My key note address to the DSG Matrics of 2022
I must tell you, it is absolutely surreal to be standing here, 23 years after I stood on this very stage at my own matric dinner. I stood here thinking I was invincible and feeling like the world really was my oyster. I had enjoyed almost every aspect of my time at DSG and in many ways it was the perfect school for me – a small, nurturing environment which allowed me to excel in certain areas. I had been in the DSG schooling system from the age of 4 and I am pretty sure my dad thinks he owns a large majority of this school, having paid school fees here for 26 consecutive years! I remain eternally grateful to him for the huge sacrifices he made to give my siblings and myself the best education possible, and I know that many of your parents have sacrificed similarly to send you to this extraordinary school. Trust me, it is the biggest gift they could ever give you.
At the age of 18 I definitely had very firm ideas about how I thought my life would play out. I was convinced that I would be able to have it all – a rockstar career, the perfect marriage with 3 textbook perfect children, travelling the world at will, having all the fancy cars and shiny jewels I wanted. And while many of the things I list have come true in some shape or form, it certainly hasn’t been in the way I expected and without many potholes along the way. I also realised that there are so many other things in life that I took for granted that are really actually the important things – health, happiness, resilience, deep and true friendships and connections, and true community.
Let me rewind a little and give you some insight into why I am here this evening and why I hope to be able to share some nuggets of advice with you. I know many people often look at me and feel like I have things together, especially if they know me from a work context – and on the surface of it that is somewhat true. But my life has gone anything but according to the plan I had for myself at the age of 18.
I had a pretty idyllic childhood until age of 8 and then my mom Lindy died from complications post a car accident leaving me, Matt (6) and Sam (3) and my dad Murray. In that moment, the path of my life was forever changed, and I truly believe that it was the loss of my mom at such an early age that has equipped me to be able to face the rest of the challenges in my life as I have.
I loved school, excelled academically and from a leadership and service perspective, and my school friends are still some of my best friends today. I think that the DSG environment has a unique way of creating really deep friendships that endure. My oldest friend Tracy Mackenzie, who in fact may teach some of you, is here this evening.
When I was 10, my Dad married Debbie, the woman he had employed to be our au pair after my mom died. Their marriage ultimately was not a happy one and they divorced when I was in matric.
After school I went to UCT to study Business Science Finance and I excelled academically again, loving my time at university and making wonderful friendships. On graduating top of my class, I then immediately went on to pursue my career in Finance, being in a real hurry to enter the business world. I am not going to spend any time on my working life as its not what I want to talk to you about tonight, suffice to say that I have been lucky enough to have a wonderful career the last 18 years. I have been privileged enough to work with some of the best money managers in the world and have had some incredible mentors, both male and female. I have learnt so much and I continue to learn every single day. I get up and go to work with a spring in my step, and I truly love what I do.
I was diagnosed with cancer for the first time when I was 23 years old from a malignant melanoma, and I got off relatively lightly first time around, but then at the age of 29 it came back a lot more aggressively, this time in my lymph glands, stage 4 with a 25% chance of survival. I had a few operations, radiation and life went back to being “normal” again, besides the beginning of my struggle with lymphedema. I was also told that because of the area they had had to radiate, I would potentially be infertile. At the time, I was so focused on beating the cancer, that I never really paid too much attention to this.
I then met my darling husband James, we got married, and we were informed after medical tests that I would never be able to have a child of my own because I was not producing any eggs. I remember being very upset, but James, in his forever positive way, told me not to worry too much about it, as you never know what might happen. And lo and behold, 3 months later I was pregnant! Our darling son Murray was born on the 7 October 2013. I truly believed that he was our miracle baby and that we wouldn’t be able to have any more children, and then when Murray was 7 months old, I fell pregnant with darling Bella. She was born on the 1 February 2015 and I felt like the luckiest person in the world. An amazing husband and 2 precious children. I remember thinking how blessed I was, that despite what we had been told, our dream of having children had been relatively easily fulfilled.
And then it all changed. At about 2pm on the 15 September 2015 our darling Belsie, at 7.5 months, died when she asphyxiated in her cot. Our life was changed in an instant, forever. It is impossible to find words to describe that day, or the days that followed as we tried to get to grips with the fact that our darling Bella had died. That we would never see her again. That life as we knew it, the future we had imagined, was no longer our reality.
Very soon after Bella died James and I fell pregnant again. I truly believed that this little boy that I was carrying was a gift sent to us directly from Bella, that he was going to help to put a bandage on to our broken heart (quite a responsibility to place on an unborn child!). And for the first 6 months our pregnancy went according to plan and I received a huge amount of comfort from this little life growing inside me. And then at 26 weeks and 3 days he decided to enter this world after being impacted by several medical complications that had affected both him and I. Our little boy Thomas was born weighing in at a hefty 700 grams. He lived for 3 hours and despite every effort from our incredible medical team, he suffered from huge internal bleeding and died.
There is more to our story which I am not going to spend too much time on today – our journey with infertility after I lost Thomas. 6 failed artificial inseminations, 4 operations to try and fix my uterus, 5 failed IVFs, another lost pregnancy at 13 weeks that nearly cost me my life when I bled out on the operating table, as well as a failed surrogacy. And all this intertwined with grieving not 1 but 2 children, my debilitating journey with lymphedema and my search for a doctor to help me and perform the life changing operation that they did 2.5 years ago.
It’s a lot, I know! And I tell you this laundry list of things, not to garner sympathy, and certainly not to have you feel sorry for me, but because I believe that I can share some thoughts as to how I have been able to be resilient in the face of all of this and how I have been able to thrive in my life, often despite of rather than because of my circumstances. And I hope that perhaps you may be able to take some of these lessons forward in your own lives.
I know that a number of you in your short lives have already experienced grief, trauma and hardship and to those of you, please know that I see you and I acknowledge your pain and your bravery.
I spoke at our daughter Bella’s funeral and I shared the things that I wished that I would have been able to teach her. To me a few of these felt that they may be pertinent for you all as you leave DSG in the next few weeks. I also wish I had learnt some of these earlier in my life than I have:
- Value and love yourself. There are so many pressures out there. Be steadfast in your values and be confident and true to who you are. What you are inside is so much more important than what you look like outside. Remember that you don’t need to mould yourself to be whatever everyone else wants you to be. You won’t appeal to everyone and that is okay! Start with you and really liking yourself and the rest will fall into place.
- Always be kind and patient. You never know what people are going through. Treasure and love them and leave an indelible mark on their lives just by being you.
- Hard work, determination and a bit of well timed good luck will get you almost everywhere in life.
- Always go for intelligence and decency over good looks. It may be the jocks that you are attracted to at school, but they aren’t the ones you necessarily want to marry
- Don’t fall for the first person that comes along, experiment. Find out who you really are and what you really need and want. Live life on your own and be happy. Then you will find your true person. When you do, remember that everyone is different. Don’t try to understand everything about them or mould them into what you want, just embrace them as they are
- Always have financial independence – and make sure the house is in your name
There are certain things that I have only really learned or realised perhaps after the death of my children. The first of these is linked to my third comment above – that of hard work and determination getting you almost everywhere in life – When I was growing up I was taught that if I tried hard enough, worked hard enough, that nothing was out of my control and I could achieve anything I wanted. All nice in theory and very inspirational, but unfortunately in practice it isn’t always realistic or possible. James says that I am the most stubborn and pig-headed person he has ever met. I prefer to think of it as being determined and focused, but I have learnt that even this doesn’t always work!
Through our challenges the last 7 years, I have learnt that sometimes, it doesn’t matter how hard you try and how much you push something, how perfectly laid out the plan was, some things really are unattainable and out of your control. As someone who wants to control everything, this was very hard to accept. What I have learnt in fact is that the only thing certain in life is the relentlessness of change. The sooner I was able to give in to and embrace that rather than push against it, the easier life became and the more acceptance I felt for the path that my life was taking.
The second of these lessons is vulnerability – and particularly my inability to be vulnerable. I think it is something which has been entrenched in me from very little and perhaps in many of us. For me it was that I can cope with everything on my own, and that I don’t need to look outside of my very small family circle for help. That I need to display a certain version of myself to the world, and that I always need to have things just so. On reflection this isn’t healthy or right and it’s something I hope you learn earlier in life than me.
No speech from me would be complete without a quote or 2 from Brene Brown – the first of these sums vulnerability up beautifully, “The difficult thing is that vulnerability is the first thing that I look for in you and the last thing I am willing to show you. In you, its courage and daring. In me, its weakness.” Just think about that. Vulnerability is not weakness, it is courage. Vulnerability is allowing ourselves to be honest and exposed. To be truly real about who we are. Remember also that what vulnerability looks like is different for each of us. For some of us it is saying “I love you” for the first time. For others its initiating intimate contact or admitting that we don’t have all the answers. For me it’s asking for help and acknowledging that I can’t do it all myself. Remember this, again from Brene – “Daring greatly means the courage to be vulnerable, it means to show up and be seen, to ask for what you need, to talk about how you are feeling, to have the hard conversations.” I challenge each of you to Dare Greatly in your lives and to have the courage to be vulnerable.
I went and had a look at the DSG website and one sentence particularly caught my eye under the What sets us apart section – “Above all, we hope that the warmth of the DSG culture instils in our young women, the importance of being unashamedly their authentic selves as they navigate their way through ‘life after school’.” And just as I wished this for my daughter when I wanted to teach her to value and love herself, I wish this for you too, perhaps above all else. Remember that school is merely just a foundation for what is to come – it doesn’t make you and it doesn’t define you. Many of you would have excelled during your time here at DSG, I am certain of that. You should be deeply proud of yourselves. But I also know that there are perhaps some of you who struggled through school, perhaps never felt quite good enough or that you fitted in – to all of you remember that you are not defined by what you achieved or didn’t achieve here at school – in the big world you will be tested, often beyond what may seem fair, and no one will care or remember what you did or didn’t do here, no one will even ask – but what they will remember is how you made them feel, and if you left their world a little bit of a better place because you existed.
And so I leave you with this tonight and it’s a quote I have read many times and often come back to. I have also given you each a small gift of a deck of playing cards which I hope will help you to remember my words to you tonight when things start to go a little off the course you had laid out for yourself in your head – “You don’t have a right to the cards you believe you should have been dealt, you have an obligation to play the hell out of the ones you are holding.” You need to learn to let go of the dreams of what you thought life should look like and embrace what life is instead. Because the one thing you do have control over is the choice you make on how you live your life. You have a choice to thrive rather than just survive, to make this a wonderful life and to live it to the full, if perhaps for no other reason than to honour those who didn’t get this opportunity. Bad things happen to everybody. It’s what you decide to do in the aftermath that really reveals who you are – to yourself and to others.
Thank you for this privilege to speak to you tonight, I am deeply honoured.
For playing cards:
“You don’t have a right to the cards you believe you should have been dealt, you have an obligation to play the hell out of the ones you are holding.” Simone Blanckenberg, DSG Matric Guild Dinner, 2022.