July 5, 2015

1933739_530487431805_3116_nThere’s a dream where the contents are visible, where the poetic champions compose. Will you breathe not a word of this secrecy, and will you still be my special rose?”      – Van Morrison

Every year, I try to take stock of the flurry of emotions that come on July 5. This has been the hardest one yet to spit out.

I am exhausted in general. It comes with the territory with two young children, a two month backpacking trip around Europe and a full-time job. For the first year since 2007, I was actually asleep at 5 am on July 5. Passed out cold. When I did wake up to my alarm a couple of hours later, I slipped immediately into action – get up, shower, get dressed, get the kids changed, fed, out the door and onto the train with all necessary accessories (as if that has ever been achieved) by 7:45 am.  We were in Berlin and I was guest speaking at a girls’ summer camp. I was well aware of the date but instead of facing into it and feeling emotions honestly as they arrived, I kept them at surface level. I acknowledged what came, but never with true depth. Mostly because my toddler and baby have no clue that this day is any different from the others and their needs turn rapidly into screaming and crying if not met. Also because, for the very first time, they were confusing and I was unsure of my ability to deal with them. 1933739_530487391885_9637_n

Until night time. When the sun finally set, the kids were asleep and after a blistering 38 degree day (100 F), the sky erupted into an epic thunder and lightning storm and the feelings poured down like the rain. I sat on the stoop of our little apartment, feet in a puddle, smelling the sweet drops as they bounced off the hot concrete, listening to Israel Kamakawiwo’ole and crying so hard that my insides shook.

What came to me in torrents as strong as the storm:

1933739_530487426815_2245_n1) The ever-familiar longing for my brother. I miss him every single day. As promised by many, I have learned to live with it. The pain has become far less acute as it has become far more familiar. It arrives again every morning just like the last. It has been a long time since it has slowed me down or stopped me from wanting bigger and better for myself, my family or the world. But it still overwhelms. I miss my brother. The loss never dulls. It continues to come with the same intensely hollowing sadness. I have gotten used to life without him here, but every now and again it punches me right in the gut with fresh shock. I continue to wish there was something I could give or do to make this one truth, this one fact, different. If only this one person, this one life, this one story could have had a different ending.

Mom as a grandma

Mom as a grandma

2) A new uncomfortable feeling – for the first time in 8 years, I have had to dig harder within myself to find him. I am so very sad to admit that it is becoming harder to connect with the Strachan we lost in 2007. Simply because it is now harder to connect with the 2007 version of anybody. For years after we lost him we were more or less the same as he left us – single, achieving, professional, fit. All of the things that he taught us to be. In fact, I believe we each became even better versions of ourselves to honour his legacy and rise to the standards he set for us. 

I am no longer any of those things. I am a mother and a wife first. Wyatt is a Dad. Blythe has a dog with her live-in partner. Mom and Dad are facing retirement. Abbey and Riley are gone. We all own property. There are now 2 baby boys with Strachan’s name. They are magnificent. They are perfect. They are completely transforming who we are and what we do.

This is the first season in our lives you are not here to go first and pave the way.  My heart-twin is not standing to my right with a ready-made example of how I could do and be better. Now, I have to seek people to look up to and decide how to go about it, all on my own.  I wish you were here to set the bar. I wish you knew this version of us. I wish you were here to cheerlead and have my back when I screw up. I wish our kids could go on summer holidays together.

Dad as a grandpa

Dad as a grandpa

But I wish for none of this as badly as I wish you could have done it yourself. I now know what you missed and it is truly too hard to bear. I cannot face this feeling honestly without falling apart with sadness.

When my Dad called Blythe to tell her the news that Strachan had cancer, her reaction was “anybody but him”….. “no offence” she said to me when recounting it. It wasn’t because she loved me any less, it was because nobody -NOBODY- would have loved and lived better than him, particularly when it came to having a family. He would  have given more and been better at this season of life than any other.  The loss of all that could have been breaks my heart all over again.

Usually the tears, like my journals and blogs, round a corner and find a sense of peace eventually. I surface from unchecked emotions and find the maturity within me that knows you cannot sit on a doorstep crying forever. The world is not fair. We are not victims. This is one loss in a world of many. We remain so blessed and so embarrassingly privileged. People may get tired of hearing you talk about this yet again. You do not get to choose what happens in life, only how you handle it. The sun continues to rise and to set on us all.

But this year, this night, the tears kept coming. I do not have a closing to this blog that is inspiring or hopeful or that calls on us to do more or do better.  I just miss my brother and wish he were here.

Strachan Hartley, July 5, 2007. You are so very loved and so very missed. Still. Always.

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Vukile Strachan

Mason Michael Strachan

Mason Michael Strachan

Huxley (aka Mr Huxtable or Pill Cosby)

Huxley (aka Mr Huxtable or Pill Cosby)

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These two are with you now. I trust them to be good company.

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A love letter to my son on his first birthday

IMG_8861My Vukile, I have to apologise from the start. I am also a second born and I have a birthday 5 days before Christmas. Growing up, I hated being over-looked or lumped into part of a bigger sum. I’m quite certain this explains my need to assert my independence every 12 seconds over the past 36 years (and counting). But, gulp, I’m going make comparisons to your sister anyways.

IMG_3654I wish I had the same clarity and emotional awareness today that I had when your sister turned one. But the truth is that I have not had it since you arrived. I grossly underestimated the quantum leap from one child to two. Perhaps it is not so huge for all parents, but I have been duly surprise by how hard it is to juggle four hands and feet, work, travel and all the admin that goes with it all. I now see why parents and children alike need a sense of stability. I have lost control of a lot things and count my successes using the big things –  are we still here? Have we eaten? Are we semi-clean? Put them in the win column. The rest is a toss up. Sometimes the pieces fall together, sometimes they do not. Every single day involves maniacal mood swings. It has to be the very thing that drives parents crazy – it is entirely possible to feel perfectly hopeless and perfectly happy at exactly the same time. In case sibling rivalry ever crops up – don’t worry, this is equal opportunity crazy up in here.  Any awareness of my emotions towards my firstborn went flying out the window when you arrived too.

IMG_6577I always believed I was destined to be the mother of boys. I understand them better. They are simpler, more straightforward and 10,000 percent less scary as teenagers. My family was headed by a proper, proper boy and I always believed it made the difference. He set the tone for our entire childhood and I loved every second of it. Do not tell your sister (or teach her to read apparently) but I was mildly disappointed when they handed me a girl first.

IMG_3052I outgrew it, of course, and she has unlocked in me a love so enormous that it leaves me speechless. She coached me to be a Mom. She gave rise to a whole host of emotions that had never been here before. It has actually been seamless. Partly because we are kindred spirits. She looks just like your Dad, but otherwise she is all Mama. Bullish, stubborn, impatient, but smart. She has no fears and doesn’t need approval but gets frustrated quickly. I have already plotted parenting manoeuvres for her teenage years because I suspect her challenges and successes could be similar to my own. The battles we have with her now are straight out of the ‘how to deal with a spirited toddler’ handbook. I know that book; I wrote that book.

IMG_2726You were different from before your first breath. You have stayed different since. We do not know who you look like but you are your Father’s son through and through. You have a gentle soul, a sweet nature and you already show patience and grace. You absorb the scenes around you. You smile just like he does and are just as generous with it too. You take your time, like simple pleasures and can play the same games time after time with a twinkle in your eyes. Your temperament is easygoing. You capture hearts in moments and you keep them because there is no reason whatsoever not to love you. You are completely, perfectly, utterly loveable.

IMG_3255In one of many life surprises, it turns out my girl will be easier for me to parent than my boy. Oh, it will be a fight with her, of that I am sure, but I know how to fight. You and I though, we are cut from different cloth. You are the one who will challenge me to elevate my understanding of people and the world.

You have already given me the most priceless gift – a deepened appreciation of your Dad. You will learn quickly (probably already have) that impatience is my achilles heel. I am a great ‘do-er’ but a less great leader. Mostly because I rarely have the patience to slow down, listen and understand how or why someone may have a better idea or different approach. Your Dad is my biggest victim. He is a leader, a listener, a giver. He shows me infinite patience while I tend to bulldoze him before he gets a word in edgewise. These early characteristics make it much harder for me to anticipate what challenges and successes you may have as a kid or a teen. But they will not mirror my own. With you I will have to slow down, watch, listen, back off and learn new love languages.

IMG_2744I cannot wait. While part of me is scared of slowing down, I know for certain that I need to. Not only to be a better mother and wife, but to become a better me. You will for certain teach me more than I will teach you.

Perhaps the greatest joy and blessing of this first year has been in watching you and your Dad together. Please know that our love for you and your sister is equal, but it is not identical. Our parenting has differed with you and your bond with your Dad is quite simply remarkable. As it stands, he puts you to sleep and wakes up in the night with you. He makes your bottles and changes your diapers. He taught you to kiss. Your face lights up like a bulb when you see him and you get uneasy when he is not around. Please do not think your time together is unintentional. I love nothing more than seeing you guys so stuck on each other. Not that I can ever get enough of you either. Vukile, you have turned our world on its head. You are a true and wonderful gift and you are already fulfilling your name – to uplift this home. Thank you for bringing sweetness to each and every day. You are so very loved. IMG_2920 IMG_4157 SONY DSC IMG_1842IMG_6644IMG_6735 IMG_7590IMG_3142 IMG_0585 IMG_1754 IMG_2258

A Letter to my daughter on her 3rd birthday

IMG_0594My Khaya,

Today you turned three. True to all the clichés, I can hardly believe it. The days so often feel never-ending, yet the years pass in a blink. As previously, there is nothing I can say here that has not been said before. Particularly since I am exhausted and generally pudding-brained these days. But I am going to say it anyways because I need you to know that it is true.

You have engulfed my heart. Inflated it like a balloon. Right this moment I am thinking about how much I love you and can feel it swelling in my chest and emotion pulsing through my veins all the way into my fingers.  I was overwhelmed with love for you from the moment you took your first breath. Yet, amazingly, it continues to grow. I look back on that day now and see it was only the tip of an iceberg. Perhaps because you are the lead character in 3 years worth of my very best memories. Certainly because watching you grow from a little wee nugget into the marvel you are today has been the greatest, most fulfilling, most enlightening journey and the very, very best thing I have seen.

IMG_5871Even if you do nothing else in your entire life, know that you have completely transformed me. I mean no disrespect to the other loves in my life, but there is no other like the one you gave rise to when you came into our lives. At the crudest level, I understand why evolution is based on an intuition to procreate. You were a secret key to a giant love reserved just for you. There is no other one like this and and I cannot thank you enough for bringing it to life in me.

IMG_3447I love you for exactly who you are. This does not mean that 2 was easy – it was not. Adding your baby brother to the mix has stretched me in ways I did not see coming. Everyday has involved tears; often mine. I have threatened to give you away several times and I question my parenting skills incessantly. Know that, as long as you will know me, I will say many angry and frustrated things. But I do not mean them. Frustration is a true emotion and it often wins the moment, but it always fades away and never wins the day. I promise to show you the same grace.

I was a terror back in my day. You may look exactly like your Father, but you are your Mother’s daughter.  Nowadays, though, we highlight the positives. You “know what you want”. You are “determined”, “tenacious” and “a strong leader”. Just today you were “a highly-resourceful go-getter” when you scaled the kitchen drawers, grabbed a spatula and used it to fish a piece of forbidden candy from the top shelf despite 3 adults telling you not to. Right this moment you are sitting across the room honing your scissor skills on a book despite the fact that you are far too young to be using them. Telling you not to is a point-blank invitation for war involving a sharp object.

IMG_8781You can and will do whatever you want in this world. We will continue to do our best to ensure you are a brave and principled little girl with a heart for making the world a better place. I remain terrified of how to nurture and steward you in all the right ways and am scared of all the mistakes we may be making along way. Know that we are doing our best and that no matter what, it is always with love.

You are indeed a handful, but you are kind and you are brave. You embrace every day and are not afraid to take chances. You hurt when others hurt and while you may sit at the top of the slide and force 4 other kids to wait, simply because you can, you are the first to run over and check when one of them falls. You share well, have a generous heart and have welcomed your baby brother to life with great love. You arrive with love to give, provide hugs to anybody who needs one, a smile to light up the sky and you are the very best cuddler under the sun.

IMG_7099We moved to Spain for the year. My heart was heavy at times because we stripped you of a true sense of community or routine and thrust you instead into all new environments. But you adapted like a true champion. You excelled in your Spanish school, got several of the teachers wrapped around your little fingers and learned more Spanish than both of your parents. You started swim lessons in tears and ended being able to swim unassisted and with a huge grin on your face. You potty-trained in a day (but still refuse to give up your dummy) and your report cards were great.

SONY DSCWatching your Dad love and grow through you remains the greatest gift of my life. I take him for granted far too often and I hope you never learn that from me. You are blessed with a truly remarkable Dad who loves without fear and gives without expectation. Please see him for the incredible person he is and know his love for you is true, even if I forget to do the same sometimes.

Your extended family loves you fiercely as well. Your grannies and grampas, aunties, uncles and cousins (by blood and otherwise) continue to shower you with special kinds of love. Please keep them in the inner circle of your heart and let your understanding of family grow, never shrink. There is no limit to the amount of love you can give.

IMG_0884I am already paralyzing myself with nostalgia and bracing myself for how fast time will continue to go by. I cannot get enough of you. But three years of this journey with you has also taught me to look forward to whatever moments and miracles come next. I have no doubt you will continue to stretch us in every way but look forward to learning and loving even more of you and am in awe that there is even more love to be found in me.

Thank you once again for every little bit of you. You set my heart on fire, little girl. You make this world a warmer and brighter place everyday.

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Duna – Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu: A person is a person because of people.

10314690_10152594214665666_2055762858033285392_n“Thixo somandla bonakele abantu, ungavumi bakujwayele”  (Heavenly father people are rotten, do not let them take you for a ride)
— Nkunzi Emdaka, Maskandi singer

Last month, our family was struck with a great tragedy. While on holiday in France, Mpho got a call from home. His cousin, Duna, had been killed.

These calls come from Lusikisiki altogether way too often. I know it is bad news because the air in the room changes with a silent thud. The phone rings, I hear his voice say “no” with a distinctive pained disbelief and I brace myself. I know it is bad, but always hope it is not as bad as bad can possibly get. At one point I tried to convince myself that maybe Mpho had gotten used to it. Like, maybe if you endure enough loss you become conditioned at it, ‘good’ at it. That is not how it works, obviously. It was a defense mechanism against opening up to what it means or how it feels to have so many people in your life die. I still cannot do it. But he sure can; he does not have a choice.

DunaThe details of his death are vicious. Duna was brutally attacked while sleeping in his home. It looks increasingly like the perpetrators were a group of four of his friends and neighbours. He had been out at the shebeen with them the very same night. I knew from the moment I heard about it, whatever ‘reason’ or backstory might follow would be heartbreakingly stupid. Maybe it was a robbery for $20, maybe it was an argument gone too far, maybe he made a move on someone’s girlfriend. As much as I hope that police are able to solve the case, bring them to justice and provide Mpho with some closure, I already know the story will be a chilling example of how life can actually lose its value.

A number of parallel thoughts have rattled through my brain as the recent xenophobic violence across South Africa, the Garissa University massacre and the one year anniversary of the #bringbackourgirls Boko Haram kidnapping have unfolded. Like these atrocities, the violence was both personal and grotesque. Duna is also now a similarly tragic statistic borne of a frustrated time and place. But like each and every soul involved in any of the above, he is so very much more than a number.

Ironically, we spent the exact same day people-watching the rich and famous at the Monte Carlo Casino in Monaco.

Ironically, we spent the same day people-watching the rich and famous in Monaco.

There is no question that the world values lives differently. When people die, the ones with most distinguished status are mourned the loudest. Even obituaries and eulogies often focus on people’s accomplishments. As a student and lover of Africa, there are way too many examples of Africans whose stories get swept aside or who are ‘othered’ to the point of becoming nameless, faceless statistics. Not only is it dishonest, it keeps the rest of the world at arm’s length instead of closing the gap.

Duna was hardly impressive by most standards. He was unemployed, did not have much of an education, never married and liked the bottle. When it came time to write his obituary nobody even knew his mother’s real name. His father, who passed away 6 years ago, had brought him home to Gran as an infant. As she does, she picked him up and raised him. He was the notorious drunk cousin that could most often be found around the house and who showed up late to our wedding, dancing to a chorus of cheers, completely off his rocker and wearing fake neon green glasses.

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Some of the boys living with Gran as of 2010

Lusikisiki bears many of the same scars as other homelands or townships that absorbed so much of the colonial and apartheid burden. It is poor and under-served. Hard to reach and without basic amenities. There are very few jobs, education options are sparse and bad and the population is disproportionately composed of elderly and small children. Options in Lusikisiki are simple:

1) get out
2) do nothing.

Getting ‘out’ requires the perfect genesis of a whole lot of forces: luck, grace, vision, talent and a series of helping hands. My husband is a living testament to all of the above. When he goes home, his Gran is always delighted to see him. But after a couple of days she encourages him to leave. As she sees it, nothing good happens to young people there and whatever good he brings becomes at risk the longer he stays.

Mpho and Duna’s lives have gone down very different paths, but only by the slimmest of margins and by none of the measures that matter the most.

423246_10151354252640412_242511124_nMpho changes when we go to Lusikisiki. I know very little about what is going on – I don’t speak enough of the language and many details are lost to my oblivion. But it does not take spoken language to recognize the peace that washes over him or to know that it comes from belonging. His truest version of himself is as a young kid running through the hills, rolling tires, herding cows, stick fighting or sitting around talking crap; all with Duna by his side. They grew up in exactly the same house doing exactly the same things, together. Duna was his cousin, first best friend and home.

Duna was loved because he was a person. A good person. He had a good heart and did no harm. He shared his home, his time, his identity, his roots. He gave my husband the most important and generous gifts – unconditional love, belonging and a sense of self.

171281_10150134783820412_3432382_oMpho’s pain over the past few weeks is palpable, as is his Gran’s and the rest of the family. The loss is heartrending, the tears so very real. In its own right, but further compounded by both the callousness of the situation and by having endured so much already. They do not need anyone to validate their feelings, but I wanted to write this anyways.

11080930_10206374173376460_401520572797296107_nTo Duna – you are loved. In the end, that is all that carries on. Walk in the hands of God, my brother.

And to Mpho – I am so very sorry for all that you have lost. For whatever it is worth, I love you fiercely and will do my best to give you a sense of belonging wherever we go. It is not the same and we would never look to replace your home, but the kids and I will keep trying to live our love out loud. Love certainly lives here.

Duna hand wrote a sign for our wedding in 2010. Still makes me laugh.

Duna hand wrote a sign for our wedding in 2010. Still makes me laugh.

Breaking a Silence

So this happened:

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I am among the many for whom this week’s breaking news was not news. When I saw it, my reaction was simple – finally, get lost, disgusting pervert, enjoy jail. As it turns out, however, there was much more sitting on that dusty old shelf in my brain.

I have hesitated to write this. This is not my story. He was never my coach. ‘It’ took place the year I left Canada to ski in Colorado. I have had a glimpse of the aftermath over the years, but that does not come close to living it. I am reluctant to put words onto someone else’s experience or to come off like I am trying to be at the centre of something now that it is national news.

But I am saying my piece anyways. I feel that I contributed to creating an environment that helped keep a dirty secret for way too long. Furthermore, there is no such thing as too much talk about sexual abuse and I want these women to know that I back them and that their support base is bigger than they may know.

Culture of secrecy

This week I ended up chatting with a friend I haven’t seen in years who said, “after 20 years of therapy, this is so beyond freeing I can’t even put into words”. I also received a message from a different friend who is “trying not to think about it because after years of making me miserable I decided to put it behind me and be happy”.  ‘G’, the first to come file charges, steadfastly denied it since 1998. When she saw him recently in a store, she had a panic attack and hid beneath the stairs.

I had no idea. I grossly underestimated how much he took from people and how many of my friends and peers kept it to themselves because it was not a safe environment to talk about it.

In the wake of the ‘scandal’, news poured in and continued to pour in for years. Most of it was framed as who was ‘sleeping with’ him. I think we even vilified one of the victims that pulled the rug out from under it all by quite publicly implicating herself.  It led to him being fired and ended the abuse, but conversation hinted that she was calculating since she knew at least one other girl was already ‘involved’ with him.

No wonder people denied it for 20 years.

Add to the mix that these were highly focused performance-driven athletes in their prime in a sport that is especially psychological, and you have a perfect recipe for secrecy. Conditions change every day in skiing. Becoming the best involves learning to focus expressly on elements within your control. Each girl was highly conditioned to internalize their own actions and release the parts that were not.  Nobody knew that better than him: he taught it.

We were teenagers, we knew shit all. But of course we felt perfectly in control of our own decisions. I know I did.  And I became one of many who projected that onto the situation. It was well understood that he was a predator, but it was definitely implied that there was an element of choice. I contributed, without meaning to, the stigma that led people to stay quiet. We missed a crucial opportunity to make these girls feel safe and a teaching moment that could have re-framed how we understood and handled the issues.

What should have happened was a rallying cry by everyone in the sport that said something like this:

“We are really sorry for what you have been through. That someone used some of your greatest strengths against you in the worst way possible. It is not your fault. Can we do anything to help you heal all the while respecting your privacy?” Repeat.

If we failed to do it or did not know how because we were stupid teenagers, someone should have stepped in and taught us. Which brings me to my next point:

Where the fuck were the adults?

I won’t be-labour this point too much, but only because I don’t know the details.  Otherwise, my wrath on this subject has the voracity to break the internet faster than Kim Kardashian’s backside. I am an adult now and like to think I have a simple understanding of our basic duties as responsible, moral beings. From where I sit, these girls were completely and appallingly failed.

Let’s pretend for a second that no adult – no coach, no staff, no administrator, or otherwise knew about this while it was on-going. Or that, if they did, they pulled out all the stops to end it but, through no fault of their own, fell short. And that when it finally blew up, all of them stood up for the girls and fought like dogs to make things right. Because imagine the horrible message that would send to a bunch of kids if the very adults charged with their care chose to turn the other cheek instead. I mean, nothing says you are valued and supported…..like impunity for the perpetrator.

But somehow, 20 years later, the same sociopath is in the exact same position – coaching 12 year old girls?! And who had to stand up to change that? One of the victims. Twice, because her first efforts were ignored.

I get that there were limitations to what people could do without the girls coming forward or taking legal action. And I fully respect that they wanted to put it behind them.  But let’s put the bullshit aside – every one knew about this. It was the worst kept secret ever and there was enough evidence for him to lose his job the next day. This means there was enough to do more. Instead, people chose to avoid upsetting the balance of a system that allowed it to happen in the first place or to protect their own reputation or job. That is just pathetic.

It could have been me

In the throws of my sadness, I rattled off a message to my sister pledging to keep my daughter the hell away from individual sports. Her former coach was charged with sexual misconduct involving underage boy athletes. Out of 2 daughters, 2 were proxy to gross abuses of power but managed to avoid it.

My sister (the younger) had a far more balanced response:

“We may have been lucky, but I think that we ended up ok. There are a ton of coaches who are healthy, balanced and positively influence their athletes.”

She is right, as usual. It could have been either of us. I bring it up because it is an important point in ensuring the girls understand it wasn’t their fault and in changing how we approach the issue.

As a parent, I would like to believe we have some control, but I know better. The girls were well-parented and this predator designed it to fall outside the parenting spectrum. I joked with my friend that my unibrow came in handy after all and saved me. It’s not true either.  I was totally vulnerable.

I had as much teenage angst and insecurity as anyone.  I was equally focused  – I wasn’t cool or fashionable, the boys didn’t like me, but I could ski. My coaches, all but 1 of whom were male, had an alarming ability to influence. I am just lucky (and grateful) that they were stand out people who recognized their power and used it for good.

In the spirit of this blog, I want to take a minute to mention one in particular – Hans Edblad. When I was 14 I had my most successful year. Skiing for one of the small clubs, I spent countless hours with him, most of it alone. I did everything he said. He could have convinced me of anything he wanted. I have no doubt that he understood his power and that he used my commitment and competitive nature as a protracted opportunity to teach me about life. He taught me discipline, commitment and goal-setting. He challenged me spiritually and continuously raised the bar for how I behaved.  He encouraged me to dream big and showed me how to make them come true. It was among the most magical times of my life and certainly the most empowering relationships. I often wonder if he understands how much of his impact remains.

In the end, skiing is nothing more than trying to go as fast as you can down a pile of snow while wearing sticks. All the girls whose worlds’ were once so singular, have moved on. We are professionals, parents, citizens. Sport will forever be a building block that helped shape us, but never the end game. I hope coaches understand their ability to influence and how fragile kids – no matter how hard they come across – really are and that their true duty is as stewards of their well-being.

To the girls that were victimized – I am sorry for what he took from you. I am sorry I didn’t do more to help you heal. It was never your fault. Your courage in coming forward (or not, because that is ok too) is so very admirable. You were, and still are, exceptional role models for so many girls to follow. I am 100% behind you in making sure this never happens again.

Queen Bravoska the Rural Hottie of Bushbuck Ridge

Name: Dipolelo Makhubedu
Hometown: Cape Town by way of Bushbuck Ridge
Occupation: Investment Banker
Age: It’s her Birthday
Hobbies: Selfies, Running, Verbal Diarrhea

Today – today! – happens to be the birthday of one of the most exceptional ordinary people I know. She is a social media whore, so it could be enough for me to post a shout out on Facebook, but that just does not do justice to a Queen now does it. So here’s a blog.

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 1.41.07 PMI met Dips/Lelo/Rural Hottie of Bushbuck Ridge in 2010 at Book Club. The club turned out to be one of the coolest groups of women I have ever been a member of. Dipolelo was not part of it. She did, however, crash the first meeting ever (because crashing a book club is appropriate, really).  There, she got in a conversation with a couple of the girls about a really intense and awesome boot camp they had been attending. I mentioned I was keen but didn’t have a car to get there at 5:30am. Dips figured out we were neighbours and offered to pick me up. Except that she was leaving town for a few days and wouldn’t be there for the next workout, so why didn’t I just take her car while she was away? I declined. I had only known her for 15 minutes and didn’t quite feel comfortable taking over her car. Only once she returned and we started to carpool did I learn that ‘Tiger’ was a brand new prized possession luxury Audi.

At the finish line of a 10km trail race. I swear she smiled the whole way.

At the finish line of a 10km trail race. I swear she smiled the whole way.

Everything about this woman is remarkable. Born and raised in Bushbuck Ridge, a tiny little dorp in Mpumalanga, one of 7 kids. Her parents were small town entrepreneurs and her Dad a pastor. They went to school under a tree. Literally, under a tree. That she went on to get a Masters Degree in Finance from Africa’s top University and become a managing partner in an asset management firm before age 30 would be completely unbelievable if her siblings had not all done the same. Her sister is currently in Amsterdam as the Director of Finance for Shell International. Her other sister a town manager in a major South African city. Her brother a contender for the national team soccer coach. Her other brother a successful entrepreneur. I don’t know what kind of mushrooms they ate under that fricking tree, but whatever it was I want some.

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“A selfie a day keeps the doctor away”

They have also endured well beyond their fair share of hardship. Of 7 siblings, 3 have passed on too soon. Her brother in a motorcycle accident. Her other brother murdered in a case that the police ‘cannot’ solve despite them knowing almost for certain who did it – a community member that owed him money because he had done him a huge favour and given him a business loan. Just last year, she called home to get news about her brand new niece. While on the phone, her Mom let out a blood curdling scream – her sister suffered a deadly stroke while she was on the other end of the line. Six days later, the newborn baby died. These stories have a way of piling up in South Africa. Every one of them makes me consider hiding from life under a rock. Watching people like Dipolelo suffer the biggest losses and choose life all the same has altered my perspective and helped my own healing. It is not that life has less value, it is an enlightened understanding that you do not get to choose what happens in life, but you do get to choose what you do with it.

Starting a dance party at the most pretentious party ever.

Starting a dance party at the most pretentious party ever.

Dipolelo lives with refreshing abandon. She is an open book, says exactly how she feels  and could not stop herself from becoming everyone’s best friend even if she wanted to. It is actually quite disarming and I suspect makes some people uncomfortable. Most of us have learned to worry at least a little bit; about what people think or what could go wrong. We are careful about choosing our friends and behaviours and we limit what we say to manage our image or protect ourselves against harm. She is the freest – and thereby least toxic – person I know. She has a million friends from all walks of life, judges none and I cannot even imagine her bearing a grudge. She expresses gratitude all the time, has enviable self esteem, refuses to worry about things she cannot control and seems to have avoided being damaged or jaded by past hurts.

There is a fundamental rule in Improv acting – ‘say yes’. There is no script. In order for it to work, you have to squash expectations and go with whatever you are given on stage.  Dipolelo is an example of what happens when you ‘say yes’ to life. All of it.

So Queen Bravoska, the hottest rural hottie, who is currently celebrating life in Zanzibar – don’t ever change.  You are one in seven billion and make everyone that knows you better just by being your unbridled, contagious self. Keep infecting the rest of us with your absurd zest for life.  And please, shoot us at least 20 more selfies before the sun goes down.

A different kind of July 5

First lookIn my world, no date marks time like July 5. Sure birthdays are a big deal, especially as the Mom of two children. Yet, July 5, 2007 remains the great chasm in my life- everything before on one side and everything after on the other. Each year since we lost Strachan it brings a heavy, solemn pause. A day of sadness for what we lost, celebration of what we had, gratitude for lessons learned and, of course, the stomach-punching reality of how much time has passed and how much he is missed.

Not this year. This year, reflection got shoved aside by punch drunkenness, pain killers and hormones.

photo (24)On July 4, 2014 we welcomed 9.2 pound Vukile Strachan Mbiyozo to our little family. This year, at 5 am on July 5 I was awake as usual for yet another anniversary of my brother’s last breath. But this time, instead of silence and reflection, a nurse woke me up to ask she could clean me. “And if I said no?” I joked, as if I had an ounce of vanity left.

Vukile Strachan arrived by emergency c-section after 25 hours of labour. Despite both our best efforts, he was not progressing and his vital signs began to drop. As it turns out, the not-so-little dude had the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, so they pulled him out of the sun roof, much to my discontent.

Big sister dutiesThe birth of my two kids were vastly different experiences. Both involved challenges. I have my handsome husband to thank for big babies that my body is not fully equipped for (I was 6 pounds at birth, we have no records of his birth but aunts and uncles all agree he was huge). Khaya was in distress, got stuck, broke her collar bone and spent her first night in the ICU. But she made it and I became a mini-celebrity on the maternity ward for my 15 minutes. Doctors and nurses knew of me and were quick to congratulate me on my efforts. I would be lying if I did not admit that it felt right. Despite the complications, there was something very ‘Hartley’ about being the toughest lady on the floor.

This time, they only congratulated me on the baby.

photo 1 (11)With a rate of 80%, private hospitals in South Africa have among the highest c-section incidence in the world (the global average is 12%).  In fact, if you opt for a cesarean, it costs you and your insurance less than natural. I knew this when I chose to have babies in South Africa and subsequently spent a lot of energy defending against it. All doctors’ appointments included less than subtle reminders of my preference. This pregnancy involved a new doctor in a new city. “I’m German” she responded to the perennial question “and I should sure hope you want natural birth, you did not push out your first 9 pound baby for nothing”.  Add in that my body had been tried and tested and had good reason to feel confident about my birth plan.

My heart broke when after 25 drug-free hours my doctor delivered the Germanic facts: “cervix is not moving, baby is sky high and heart rate keeps plummeting on contraction. We’re going to operate”. There were tears. They poured even more when the anesthesiologist missed my spinal cord and stabbed his needle into my nerve.

photo 2 (10)Only then, when things stopped going according to plan, did the date come into consciousness.  I started to replay the exact time 7 years prior when my brother was hooked up to machines under bright lights. Now it was my turn, along with the tiny little person inside me. The prognosis was the opposite. Still, my mind skipped rationality and was overwhelmed instead by deeply cached memories. Things went so very badly once, it was possible for it to happen again. When I lost control of the process, I collapsed into the situation and switched from determined to fragile. Last time I was the super tough chick, this time I was the over-dramatic lady that would not stop crying over a routine procedure.

Vukile Strachan arrived healthy as a wee horse. Sure enough, joy replaced fear and sadness perfectly on cue. My tears changed to happy ones when I heard his scream for the first time. I stayed sobbing when I watched my husband’s face gloss over with sweet love when they put him in his arms.

imageI did not like this birth experience. I hated the bright lights, the cutting, the room full of people. I cannot stand that I could not will my way to a different outcome and failed my own vision. I am embarrassed that reason flew out the window and raw vulnerability took over. I hate that dozens of people saw me naked, pulled apart my insides and had to wipe me down for days (and that’s to say nothing of the flatulence).  I am frustrated that I still look pregnant, am not allowed to leave my couch and that it will take even longer to look or feel like myself again.

Of course, only an ounce of perspective is needed to get over it. Seven years earlier, our family sat around Strachan waiting and watching powerlessly while the unthinkable happened. We will never know what fears he had to face or how he faced them. So things didn’t go exactly as I wanted? I will get over my little story by the end of the month. Life did not end in on July 5, 2014, it began.

imageThis year I may have missed the significance of July 5, but it did not miss me. I did not pause solemnly, yet it continued to mark time. The permanence of my brother and our loss continues to surface in so many ways. Sometimes in a song, a memory or a dream. This time in expected and unexpected ways with the birth of our first son. My cousin Lauren sent a message welcoming him and mentioned that between the date and name, it is as if a part of Strachan was born again. We noww have a son, nephew and grandson. He is so very loved and will live out the rest of his days carrying on the names of his two uncles that are so very missed.

Strachan Hartley July 5, 2007. Life continues to move and change, but you stay with us, live through us and are forever loved. Still. Always.

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