) was 10 months old a minor heart-defect was found, needing open-heart surgery to fix. It was a scary and traumatic time. I moved into hospital and spent a week with him in the hospital, where any personal doubt or pretence that I was anything but his fully invested mama-bear was thoroughly quashed.

We lived charmed lives. And we knew it. Life was good. And then it all came crashing down...

That fateful day on 30 December 2016, when after a gorgeous fun-filled loving day together Natey inexplicably went to the swimming pool during the minute or 2 I had turned my back on him to communicate with Andrew. I’ll probably never understand what actually happened, or how it happened so fast.

I wrote a blog post recalling every small and painful detail of that worst day of my life. I think most of you have read it, so I won’t go into detail here…

People tend say you are brave or inspirational when you survive something. The truth is you aren't, or at least I don't think I am.

I think bravery is choosing to do something really difficult or scary. When you are thrust into that position, it doesn't feel like bravery at all. But when tragedy strikes you, I guess then you only have 2 choices; you either survive - or you don't…

The fact is that time marches forward whether you want it to or not, and so you have no option but to move forward too.

When Natey died at home at 2 years 4 months old, it was also in water, and again with no one else there just me - alone this time. That circle of healing and completion shattered open again. It shook the very core and foundation of who I was and made me doubt everything I knew. How could that have happened? How could the most beautiful, perfect and cherub-like little boy be gone so quickly and so incomprehensibly? It just made no sense.

So there I was, having lost not just one but two of my dear, longed for and much loved children... How does one carry on from that??

Honestly, I don’t think I have any profound truths or insights, and the fact is it is hard and it hurts a LOT. But in both of these great loses of my life, I have been almost immediately very aware that they can either break you or strengthen you. And somehow being broken and to give up, doesn't seem like a good way to honour my children. I almost feel obligated to live on, to do well, and more-so to do GOOD, because they can't.

And I do think it's a choice. But it's not an easy choice & to some extent anyone who suffers such a loss is ‘broken’. However, for me, I felt I had to live on and live well FOR them.

In dealing with Angelique's death, birthing became my passion. I learned everything I could about pregnancy and birth and for a better way to bring a child into the world. I studied to be a doula and started volunteering at Mowbray Maternity so I could to assist and empower the helpless and scared moms there to have better, less scary and traumatic births. I did this as a way to make Angelique's life matter and to try to ensure that no one else had to endure a traumatic and incompassionate birthing experience.

After Natey died we also wanted to somehow do good. I adopted the hashtag #DoingItForNatey and also #LongDays - which came out of the customary Jewish greeting to mourners of 'I wish you long life'. The sentiment also seemed to inspire my broader circle of friends to do something that scared them or that pushed the boundaries of their capabilities, or to just get out there and LIVE. To make the most of each day!

It was used for a number of initiatives to raise money for charity.  As an example. A wheelchair-bound friend of mine decided she had no excuse for being unfit and out of shape and so she started exercising and bought a recumbent bicycle. She has to-date lost about 30kg and training to ride the Argus. Another friend ran her first marathon and then also completed a Half Iron-Man. Others simply said yes when their children wanted to play with them, or went for that picnic on the beach, or had ice-cream for dinner... All #DoingItForNatey

As for Andrew and I we also challenged ourselves. We ran races, signed up for the Argus Cycle Tour, competed in the Platteklip Charity Challenge, all #DoingItForNatey.
We also asked people not to spend money on flowers and gifts for us, but rather to donate the money so it could do some good. In this way we helped raise about R75 000 for the Red Cross Children’s Hospital and about R15 000 for other charities.

Andrew also almost immediately knew that part of his healing and journey forward in life had to include another child. I didn’t hesitate to agree to trying again. This time I was nearly 44 though, and risks were that much higher… We worked with my gynae to track and regulate my cycles. I realised I might need some more medical and scientific help than before. We tried a few things, none of which were working…. Then we went on a watershed trip to Iceland, on an epic hike to Thorsmork (Thor’s forest) in memory of dear Natey. We hiked the 90 odd kilometres with photos of him and some of his ashes – which we scattered on the top of the volcano on the new vents ‘Magdi & Modi’ named after Thor’s children. We placed photos and love locks on the bridge between the 2 continents.
We came home from that trip mentally and emotionally exhausted, but realising that we had to move forward with our lives.

For me that meant committing to the Post-Grad degree I had signed up for, but had deferred in the wake of the tragedy. We agreed we’d pause the baby-making to allow me to embark and concentrate on my studies. Only to find 3 days into the first module that I was pregnant! Somehow at the end of that Iceland trip, where we metaphorically said goodbye to Natey and released him, we conceived with no monitoring or tracking at all.

And true to style I did my post-grad degree while pregnant and with a new-born! Benjamin Bodhi Achilles Canter was born via another beautiful and peaceful home water birth last April. And as chance would have it, I graduate tomorrow!

I guess I have learned that message is that life is short, you have no idea how much time you have here… And so you should live your life fully and appreciate what you have, and who you have, while you are here. Take the chances, grab the opportunities. Do things that matter!

Again, I don't think we are special, remarkable, or inspirational (ok well maybe Andrew is, as his generosity of spirit, and capacity to forgive IS remarkable and very inspirational to me), but I think we just decided that we had to try, somehow to take the good, and to try to release the bad.

While losing a child is truly the most awful thing that can happen to you - and it is not something you get over or get better from - we have learned that no matter what, there always is a lot to be grateful for and:
- I am grateful for the immense, and continued love and care of our colleagues, friends and family - and our community who really helped to carry us through those first dark and difficult early weeks.
 - I am grateful for the precious time we had with Natey and the lessons he taught us. To take delight in every day. To marvel and wonder at the smallest of things. To enjoy life's small pleasures. To love freely and with abandon.
- I am grateful for Benjamin. Who has certainly not replaced Natey, or filled the big Natey-shaped hole in our lives. He couldn't do that and shouldn’t. But he has created new hope, new purpose. New love and new inspiration. We are very aware that Benjamin wouldn't be here if Nathaniel hadn't died. It's hard not to feel grateful for that somehow.

In the end, I think it comes down to that while you don't get to choose what will happen to you in your life, you do get to choose how you'll respond, and how you move forward from what does happen. So I try to choose the positive. Not because it is the brave or easy thing to do, but because for me it just feels better that way.

I have no idea now if my life journey is a circle, square or spiral, but I just try to live #LongDays #DoingItForNatey now.

Thank-you.

Saturday, 4 May 2019

This is 45...

I turned 45 this week. The same week Benjamin turned 1.

To celebrate we shared a lovely small cake party in the park with family and a few close friends...


So this body of mine has served me for 45 years now. And I must admit it has served me well. But I have not always treated it well, or even appreciated it.

I believe I was bought up with reasonably healthy attitudes and practices in terms of diet and eating habits. Sport was never encouraged though. So I never really learned how to move, or harness my body physically. I never knew how to push my limits, how to make it work for me, or how to channel it to get results, either personally or as part of a team.

I was just in my body, and it was a mere vessel for my existence.

I have been through, what I believe are fairly normal and common, phases and progressions with my body.  Alternately starving and indulging myself and feeling dissatisfied with myself. Bum too big, boobs too small, thighs have too much cellulite, belly too flabby, double chin etc. I remember in my early 20s going through my body mentally, like a guided meditation and thinking of something I didn't like about each and every part of my body.... I was not comfortable in my skin. I know I am not alone in this.

In my early 20s I was undiagnosed anorexic (I got down to 42Kgs (93lbs) at 20 years old. At 1.66cm/5'5"). Thereafter I found comfort eating, and like Po (from Kung-Fu Panda) would eat when I felt sad, or lonely, or depressed, or... I went up to about 70kgs a year or 2 later.

When I moved to Cape Town I started to find myself and my groove. I started to treat myself and my body better. I was nowhere near self love, but I started some self-respect, some self-nourishment and a degree of self-kindness (when I could).

And then I got pregnant with Angelique. I was 23 years old. The shift in me on finding out I was pregnant was both immediate and dramatic. It was no longer about me. I could no longer deal with mental anguish via abusing my body. I became very aware that what I ate, thought and felt could directly affect my baby. The shift in focus and purpose was very positive and helpful.

I found a yoga class and for the first time in my life started consciously tuning IN to my body, rather than looking away, being and feeling ashamed of it, or just simply avoiding the work, and self-love, required to look after it.

It took a while but eventually I loved it. I started understanding the 'good pain' of physical growth and gaining strength and control over your body. I started getting the balance strength and flexibility that comes with yoga practice, and which applies to your body and mind.

About 6 years later, after Quinn and Griffin were born, and after joining a gym and adding some further work-outs at the gym into my life. I started running. And have been running since. Although, I now run a lot less than I used to, I still run at least twice a week for an hour a time.

When Natey was conceived I was an avid, regular runner. Competing socially in a good few races a year and usually placing in the top 5% of finishers. Having turned 40 I had reached a place of knowing and accepting myself enough that I felt pretty comfortable and capable in my skin. Friends and family worried that the pregnancy would derail my running and so derail the ME I had created. I'll admit I feared it a little too. But I knew I wanted to pursue the Natey journey. It felt right and important and I wanted to do something that MATTERED in my life. I didn't want to just have worked at shaving off 1 min from my 10km running time, when I could do something literally life-changing for someone. (Although we all know how that fairytale ended... 😢)

Anyway, Natey's pregnancy was happy and healthy, and my body impressed and surprised me by bouncing back really quickly afterwards. I started running again when he was just 3 weeks old!

After Natey died though, I lost focus, direction, drive, purpose, and any real reason to wake up in the morning. I tried to push through and carry on. I embarked on PGDip. I worked. I ran when I could, but even then mostly I just walked. Lacking the enthusiasm, energy or motivation to really push myself. I took little pleasure in it. I lost tone and fitness, naturally.

Then I got pregnant with Benjamin. And oh my word  struggled. I was sick sick sick. It was all I could do to hold it together at work, I would literally drive myself home at the end of the day and climb straight into bed. Some week-ends I would pretty much stay in bed all day. There was pretty much no exercise happening at all. ANY spare time of energy went to PGDip. I started to develop aches and pains in my hips and pelvis. I joked that 'my body was never going to forgive me' for the pregnancy. I thought I had pushed it too far. Expecting too much. I had already grown and birthed 4 babies. 3 of them over 4kgs. How could I have expected it to just grow another!? I reckoned it had served me well and I should be grateful, and would need to just accept the consequences.

Benjamin was born a year ago. Another beautiful, natural birth that was almost a spiritual experience for me. And although this time I felt more vulnerable and soft and floppy afterwards. I did not feel 'broken'.

I decided to be kind to myself. Not to punish or berate myself or my body. Not to whip it, starve it, or force it. But to love and honour it. As and when I have felt ready, stronger and have been able to I have slowly got active and physical again. Realising my core strength (and bladder) was a problem I decided not to just focus on running but rather to focus on core and strength training. I started doing shape classes at the gym. These are a good mix of cardio and weight training. I also do 'Rumble' boxing classes. I have been gyming 2-4 times a week.

It's been a year since Benjamin was born, and I feel strong and good. This is me. I am 45, and I finally think I love and accept myself, and my body.


Thank-you body for serving me so well!

Happy First Birthday Benjamin!

Darling little Benjamin (#BBAC) turned 1 year old on 24 April 2019.
Benjamin is a simply delightful child. He is a chilled, easy-going and petty relaxed child. He is able to amuse himself often. He interacts with free flowing ease and confidence with people.
He appears to be deep thinking, sometimes quite seriously so, and since birth has seemed quite mindful and centred.

Interestingly since the very day he was born he has been drawn to lights. He loves looking at them and his gaze has followed lights from day one. And now apart from the usual dada and mama words, his first real word, including pointing to and looking at the object is 'Light'. Andrew pointed out that this links right into the roots of his name (Bohdi - enlightened or awakened) and also the Jewish name Mier meaning 'bringer of light'. So I guess it's pretty fitting.
Benjamin has real brough 'light' and lightness back into our lives. He has brought to me a sense of peace and contentment that I had lost before.*

HAPPY BIRTHDAY PRECIOUS BOY. You are very very loved and adored.

With love from
MOMMY

(* Of course the missing and longing for Natey is very much still there, but Benjamin has helped to bring purpose, direction and hope back to everyday life again).

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

To Natey on your 4th birthday

Today would have been your fourth birthday dearest boy. I wonder how you would have looked now?

Is still imagine you with your beautiful golden curls. I wonder if they would have stayed, as you grew and got haircuts? I am sure your big beautiful brown eyes would still be bright and sparkling with delight and energy.

I imagine you being excited about your birthday, especially the cake. You loved the idea of birthday cake. You and Minda would enjoy the cake the most! (I loved the way when you ate something really yummy you would close your eyes and really savour the taste.) I am sure you would still be totally in love with Minda. She is still so kind and caring, and fun and beautiful as you remember her (but a bit sadder, like all of us).

I imagine that you would be the center of attention at school today on your special day, with cupcakes for the class. You'd probably be a little shy, but would actually love it. 

I imagine what and who you would be now. How big you'd be at 4 years old. Not a little baby any more. You'd still be so talkative, active and excited by things. I think you'd still take such delight in life.

I imagine you'd still be the complete love of our lives and our sun - which we'd still all revolve around. 

I wonder what you would like now? Still bikes and trucks?  What sort of party would you have wanted..?

Daddy and I, and Quinn and Griffin too, are sad that we can't have a fun day celebrating with you today. But know that we will be thinking of you all day. We will have a small celebration of your life as a family later and will be sure to have some cake or ice-cream for you.

We miss you every day sweet boy. Happy 4th birthday.

Love Mommy.

This is how I remember you my sweet charming characterful beautiful boy. ❤️

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

A Time of Darkness: Surviving The Death of My Son (by Andrew)

As I mentioned in my last post, Andrew and I gave a talk at Nathaniel's old school (and what will no doubt be Benjamin's school when he grows up). We were invited to talk at their fundraising event dinner titled 'An evening of Inspiration'.

Benjamin came along with us, and was the only baby (only child actually) at the event and he was on his very best behaviour and was delightful. It was lovely to get a chance to see our old 'Natey community' again, including our dear Melinda (Natey's au-pair 'Minda'), all of whom have been so very supportive of us through the past year and a half, and well before that even.

The evening and the talks were held in the school hall which is where we held Nathaniel's memorial service, so it was very poignant and emotional to introduce Benjamin into the community in this way, and in the same place..... This is the talk Andrew gave:

A Time of Darkness:
Surviving The Death of My Son… My Life’s Greatest Disaster

Delivered at Alon Ashel pre-primary school (Seapoint, Cape Town), “An Evening of Inspiration” dinner
Andrew Canter, August 23, 2018

Preamble
Jane and my little son -- our sparkling, intelligent, beautiful, fun Nathaniel -- died at the age of 28 months on December 30, 2016.  He had been a student* here during that year, and thus Alon Ashel touched our lives and his life touched the school community.

Many people here tonight have been friends and supporters during our happy times with Nathaniel, the dark time of his death, and now again the happy time of Benjamin’s new life (now 4 months).   

I want to thank you all – thank the Herzlia community – for all you’ve given us, and also for the opportunity tonight to tell part of our story.

We can all celebrate the new life of little Benjamin, but it would be false to avoid how we got to this point.   What looks like a short trip from the despair of our Natey’s death to the joy of Benjamin is really a long and continuing journey for us.  As much as many of our friends and family want to believe that having another baby is a sign that we are ‘healed’, that would be a misconception.  For example, because my brain is juggling past & present, regret & joy I’ll probably muddle Nathaniel’s and Benjamin’s names during this talk -- as I have many times in the past few months.   

What I want to share are some elements of our journey thus far -- and where we hope it’s going.

Navigating the Darkness
As a starting point, there will never be ‘closure’ on Nathaniel’s death.  Some say it’s like losing a limb: You can never regrow an arm, but you can get used to functioning without it.  For me it’s like being stabbed in the heart: At first there is blood, damage and sharp pain… it’s dramatic and acute… but over time, if you survive, it becomes a permanent dull-ache… scar tissue: Never fully healed, but a chronic impairment that you live with. 

The night Nathaniel died, I remember lying in bed with Jane and feeling my heart literally breaking.  I know there is scar tissue there, and I can feel it holds me back from complete immersion in love.  My goal is to fight that impairment, and throw myself into loving Benjamin the way he deserves. 

More broadly, we are on a journey from “anger” & “regret” to “acceptance” & “appreciation for what we had”… we are hoping to be able to think about Nathaniel with some happiness and not with sorrow.   We don’t pretend we are there yet – we are still on the road.   Our walk so far from “acute pain” to “chronic ache” has had several steps and survival strategies.

Nathaniel died on December 30, 2016, and for the first few months of 2017 we lived in a swirl. 

You spend a lot of time recounting all the tiny moments that led to disaster – knowing that the slightest change could have completely altered the outcome.  Along with that we faced guilt and shame: A parent’s first job is to keep your child alive, and we failed.  Generously, no one has imposed blame or guilt on us – but we both carry it in equal measure. 

Perhaps the first step – the most vital step -- to our survival was that between Jane and I -- in the moment of Natey’s death, in the intervening months, and now – there has been no blame, anger or recrimination for each other.  We know that what happened could have happened on either of our watches, that we were jointly responsible, and shared joint blame.  The gears meshed, the one-in-a-million event happened, and our little boy died.  If we’d had any sense of blaming each other, the entire rest of the story would have been radically different.  We were partners before, during, after… and now.

In addition to that, we found out we both dealt with the disaster in similar ways.

For a start, neither one of us hid from what happened: We watched the ambulance crew that night… we held his body at the hospital, escorted it to the morgue... and said a final goodbye at the morgue the next day.  We took pictures to cement the images, and as a final reminder of his beautiful face and hair.  Together, we looked death in the face – literally – and that made it real and undeniable.

The grieving books advise you to confront and accept your loss – because the shock is going to get you sooner or later.  That rings true as, in some ways I find it no easier to think about Nathaniel now than it was a year ago -- sometimes a photo just shakes me.  If we hadn’t continually confronted the pain when it was expected, then it would be harder to deal with months later when one would think the pain had faded.

Also, neither Jane nor I wanted to push Nathaniel out of sight: We have wilfully kept him close-by in our lives through, for example, our screen savers running his photo montage… our Facebook pages… his toys, art and pictures in the house... we made a “Natey place” in our bedroom… we light a memorial candle at family dinners… and we keep the little wooden box of his ashes in the dining room.  Poignantly, we also made “Natey Bear” – a stuffed bear that wears one of Nathaniel’s sleepy-suits -- that slept with us for many months.

For me, the most terrible thing has been that Nathaniel is drifting away – floating backward in time.  Jane and I can’t stop that drift – but we certainly don’t want to hasten that inexorable and sad fading of his life-force.  By now I can no longer conjure his touch, feel or smell… sometimes it feels like I’m grasping at smoke to hold onto him: The memories are all we have left.

Jane and I also coped similarly by sharing our stories: Jane wrote a moving blog about all the details of that last day of Nathaniel’s life – with all its happiness and fun… followed by his death.  I wrote and rewrote his eulogy and life story – jotting down every single memory I could muster – hoping, I guess, that it will help me re-capture Nathaniel in the years to come.  Jane and I both put all of these writings online for those who wanted to share our loss.

We also both spent time curating Nathaniel’s photos, videos, memories, documents… until, eventually, we realised we’d been through it all, and there were no more memories coming.

We followed the advice to “do what you can, when you can”.  We both went back to work within a couple weeks, but it’s fair to say our colleagues cut us quite a lot of slack: We were more “at work” than actually “working”.  At meetings I’d bring along my adult colouring books to help me stay both distracted and focussed (and, by adult, I mean ADULT!). 

As it turned out neither Jane nor I are “hide under the covers” kind of people:  While there were months where we had no interest in socialising, we remained engaged.  We tried to keep life moving forward professionally, personally, and we both continued to exercise and take on some challenges.  We had asked that mourners make donations to the Red Cross Children’s Hospital, where eventually enough money was raised to buy two new blood-oxygen machines – and a lovely plaque was placed in their garden of remembrance. 

At some point, unconsciously, I guess we decided we couldn’t define our lives by our loss, but rather by the lives we continued to lead.  As Jane has observed, “you don't get to choose what will happen to you in your life, but you do get to choose how you'll respond.”

All along we have both remained open to our feelings, and honest about them:  When we had bad moments or bad-days we’d verbalise it… we’d send a Whatsapp saying “I’m having a bad Natey day” – and we both understood what that meant.  We made no effort – in private or public -- to pretend “everything is alright”. 

As months passed we might have some time when we’d forget we were supposed to be sad: But often people would ask, meaningfully, “How ARE you?”  One can’t say “I’m fine”, as the answer is always more nuanced.  Part of the journey is being pulled into the ‘role’ of the grieving parent… being reminded you are mourning. 

We came to realise we’d joined”the Club no one wants to belong to” -- parents who have lost children.  We heard many terrible stories… and we realised there are far more members of that club than one would expect.  We met other parents with equally sad (or worse) stories.  As we heard of others’ childrens’ deaths we felt it deeply and tearfully.  

I learned to live with “The Shark”:  He was always there, circling underneath me… sometimes coming up to take a bite out of me… to pull me down… without any warning.  Sometimes he still comes up for a bite… always a surprise, usually triggered by a photo, memory or thought.  But you find out you can struggle back to the surface and keep swimming.

Making New Memories
With Natey’s death my life’s plan was in tatters.  I had come to parenthood late in life… a new journey that was completely rewarding, exciting, and energizing.   That came to a crashing halt -- my parenting duties reduced to paying tribute, mourning and packing away my son’s life in a cardboard box and a hard drive.

Within days of Nathaniel’s death I knew that I wanted to have another child: Frankly – honestly -- without that direction, I would truly have been lost, aimless and demotivated.  I started that discussion with Jane far too soon… and it carried on for a while as we discussed our motives, aspirations and fears.  But in the end Jane and I agreed to re-embark on the journey… or, perhaps, to continue our journey together. 

That said, neither of us felt ready to quickly have another baby – it was too soon, it felt too raw and unsettled:  You never really can rush a pregnancy, and we didn’t want to try to force the issue when we were both – particularly Jane – stressed and unhappy. 

I remembered the scene from the book “Like Water for Chocolate” where Tita, the main character, sheds tears of sorrow into the batter of a wedding cake she is baking… with the result that all the guests at the wedding end up crying uncontrollably.  I didn’t want to imbue “Baby #2” with sadness… to mix our tears into his batter.

Benjamin was born a mere 16 months after Natey’s death.  That unduly short time was driven very much by our respective ages (43 and 55) and by a doctor’s forceful advice: “If you are going to do it, don’t waste time!”
 
In any case, knowing the path we were on gave me a timeline and the much-needed ability to make a plan.  We entered what I called “The Interregnum” -- that is defined as the period of time between the death of one monarch and installation of the next: In this case the Interregnum was the period between the death of the Prince (Nathaniel) and the birth of another Prince (Benjamin). 

We knew there was a danger of getting stuck in the past and stuck in sadness -- but we needed to find a path forward.  One of our better coping mechanisms -- which I take full credit for (you won’t find it in the grief guide-books) – was to try to “make new memories”. 

So, in April 2017 – four months after Nathaniel’s death – Jane, Griffin, Quinn and I – went on a trip to Egypt: Chosen intentionally as a challenging destination.  In Egypt you are either contemplating 5000 years of human history and civilisation, or you are dealing with the chaos of Egypt itself.  It ain’t a beach -- it’s hard work!  Being outside of our comfort zones, it helped bring us all together.  Of course Natey was in our minds… and I recall sitting on a stone in a 3500-year-old temple crying for him.

Continuing the idea of making new memories, in July 2017 Jane and I went to Iceland.  That turned out to be life-altering and I want to tell you a bit about it. 

In 2010 I’d planned a trek in Iceland that was cancelled by the eruption of the volcano Eyafjetlajokull (you remember, the one the grounded all flights in Europe).  The trek was on my bucket list, and the Interregnum was a good opportunity to fulfil the goal.  Also, one of Nathaniel’s middle names was “Thor”, named after the Norse god of thunder (in Hebrew  -- Ra’am – Thunder), and it seemed fitting to visit his “ancestral homeland”. 

The highlight of the trip was a 5 day, 90 kilometre trek across the wild and beautiful terrain.  Before going we had finally opened Nathaniel’s box of ashes and taken a tiny vial -- with the intent to spread them on the hike.  Thus, Natey was very much in our minds as we did the long trek across barren open spaces, volcanic ridges, glacial terrain and raging rivers: We were carrying Nathaniel emotionally and physically… toward the end of the group trek in a beautiful forested place called “Thorsmork” – Thor’s Forest. 

From there Jane and I left our group, and hiked alone up the slopes of the Eyafjetlajokull volcano.  As we climbed up and up we went above the snow line, into wind, rain, snow and fog… and there at the top of the pass, beside the two new volcanic vents – Magdi and Modi (named after Thor’s sons)… standing in the barren volcanic rock, ash and dirt we paused to spread the tiny bit of Nathaniel’s ashes.  I remember taking off my glove, pouring a bit of the ashes onto my palm and holding it out to the wind – hoping it would simply blow away without my having to do it: But making it harder, eventually I was forced to throw Nathaniel’s the ashes into the wind. 

As if that weren’t enough – we then had to continue to hike the final 30 km down to the coast… mostly in driving wind and rain – such that despite having fully waterproofed gear we were soaked through, frozen, muddy and sore.  The experience was nearly biblical in its enactment, and cathartic for us: It was a moment of being with Nathaniel as best we could, acceptance of his death, and a degree of letting go.  As we were leaving Iceland we stopped to put our first “Love Lock” for Nathaniel on a steel bridge… and then Jane threw away the key to that lock into the cold North Atlantic Ocean.

We knew this trip was emotional and an important moment, but we only realised later that the experience was a critical step in our journey.

Less than a week later Benjamin was conceived.

Compassion
Compassion is one of those highfalutin words I hadn’t really thought too deeply about… it’s used by the likes of the Dalia Lama or Desmond Tutu.   But the past 20 months has taught us a lot about compassion: How the sharing of sorrow alleviates the burden… how the recognition and understanding of each other’s sorrow connects us and helps us carry the load.  Compassion is the sense of knowing “you are not alone”… and realising there is always someone suffering equally with, or more than, you… and that they are also not alone.  Everyone has grief in their life – whether in the acute or chronic stages – and we are part of the community of humans who will all suffer in our lives. Maybe to really understand compassion one has to suffer.

In the wake of Natey’s death we were flooded with compassionate love and support – much of from this community: And that was a great help during this tumultuous period. 

But importantly, that compassion went both ways: We tried to comfort others who also suffered Natey’s death – family, friends, his teachers, his loving nanny Xolisa, his loving au pair Melinda.  Also, we could see the sadness and uncertainty in visitors and supporters: “What do I say to someone who’s child has drowned? What shouldn’t I say?”  We really tried to make everyone comfortable expressing and sharing with us. 

Sometimes people said things we didn’t feel: “It’s God’s will”; “It was meant to be”;  “He’s in a better place”; or other thoughts that didn’t really work for us.  But we understood it all came from a place of love, and accepted the sentiments of support graciously.**  Any well-intentioned support or condolence was, and is, welcomed – particularly happy memories.
 
As a grieving parent one grants oneself some self-indulgence, but one of my regrets is that I didn’t realise the impact of Nathaniel’s death on my wider family.  We recently took Benjamin on his “baby tour” to the USA and in conversations came to realise how shattering his loss was.  For example, one of his cousins was so shaken as to have nearly dropped out of university for a semester.  Being self-absorbed in my grieving, this was a failure of compassion on my part.  Likewise, I’d been told that Natey’s death impacted on the entire Herzlia community, and I have come to a better understanding of that now.

The Interregnum
While I ambled through the Interregnum, Jane was hard at work being pregnant – she had a really difficult pregnancy with persistent nausea, fatigue and -- later -- pain and discomfort: There really was no easy time for her during that 9 months.  And while I eased back into work, Jane tackled her PGDip program at the UCT Graduate School of Business – quite an intense process to take-on during months 0-6 of her pregnancy (and her peak nausea)!  She suspended those studies during Benjamin’s final trimester… but has now gone back to finish the 2nd half of the program with Benjamin only 3 months old!

During Nathaniel’s life I had been writing him a letter about his story and my relationship with him.  I continued Nathaniel’s letter after his death -- but also started a letter to “Baby #2”.   

At first we wanted a clean break for a fresh-start -- and we hoped for a little girl.  But at the 11 week scan we found ourselves in the same clinic getting substantively the same news we’d had 3 years before: It was a healthy little boy with all signs and measurements being positive. 

As Baby #2 continued growing… got through his 20-week scan… and he began moving inside Jane…  I realised that pretty soon the “baby-to-be” had to overtake the “baby-that-had-been”: My Focus was going to be drawn forward.  I felt (and feel) guilt about that shift… as my writings to Nathaniel have had to peter-out into apologies, regrets and goodbyes.

Jane and I went to Thailand for a relaxed “baby moon” in December 2017 (5 months pregnant)… we lit a candle and shed some tears for Natey in a Buddhist temple, and we contemplated compassion and the Buddhist ideal of letting-go.  That learning experience was part of the inspiration for one of Benjamin’s middle names – “Bodhi”:  A Sanskrit name which means “enlightenment”… and you may recall that the historical Buddha achieved enlightenment while meditating under a Bodhi tree.  In Hebrew this became “Meir” – “one who enlightens” or “bringer of light”.  We hope it imbues Benjamin Bodhi with compassion and enlightenment – and so far that seems to be the case, as he’s a very chilled baby.  His other middle name is “Achilles”, but we haven’t seen much of that part of his personality yet!

And now?
I commented earlier that we couldn’t “make new memories” with Nathaniel: But that’s apparently not true… we carried him our hearts to Egypt, Iceland, Thailand, and America.  We bought him a silver cartouche and a little white alabaster pyramid in Egypt (both now in his Natey-space).  We thought of him – and cried for him -- while we raced up Table Mountain***.  We spread some of his ashes on the volcano in Iceland and in a park in Chicago alongside some of my mother’s ashes.  We placed love-locks for him in Iceland and Paris.  We lit a memorial candle with him in Thailand.  And, strangely, unseen photos of Nathaniel continue to pop out of old cell phones, cloud storage, and friends’ archives.

While Nathaniel is always with us I find that more and more I have to make specific time to “be with Natey” – to listen to some of his music, quietly think about him, remember his laugh, and cry for his loss.  It’s not too hard really, if I just pause in my intentionally-over-busy life – to walk on the mountain or have a stretch – Nathaniel comes to mind.

As strangers see me with Benjamin there’s that awkward question: “Is this your only child?”  A simple “yes” would avoid the uncomfortable answers of “He’s my only surviving child” or “I had another boy, but he died”.  But to take the easy route would be to deny Nathaniel’s life, push him further away, and would feel like a betrayal.

Jane and I continue to seek that elusive state of “appreciating what we had while we had it” rather than “regretting the loss of what might have been”.   We still have a long walk to get there.

With Nathaniel we started out to build something permanent, but it got swept away and we had to restart.  While the standard rule of parenting is ‘don’t compare children’, one almost can’t help it.  Rationally I know Benjamin does not (cannot) replace Nathaniel – but I have occasional confusion: For example, I’ll think “It would be nice if he had Nathaniel’s beautiful red hair, but I’m really glad he doesn’t.”  In that sense, it’s a relief that Benjamin’s (mellow) personality is already visibly different than Nathaniel’s (energetic).  Perhaps we’ll be a little stuck in this comparison period until Benjamin has surpassed Nathaniel’s life span of 2½ years. 

As we set out on Benjamin’s journey I had fears of such comparisons: “Nathaniel was so perfect” I’d said “we’ll never get that lucky again”.  But a good friend and advisor said: “Don’t worry Andrew, every child is perfect in their own way.”

We will not imbue Benjamin with our prior hopes or expectations for Nathaniel.  Benjamin will have his own full life, he will be his own person.  But Jane and I cannot deny being changed -- we have innate fear and uncertainty now, and that fear is on several levels:
·       - First – obviously -- we see and think about more risks:  Life was always full of uncertainty, and we were – we thought – very aware and cautious.  Yet even though someone was within a few metres of Nathaniel for just about every minute of his 28 months (including the night he died) tragedy managed to find us.
·       - Nathaniel was so wonderful that I felt we’d “won the baby lottery”, and I expressed that feeling.  Now I hold back my positive judgement and enthusiasm about Benjamin as I’m afraid that I might ‘jinx’ his life.
·       - In some sense I struggle to see an unimpeded rosy, long-term future… somehow it seems shrouded in uncertainty… I have fears for what might happen.
·       - And, frankly, I also fear for self-esteem: Losing one child is a tragedy… losing two would be a clear sign of irresponsibility.

At Nathaniel’s memorial service – here, in this room – Cheryl Lazarus, speaking directly to the school’s parents, wisely urged them not to live in fear nor impair their childrens’ freedom and activities because of Nathaniel’s tragedy.  I thought it was a wise and bold leader’s statement, and something Jane and I now keep in mind as we move forward.

Without regard to whatever fears we have or healing we have to do, our goal will be raise Benjamin with all the security, love, and opportunity as we can – to make his life fun, free, and full of adventure and learning.

Another step in this long emotional journey will be enrolling Benjamin at Alon Ashel in January 2020:  We will see Natey’s track… and Natey’s plant… and Natey’s classroom… and Natey’s teachers.  It will be a little scary and difficult for us and all who knew him: But I have little doubt that Cheryl will have done her homework, and will be ready to prepare us all for that step with the same steady, sensible guidance with which she’s helped us cope with Nathaniel’s death.

Jane and I don’t feel inspirational – in part we feel like failed-parents trying to cope with a life-disaster as best we can.  But I am inspired by Jane – who has shown resilience, perseverance, and a remarkable willingness to help me through the darkness… and who has jumped back-in with love and commitment to bring light into my life.

Thank you all again for giving us the opportunity to share our story… for all the love, compassion, support and generosity over the past couple years… and for joining us in the celebration of the continuation of life -- particularly for little Benjamin.
  
 ---------

*The magic, of course, is that Nathaniel didn’t know he was a ‘student’ -- he just thought it he was playing and having fun.

**Sometimes people would share their own grieving stories, and we tried to be as compassionate with them as they were being with us.  Others would offer unsolicited advice on grieving, mourning or coping and we’d generally take such advice in much the same way as one takes unsolicited parenting advice, graciously and with thanks.  Of course solicited advice (or advice from experience or knowledge) was always welcomed openly.

***Jane and I entered the Table Mountain Challenge in 2017 – a race which entails climbing up the mountain (and taking the cable car down) as many times as you can between sunrise and sunset.  We did 6 laps each.