Happy New Year

The night before…

Celebrating with old friends and lots of children; plenty of food, drink and sparkling lights.IMG_1375

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IMG_5872The day after….

Very much feeling like a socks and sofa kind of day. I feel slow, tired and not able to cope with much more than the gentle glow from a few candles. I hope 2013 is kind to everyone and that tomorrow I can summon up the energy to get my house back to normal.

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The Joy of…Having Old Friends

I don’t have any sisters but I do have some great, old friends that I’ve known since my pre-teenage years. It’s a cliche but they really have been with me through most of my major life experiences. I’m lucky to have these close, sister-like friends who know me so well. We don’t all live close together but we fall into place easily whenever we get the chance to catch up.

We had a day out last weekend, two of my old friends, me and our children. It wasn’t anything fancy, just a trip to a local park. I felt quite emotional to see our children playing so happily together. They probably won’t grow up to be as bonded together as we mothers are but it makes me very happy to see our friendship growing into a new generation.

Olympic Fever Hits Town

The Olympic torch relay came through my town on Sunday. How lucky that we got it on a weekend so that it was a family event. It turned out to be a friendly event too. Here is the Middle Miss scooting along to our meeting point.

We had been invited to join some friends of friends whose house was directly on the route.

As we waited I took out the face paints and soon there were several children sporting the Union Flag on their face. I only wish I had rocked up half an hour earlier and started charging!

We had a great time. The torch passed by relatively quickly but the atmosphere was party-like. The preceeding police motorbike riders ‘high-fived’ the people (especially the children) lining the route. Their lights and sirens really got the sense of anticipation going. Yes, the presence of the sponsors was fairly high but for me, it all added to the excitement. The lucky torch bearers will surely remember their moment in the spotlight forever.
After the crowds had dispersed, we went inside to find our new friends had decided to celebrate with party food. The cakes were beautiful and I was regretting my ‘wheat free’ vows.

The children played together happily and the adults agreed that it was well worth the short trip down the road to experience ‘Olympic Fever’. It’s as close as we’ll get to a live Olympic event!

Reading the reaction of other locals on Facebook,  it seems people were split into two camps. There were the “Wow, that was a great event, I’m really glad we went” and the “Bloody Olympics, what a waste of money, who wants to see a torch?”. Truthfully, I was a bit doubtful before we went but it turns out, seeing the torch wasn’t really about the flame itself. It was all about sharing the experience with the people around you. Isn’t that what the  Olympics should be all about?

Camping Fun and Top Tips

We spent to long, diamond jubilee weekend camping at Gibside. As always, it was a bit of a gamble. The weather was pretty grim to start with and it was never what you would call warm. However, if you have promised to take your children camping and have spent several hours packing the car, you have to get on with it and hope for the best.

Camping is a strange experience. There’s no doubt in my mind that it is good for the soul, even if the body is feeling rather like an ice block. It takes existence back to a much more basic level.

For example, you get a real sense of how much water you actually need to use. Our washing up was done in a couple of inches of water in the bottom of a bucket (note to self – you need proportionately less washing up liquid too or the bubbles are ridiculous).

The children ran around the camping field, playing football, hunting for bugs, chasing bubbles and making new friends. Even Babykins had relative freedom to explore.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the grown ups had complete freedom but we were freed from the bother of work, emails, housework and laundry. Being with a couple of other families also freed us from some of the ‘entertaining’ that often comes with small children. After only two nights, we felt as if we’d had a real break.

Gibside is a National Trust property just outside Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It is not a proper campsite so the facilities were basic. There were six port-a-loos for the whole field of 80 pitches. However, the Trust volunteers did a sterling job of keeping them clean and stocked with loo roll. There was also a programme of optional activities at no extra cost. On our first afternoon we scampered off into the woods to take part in some den building and marshmallow toasting. The volunteers had had a bit of trouble lighting the fire because everything was so wet.

One of the more imaginative members of our party had brought along some candles and mini marshmallows so we could do some toasting at our tent. This took considerably longer…..

On Sunday we took the children to the new looking play area. It was very popular with our bunch. It’s central area is made up of a wooden fort called ‘Strawberry Castle’ with lots of spaces to climb up, over and through. They chased in and out of it for ages. You can just see the edge of it in the left of picture below.

There were three smaller play houses at the edge of the space. Babykins had fun with these too. He  had no trouble climbing the stairs and negotiating the slide.

Son Number One and the Middle Miss were treated to a spot of face painting. It wasn’t cheap (£3.50) but in the case of Middle Miss’s paint job, very much worth it. I could have done Son Number One’s myself.

There was some gentle entertainment on the camping field each evening. The steel band the first night was particularly good. Food was available in the form of ‘something in a bun’ and there was a mini bar with real ale. It really was quite civilised. There was even a coffee stand in the mornings. It didn’t stop us from cooking a ‘full English’ on Sunday though. We pooled resources so here I am cooking the sausages. Don’t I look fabulous in my flannel PJ’s and wooly hat.

Do you like my camp kitchen? It is a 1980’s original that I pinched from my Mum. I remember taking it on family camping trips when I was younger. It folds up beautifully small.

It’s a shame I couldn’t get the matching gas stove mended.

In hindsight, we should probably have taken less food and ‘eaten out’ more at the facilities on site. So, with that lesson in mind, here are my top tips for family camping.

1. Choose your site carefully. Check here for honest reviews of virtually every camp site in the land. Be aware that sites that often allow basic, back to nature camping with open fires etc. are also often the least well supervised and frequently attract loud, beery groups. This is not the case for all sites but it’s worth bearing in mind. It’s also worth checking out what is available for wet weather. If there is some sheltered activity to take the children to within walking distance so much the better. In the event of rain on packing up day it could make all the difference.

2. Consider camping with friends. We have found that having other children around makes life much easier. Depending on the age of your children, they can sometimes be just that bit more independent when they function as a team. We are very lucky to have been camping with very old friends (and some newish ones) who have children almost exactly the same age and sex as our older two. I honestly don’t think they bickered at all. Having other children around also means you can share toys, games and general mayhem.

3. Don’t go far from home. I suggest an hour and a half maximum travelling distance for your first few trips at least. You don’t want to arrive at a site late at night and then have the bother of setting up, especially with tired children.

4. Take more bedclothes than you think you will need. Stuff extra blankets and duvets into each and every available space. Make sure you have plenty of warmth below you as well as above. Make sure you all have fluffy pyjamas and a hat that can be worn at night. Ideally, take hot water bottles too. I’m not kidding, it gets COLD at night in the UK, especially in this joke of a summer we’re currently experiencing.

5. A dust pan and brush is an essential item. Honestly. Don’t forget bin bags either (I did).

6. You can’t beat a head torch for convenience at night.

7. Take a basic first aid kit and make sure it contains insect repellent and antihistamine cream for bites and stings.

8. Children need shoes that they can easily manage themselves. There will be lots of going in and out of tents and you don’t want them bringing half the field in with them (see note about dustpan and brush above). Crocs are ideal in dry weather and wellies/snowboots are essential whatever the weather. Both of these items do double duty in the event of exploring a stream/rockpool.

9. It’s a good idea to have some food readily available. A picnic is ideal for when you first arrive at a site. I also recommend taking a pre-prepared ‘one pot’ meal for your first evening. We almost always take a bit pot of spaghetti bolognese. Ok, I know, that’s two pots by the time you’ve cooked the pasta but you get the idea.

10. If you are choosing a tent think about play space and cooking space. Our tent has stupid porch that is only half sheltered. In wet and windy conditions it’s pointless. Our friends Outwell tent has a brilliant side tunnel extension that houses all their cooking gear. This leaves masses of space inside. You can compare the two below (the photos are from last year – you can tell, the sun is out). Ours is the green one and you can see their tunnel on the right hand side.

No doubt I could add more top tips but I think the  traditional and alliterative ten is enough. I’ve got my eye on a lovely new camp site not far from here so maybe there’ll be more camping posts later in the (alleged) summer. So for now I’ll just say “Hi-de-Hi Campers…..”.

How do you cope when a child is diagnosed with cancer?

I was trawling through blogland last week and I found an invitation to help promote CLICSargent, the charity that supports families dealing with childhood cancer. You can read the piece that prompted me to get involved by clicking here.

It didn’t take much to persuade me because I have personal experience of CLICSargent and the work that they do.

My son was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia, the most common form of childhood cancer, on the 17th of July 2008. You don’t forget the date your child is diagnosed. It goes into your consciousness, along with birthdays and other anniversaries. It is the start of a different phase of your life.

Everyone thinks that diagnosis is a terrible shock, something that you must have to spend ages coming to terms with. It wasn’t like that for me. I felt that diagnosis was a relief. I knew there was something amiss with Son Number One, I’d taken him to the doctors with a few different complaints and I was starting to feel that I needed some answers. In hindsight, he must have been feeling ropey for quite a while, poor child.

Falling asleep in his dinner was one of many signs that Son Number One was not on top form

The only time that I felt emotionally out of control was the first time I walked the length of the children’s oncology (cancer) ward. There were some very sick looking children there, several of them were hooked up to drips, most had lost their hair. It’s an image I can still conjure up. I realised that my son would soon look the same. He was going to be a cancer patient.

I remember speaking to my Mum just after that. “He’s going to loose his hair” I wailed down the phone. “That’s ok”, she said, “It’ll grow back”. She was probably more devastated than me at the time but her common sense shook me out of my emotional state.

About three months after diagnosis when the first intensification drugs started to kick in and make him really sick

We spent about a week in hospital after the initial diagnosis. The Husband and I shared a single bed for a few nights until I was able to get a bed in Crawford House, a ‘home from home’ run by The Sick Children’s Trust on the RVI site.

Despite what it means to us, I still love the old RVI building

We were very lucky that there were Grandparents on hand to hold the fort at home. The Middle Miss was 11 months old and we probably hadn’t spent a night away from her at that point. Not only did our parents look after her, they cooked for us (parents aren’t provided with food on the children’s wards in the Newcastle RVI) and visited us. That sounds like anything a normal family would do but it involved a round trip of 70 miles and negotiating the traffic of an unfamiliar city.

Children’s cancer is rare, so the units that treat it are often far from the home of the patient. That was one of the shocks to me; I had assumed his treatment would be in our local hospital. I am still thankful that I wasn’t living in West Cumbria. Children living there also travel to Newcastle for treatment. Their trip is 95 miles in one direction.

CLIC Sargent know all this. That is why they aim to visit all newly diagnosed families as soon as possible. We were visited by one of their staff during our first stay in hospital. She immediately offered us a grant of £200 to help towards travelling expenses. We spent that very quickly. Our fees for the hospital car park were about £35 for that first week! We were allocated to a CLIC Sargent social worker who helped us to apply for any benefits we were entitled to. She also listened to our questions and worries about how we would cope with Son Number One’s treatment.

This is what five weeks on high dose steroids will do to you

Finally, we were told that CLIC Sargent provide holidays for families in our situation. At the time we just thought “That’s nice, there are some perks to your child having cancer!” Later we realised that you can’t really risk booking any other kind of holiday because your child could be admitted to hospital at the drop of a hat. I suspect most travel insurance is unlikely to cover that kind of eventuality. For some families, the holidays that CLIC Sargent provide are about more than this practical solution to an expensive problem. For some families, these holidays are a way of creating lasting, precious memories.

Happy days on the beach, not long after diagnosis, courtesy of CLIC Sargent

So, how have we coped as a family? There’s no doubt that having extended family nearby has been a complete blessing. We have been able to drop everything and take Son Number One to Newcastle whenever we have needed to. Occasionally Grandma has been the one resident in hospital with him. Even Grandma who lives further away in Cumbria tried to come and visit each time Son Number One was admitted. Grandparents can be so invaluable. One of the other mothers we met on the ward told us that her parents had temporarily moved closer to them in order to help out.

The Husband’s employer was extremely understanding. He was given five weeks compassionate leave at the time of initial diagnosis, provided with the means to work from home and had the terms of his ‘flexi-time’ made even more flexible. They even treated Son Number One’s numerous clinic appointments as if they were the Husbands, allowing him time off for them, no questions asked.

The single rooms in the old RVI ward. The TV’s were at a rubbish angle!

I have often felt very guilty at the amount of time the Husband has had to take off work. I really wanted to be the one in hospital with Son Number One. Experience showed us that this was something I frequently did not cope with. This upset me a great deal. I felt that as a stay-at-home mum I was really letting the side down by not being the one doing the hospital visits. However, when I did go I regularly developed a massive migraine and often came home sicker than the boy. Well, vomiting more anyway. I was tempted, occasionally, to snaffle a bit of his anti-sickness medication.

The Middle Miss has grown up knowing nothing other than having a big brother who got a lot of our time and attention. She is fairly adaptable and seems to cope when she has to stay behind while Son Number One gets whisked off to hospital. In the early days when he was very sick, she tried to cheer him up in her babyish way (she was only just a year old) by bringing him toys. Whenever he was tucked up on the sofa she would want to get up with him. Unluckily for her, he was having none of it! I sometimes wonder how their relationship has been affected by his illness. He was really sick just at the time when they should have been forming a strong bond by playing together. I suppose time will tell.

Our friends promised to help us if they could, and when we’ve needed to lean on them they haven’t let us down. One of my lovely friends happened to visit us one day when I was in the throes of one of my migraine attacks. Despite having two children of her own at home, she stayed with us and made sure we were ok. Another friend, who lived closer to Newcastle than us, brought Son Number One porridge sachets one cold winter night when the city centre supermarkets were shut and it was all he wanted to eat. Local friends and neighbours have babysat for the Middle Miss without hesitation. One dear friend used to drop by unexpectedly with delicious, home made casseroles for our freezer. I feel like an Oscar recipient now (sniffles) “I’d like to thank anyone I’ve missed out – I love you all”.

When things were at their most difficult, I asked for some help from Rainbow Trust. Our CLICSargent social worker referred us and it was one of the best things we did. Once a week one of Rainbow Trust’s support workers would come to visit. She was a big hit with both the children from the start. She took Middle Miss out to local soft play areas so that I could completely focus on Son Number One’s needs. When he was feeling better she took them both and gave me a few hours alone. There was one occasion when she came and the Husband was at home too. I felt quite guilty that we had taken her time up  unnecessarily but she said we should just enjoy having someone else around caring for the children and relax. If you ever get the chance to support Rainbow Trust, please do. They look after families with seriously sick children, whatever the illness.

On September 15th last year we celebrated Son Number One taking his last dose chemotherapy. That’s another date etched into my memory. We celebrated by taking him and his friends for a ‘Happy Meal’. Who was I to argue with such simple request when he’s put up with so much.

In a couple of weeks Son Number One should have his portacath (the device that sits under his skin and allows powerful drugs to be delivered, literally, to the heart of his circulatory system) accessed for the last time. This is a pretty uncomfortable procedure that he has learnt to tolerate over the last three and a half years. When he wakes up it will have been removed and another stage in recovery will begin. He has already changed so much since the chemo stopped. He has slimmed down, increased his energy levels and developed a massive appetite.

He will always have a few scars from his treatment, mainly physical I think. Hopefully, the pain and discomfort will soon be a fading memory. We will always wonder about the possibility of a relapse. It is very unlikely, but it could happen. Some families don’t get to the recovery stage. I’ve known two mothers who’ve lost their children to cancer. I can’t imagine how they coped.

If you would like to support CLIC Sargent by hosting a Yummy Mummy event, please go to the website here. If you use social media like Facebook and Twitter (er, I have no idea how twitter works so forgive me if I’m talking rubbish) you could support the cause by simply sharing a link to this blog post. The more people who know about CLIC Sargent, the better. Thanks for reading this far.

Hook ’em in

Last Friday I was lucky enough to spend a few hours with two of my oldest and dearest friends. We don’t get that opportunity very often because one of us lives a good two hour journey away. We had decided to have a bit of a ‘crafternoon’, indulging ourselves in a bit of ‘hooking’. Now, that was all very well for me and the Out-of-Town friend, because we already knew how. The challenge was to teach our other pal.

Luckily for us, she’s very clever (got a PhD, you know) and picked it up quickly. After just an hour or so she was merrily making trebles in the round. The fact that her very first round bit of crochet was a bit wobbly was entirely my fault for getting her to make the wrong number of stiches. Ooops.

I was getting to grips with making teeny-tiny hearts. The pattern is by Lucy at Attic 24 and comes with the usual, beautifully photographed tutorial if you want to have a go yourself.

As you may be able to see from the photo, I kept on making them while I took Son Number One to his swimming lesson. I suspect the other mums think I’m slightly mad sitting there crocheting away. I usually get a visit from one of their little girls who wants to know what I’m up to. Maybe one day she’ll want to have a go?

On Saturday afternoon, as the snow began to fall, my clever friend and I took out our hooks again. In between supervising our children we managed to make a bit more progress. She was really getting the hang of it. So much so, that on Sunday evening I got a text photo of a completed crochet flower.

I couldn’t resist popping round on Monday night to see her first completed project in the flesh and to inspect the yarn she’d bought that day. Soon we were working on a mini project together; a set of four teeny tiny hearts. By the end of the evening, they had been made, embellished with buttons and added to an engagement card for my friend’s colleague.

Starting the first round…

A lovely stash of buttons from ‘Kitties Closet’

A useful set of stamps from Stampin’ Up

Adding colour to the stamp

The finished article

I’m pleased to say, I seem to have a new convert to crochet. Always a joy to recruit another happy hooker!