Birthday tragedies

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Today is my brother Christopher’s birthday. It is also the anniversary of our other brother’s death. Adrian, 3 years younger than Christopher, 5 years older than me, died suddenly and completely unexpectedly at the age of 20. It was the day our lives changed forever. 

Adrian was always a happy go lucky person. He was tall, strong, sporty, exuded charm and always fell on his feet. What he lacked in academic achievements he more than made up for in personality; he made the world a better place, his smile could (and frequently did) melt the hardest of hearts, he cared about others, was fiercely loyal and determined to live life to the full. He and I often fought like cat and dog but we also adored each other; he was so proud of his little sister and I knew he would always look after me. He was the one I always ran to if someone at school was mean to me, he was the one I’d tell if I’d done something wrong, he was the one I chatted to about life and the future. 

We had no warning that there was anything wrong, no warning that our lives would be torn apart. One minute everything was normal, the next things had changed forever. It later transpired that he had a congenital diaphragmatic hernia that had never caused any issues but which could have led to his death at any time. There was no chance to prepare ourselves, no chance to say goodbye, no chance to say a final ‘I love you’. Instead our lives were suddenly and cruelly plunged into darkness. Christopher’s birthday was no longer a family day of celebration but one of heart rending grief and shock. 

The next twelve months were horrible. Christopher returned to London and long hours of work and study which gave him no chance to grieve properly, my parents only managed to keep going by taking tranquillisers and sleeping tablets, I barely slept, found it impossible to talk about my brother at all and was totally weighed down by feeling responsible for everyone. The only way my parents could cope was by changing the way we did things: they cancelled our evening paper as Adrian always rushed to read it first, we no longer went on camping holidays because that’s what we’d done for our last few family holidays, we no longer went to our favourite picnic places, we no longer watched Match of the Day, we no longer opened presents on Christmas Day as Adrian had always loved Christmas and he and I would always creep downstairs early to start the unwrapping. I felt like I’d not only lost my beloved brother but also so many of the familiar features of my life.

But of course the biggest change was that we no longer made a big thing about birthdays and in particular we stopped celebrating Christopher’s birthday. I’m not sure that this started out as a deliberate thing but later it definitely became an unwritten rule. My parents would always try to visit Christopher a week or so before his birthday and give him his gift then. They would send a card a couple of days beforehand but that was it, the actual day they always spent focussing on Adrian  and taking flowers to the Cemetery. It wasn’t done in a really obvious hurtful way and Christopher and I both understood how much our parents were struggling to keep going and so neither of us challenged the changes that slowly eroded many of our family traditions. It was many years before he and I properly celebrated his birthday with drinks and a meal, all thanks to my ex-husband who suggested it. I will be eternally grateful to him for that as it made me realise just how much Christopher had suffered from not being able to mark his special day. He felt guilty that he was alive and Adrian wasn’t. He felt insignificant. I can understand totally how painful it was for my parents but at the same time I feel they were unfair. There is an entry in my mother’s diary for that year that shows how unhappy she was that we celebrated Christopher’s birthday. I think she felt that we had slighted Adrian’s memory but she was so wrong. We will never forget our brother, we will never stop missing him but we need to carry on living, we need to make the most of every moment and we need to celebrate one another’s birthdays, to give thanks for having a sibling on whom we can rely, to give thanks for having a sibling who can help us keep our memories. I find it so sad that Christopher felt unable to have a major birthday celebration until the year after our parents died and even then he needed so much reassurance that this was ok.

In the words of Christina Rossetti, “Better by far you should forget and smile than that you should remember and be sad”. Of course this doesn’t mean that we forget totally but sometimes we need to put our sadness in a little box and simply focus on the joy of the day.


Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

Christina Georgina Rossetti

So I wish my brother a Happy Birthday. He is the best brother anyone could hope for, an amazing Uncle and committed Godfather and he deserves to be happy. Today is his day, the special day that marks his entry into the world, the day when all his friends can give thanks for knowing him. It should be all about him and nothing else. We don’t need a specific day to remember those who are no longer with us, they are with us in our hearts every single day, but everyone needs one special day when they are the focus of attention and when we give thanks for life and a chance to participate in this wonderful world.



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imgresMy poor 11 year old has come down with chickenpox. It’s such unfortunate timing for him as he only has another two and a half weeks left at his current school before saying goodbye to many of his classmates and starting at secondary school in September. It’s also a very unfortunate illness for him in particular as he already suffers from acutely itchy skin from eczema and hay fever. But on a more positive note I don’t have the school run and I get to spend some lovely snuggly time with him; it’s a great excuse to forget about work too!

We haven’t had chickenpox in the family for 15 years. That time my second child had a mild case the week before the February half term and then very kindly passed it on to the rest of us including me who somehow, despite my mum’s concerted efforts, had refused to succumb to the virus as a child. So we had a housebound half term week: my 3 year old who was completely better and full of energy, my 5 year old who had been looking forward to a fun packed holiday from school, my 18 month old and me, six months pregnant with my fourth child. My husband was between jobs at the time but, true to form, seemed to remember various meetings he needed to set up which would involve him staying away from home. To be honest it was just as well as he was never terribly helpful at times of illness and was always a trifle (??) on the impatient side when it came to children crying or making the slightest fuss about anything. From starting off feeling as if we were going to have a miserable week we actually ended up having a lovely time together and it is a week that we often look back on fondly. Our chickenpox week also became known as the week we became part of Pontypandy, home of Fireman Sam. In between making cookies, playing with play dough, painting pictures, reading stories and having long baths to alleviate the itchiness, we watched episode after episode of Fireman Sam. We must have watched each episode several times over as I’m sure we only had one Fireman video but it didn’t matter as we needed to absorb every last detail so that we could then re-enact each episode ourselves. That week I became Bella Lasagne, the rather scatty Italian owner of Pontypandy’s cafe and the owner of Rosa the cat. I played the role to the full and ended up speaking in a broken Italian accent for the majority of the week. Even now 15 years later I still find myself becoming Bella if I need to cheer everyone up or distract people from meal time squabbles. I doubt if any of us will ever be able to watch an episode of Fireman Sam without thinking of that week, incredibly itchy, housebound and isolated but full of fun, laughter and jollity.

So I am going to view the next few days as a chance to do some fun things with my youngest child ahead of the school holidays. We can play in the garden, read our current book, do some crafts, bake and watch some films together. Hopefully he too will be able to look back on his chickenpox week with fond memories that will stay with him forever. Which character should I be this time?


Family Holidays (Part One)

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I have so many lovely memories of childhood family holidays. My father loved planning holidays and always had a stack of holiday brochures in his bedside cabinet. Growing up we never had lots of spare money but he considered a holiday to be a priority and so every year carefully worked out the household budget to ensure that this was possible. It didn’t matter if we could only go away for a few days and didn’t matter if we stayed in the most modest of places, what was important was that we went away together and spent some time away from the usual interruptions of normal life. It was his way of giving our mum a break, of thanking her for all she did for the family, and it was an opportunity to show us more of the country in which we lived and then later, when there was a bit more money and we could travel abroad, to show us different cultures. I didn’t realise until later that it was also his chance to mark our parents’ wedding anniversary.

Many of my best holiday memories actually derive from things that went wrong: breaking down in France miles away from anywhere and before the days of mobile phones, my parents sticking their head in a gas cooker in a holiday cottage trying to light it and losing their eyebrows, being woken by concerned parents sure I was having an asthma attack only to discover it was a donkey roaming around outside. Holidays are just like normal life in that they are unpredictable, you have to be prepared for all the best laid plans going wrong. We had two nights in Paris at the end of a French camping holiday and my father had devised a busy sightseeing schedule which would culminate in an evening walk along the Champs d’Elysee and a special meal  to mark another year of being happily married. Unfortunately I started to feel unwell during the day and by evening had a raging temperature so much to his frustration my father was forced to go with just my brothers while my mother remained in the hotel to tend to me. My abiding memory is waking hours later to find that my fever had abated, my father and brothers had returned after having a very pleasant evening together and I was ‘forgiven’. We celebrated with  some extortionately priced ice cold bottles of coke from a vending machine in the hotel lobby and some food that my mother seemed to rustle up from nowhere;  what had been a miserable day for me was transformed into one of warmth, love and laughter which will always remain in my memory.

Many of our holidays involved driving long distances, a burden  which fell solely on my father’s shoulders as my mum never passed her test. My mum was sacked from navigating when she told him to turn right as we approached a roundabout with about seven exits. I will never forget his exasperation with her, caused entirely by the heat, fatigue and hunger. As a result my oldest brother took on the role of navigator although it soon became clear that this was a mixed blessing. Although his map reading skills were exceptional and he gave clear instructions, he would never ever take the shortest route between two points but instead would opt for ‘the scenic route’. This would invariably involve a multitude of winding roads miles from anywhere (probably a major contributor to our breakdown) but my father stoically drove and we all enjoyed the varied sights along the way although we could have done without  the frequent fear that we would run out of petrol far from civilisation!

There was the year I ate only wholefoods and so refused to eat any white bread. My dad would uncomplainingly drive for miles to find a boulangerie that sold ‘pain complet’ just for me. There was the time my mum tried on some wellies at the market (I’m not sure why as we were in Provence and the weather was consistently hot, sunny and very dry) and then found that she couldn’t get them off. I was of absolutely no help whatsoever as I was convulsed with hysterical laughter.

My father had a range of shirts which he kept specially for holidays as they were short sleeved, natural fabrics and very comfortable. For some reason his holiday shirts were all in orange and red tones and my mum always used to joke that at least we would be able to spot him anywhere. Until that is we lost him in an enormous  French hypermarket on a day when it seemed that every single man over thirty  was dressed in red or orange. 

And there was the holiday in France where we rented a gite for the first time. The first week of our stay was unseasonably cold and wet and the gite was draughty, dirty and cold. Although it had been advertised as having inclusive heating this did not work so we decided we would have to contact the owners to see what could be done. After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing we managed to get the owners out to discuss the issues we had with the gite. I was studying French at ‘A’ level so wrote down everything that had to be said but refused to do the actual talking (too shy) so instead made my mum do it, grimacing all the time at her bad pronunciation (what a brat I was). Eventually it was agreed that the gite would be thoroughly cleaned and the furnace would be repaired so that the heating and hot water systems would work properly. By the next day the system had cranked up, the heaters were all fired up and…. the weather changed. For the next four days we absolutely sweltered as even with heaters turned off the furnace was generating masses of heat on its own. 

There are so many tales most of which probably seem so humdrum and ordinary  but which made our family holidays so special. We explored new places, we tried new foods, we experienced new cultures but fundamentally our holidays were about being together, no telephones, no letters, no other demands on our time. We would all return home feeling happier, more relaxed and closer to one another. 

So what’s the key to a successful family holiday? Planning, enthusiasm and a willingness to adapt, to accept that holidays with children are different. For my part I love travelling with children and have had so many adventures with them (more of that in part 2). We’ve had our fair share of holiday ‘disasters’ ourselves but overall I think we’ve done pretty well. I can’t wait until our next one! 





Every child is an individual

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When I look at my children I see five sons who are individuals; they are all an amalgam of different genetic traits which can easily be attributed to various strands of their father and me but each one has other personality and physical characteristics which are totally their own, perhaps a throwback to a previous generation, perhaps a result of environmental factors. Who knows? I love the fact that they are a close knit band of boys but even more I celebrate the fact that they are their own people. Together they make the most amazing group of boys/men who bring me enormous joy and who, I know, have much to offer the world. In bringing them up I have had a set of family rules within which we broadly operate but I have always tried to embrace their individuality and to recognise that different children require a different approach. I had the child who had to eat frequently or he would lose the plot, I had the child who liked a strict regime, I had the child who liked to have things done for him, I had the child who liked to do everything for himself, I had the child who needed to be in bed at the same time every night, I had the child who needed a flexible bedtime. The variety is what made it a challenge but it also made it an adventure. Children are constantly changing, what works one week won’t necessarily work the next, there is no ‘one fits all’ approach to child rearing and people who refuse to see that do so at their own peril. Just because a child is shy at the age of two doesn’t mean that they will always be shy. Just because a child is restless and ‘boisterous’ at eight doesn’t mean that they will always be that way. Children learn to do things when they are ready and yes, sometimes, they need a nudge in the right direction, but that is all it should be, a gentle toe in the water to see how they react. If they are ready they will get stuck in and surge forward. 

It seems to me that nurseries and schools are, more and more, labelling children as having behavioural and developmental issues far too quickly even though, paradoxically, when there is a genuine educational need they often seem to refuse to acknowledge a parent’s concerns and refuse to press for an educational assessment. I know there are constant news stories about how many children are still not toilet trained at secondary school and how children are out of control but do we really know the true extent of this problem? And do we truly understand why this problem exists? is it because discipline is too lax or is because discipline is too rigidly enforced? Is the problem so great that we need to assess two and three year olds and move away from child-centred learning. There is a vast difference in expecting a fourteen year old to be able to sit still and concentrate for an hour and asking the same thing of a three year old. What is happening to our children’s childhoods?

I hated the first primary school I attended. My mother had chosen it when we moved to the area as it had a good reputation and was linked to the Church that we attended. I cried every single morning going into school and almost had to be dragged into the building; my parents were concerned but thought my distress was perhaps due to the fact that I was generally a clingy child. I hated that school; I hated the strict nonsensical rules, I hated being forced to eat food I didn’t like at lunchtimes; I hated how sarcastic the teachers were and how they openly favoured some children over others; I hated the way I was made to start learning to read from the prescribed reading scheme even though I already could read;  I hated the way we were constantly being told to ‘sit up’, to ’be quiet’, to ‘try harder’. My salvation came in the form of a severe dose of whooping cough which led to an absence from school of several months. My parents saw such a change in my personality that they decided to move me to a different school. I blossomed; this was a school that celebrated the individual. It was chaotic, filled with laughter, had very few rules and yet operated smoothly and efficiently. The Headteacher was the most inspirational man one could ever hope to meet (I still find myself retelling many of his stories to my own children), the teachers were happy, the pupils were happy, every one was valued for who they were and academically the school became the top performing school in the area; not through selective admissions, not through pressure, but by nurturing the individual child. My mother did a small stretch of supply teaching there and couldn’t get over how relaxed it all was but how it worked so fantastically well.  My father, who worked in Social Services, always tried to place foster children at the school as it would always do everything possible to integrate children from difficult backgrounds. A boy in my class started to go blind at the age of nine and the school bent over backwards to make it possible for his disabled mother to keep him at the school until it was time for him to start secondary education. I dread to think what would have happened to me had I stayed on at my first school; I certainly wouldn’t be where I am now.

Every day I become aware of yet another child who seems to have been unfairly treated by the education system. Flimsy excuses are given to explain why a child (with a known learning disorder) can no longer attend a particular school, parents are told their young child is hyperactive simply because he talks to another child during a writing exercise, parents are dragged into nursery to be told their three year old child is autistic without any previous warnings or concerns being expressed, parents are told that their school can no longer cope with their disabled child despite the fact that it has successfully done so over the course of the previous four years and the only thing that has changed is senior management. 

Why do we have this situation. Is it all about league tables? Is it lack of training? Is it a change in the make up of educators? Is it a by-product of constant new government initiatives? Is it a lack of funding or mismanagement of available funds? Is it a combination of all these things? Is it a case of people just speaking out more about their experiences? I honestly don’t know. All I know is that somehow we need to save the current generation of children. We need to give them back their childhoods, let them play, let them find themselves in their own sweet time. 

Education isn’t just about exams and grades. It isn’t just about preparing children for the workforce. We need to equip children for life. As

Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner maintained, education needs to include the cultivation of the moral, emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual dimensions of the child. It means looking at the whole child, not simply a narrow range of skills. In the past children were part of extended families and village communities which would bestow on them all manner of life’s experiences. Children learned how to cook, how to chop firewood, how to build a fire, how to navigate, how to raise animals before they started formal learning. At this stage, schools could concentrate on a more narrow range of activities. But as our community has become narrower and families have become more fragmented we need to look at schools to ‘close the gap’. Let’s forget about formally teaching young children to read and write and instead focus on the ‘softer’ activities: painting, dressing up, making dens, playing in sand, water, mud. Let them learn how to co-operate, how to take turns, how to co-exist with children and adults who may not be the same as them. Let them learn who they are and to respect what others are. Let them learn to be resilient, to be able to cope in the whole world, not just within the narrow confines of a workplace. Let our children be children. Let them learn as children learn best, through play, through observation, through the natural stimulus of the wonderful world in which we live. Let them learn to love learning and the learning will never stop.


Why I like June

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I have always loved the month of June. As a child it was a time of celebrations as both my brothers had June birthdays and even though later my parents dreaded the month, as it marked both the birth and the death of their middle child, for me it has  always held a particular charm. It is the month when the garden really comes to life with flowers blooming everywhere. Even when the garden seems to be taken over by long grass and weeds the whole picture is one of vibrancy, an inexorable display of God’s glorious creation. My Grandmother had a tapestry in her house which included the following extract from a poem by Dorothy Frances Gurney: 

The kiss of the sun for pardon,

The song of the birds for mirth,

One is nearer God’s Heart in a garden

Than anywhere else on Earth.

This seems to ring so true in June when the garden is alive with colour and activity.

As a child, June meant making ice cream, days on the beach, playing badminton in the garden every evening, cycling with my friends. Later it would be dominated by exams but my best friend and I always made the most of the sunshine. We would plaster ourselves with sun oil and sunbathe in one another’s gardens while testing each other on our exam subjects. After a couple of hours of work, it would be time to reward ourselves with ice lollies or coke floats and then back to our studies. We worked hard but it never felt like it as the longer the studied the more likely it was that we would have noticeable sun tans.


Traditionally, the date of the June solstice influenced when people planted and harvested crops. Many believe that Stonehenge and similar megalith structures were built to help establish the occurrence of the summer solstice. Since ancient times people have gathered to celebrate the triumph of light over dark. Years ago people used to light bonfires on Midsummer’s Day to encourage the sun to shine. People would gather and roll blazing wheels down hill to imitate the journey of the sun across the sky. It was traditionally a time for love and marriage, a time for magic, a time when fairies would feast and dance from midnight until dawn.

Nowadays the majority of us simply focus on it being the start of Summer and we enjoy a lightening of spirits as a result. It is the time of Wimbledon, strawberries and cream, jugs of Pimms and Sunday barbecues with friends and family. There is the flurry of exam preparation followed by a gentle winding down of school work, rehearsals for end of year performances, sports days, long drawn out cricket matches on village greens. We polish off our bicycles and go off on cycle rides with our children seeking out pretty villages in which to enjoy a welcome drink or ice cream. The strict bedtime routines become relaxed as we take advantage of balmy summer evenings and stay outside for as long as we can, desperately trying to take full advantage of the kinder weather. We pack up picnics and set off on day trips to stately homes, the seaside, country shows and store up happy memories to see us through the darker months. 

Now, as my children have started to study away from home June marks the beginning of the long holidays, the return of the older ones to the fold of their family. It offers completeness, a chance to renew the tight bonds between siblings, to experience again the joy of a large, loving family, an opportunity to fill the house and garden with the sound of joyful laughter, fun and games. 


It’s beautiful the Summer month of June
When all of God’s own wildflowers are in bloom
And sun shines brightly most part of the day
And butterflies o’er lush green meadows play.

Light hearted skylark songster of the wing
High o’er the quiet and lonely moorland sing
Above her nest cloaked by the tangled heath
Her charming song so exquisitely sweet.

So mellow the gentle breath of june day breeze
The birds rejoicing on the leafy trees
And dappled trout in pool bed of the stream
Bask in the sun their spotted skins agleam.

God gave us June and all her lovely flowers
Bright sunny days and pleasant evening hours
Shady green glens and serene sunlit dells
And leafy bowers adorned with blue bluebells.

But god June’s maker has the final say
And what he give he also take away
And God’s own larks will trumpet in the sky
To celebrate the birthday of July. 

Francis Duggan