Angel Personified

Today is the 50th birthday of one of my most treasured friends, the motherboard of an earth angel, Henda Moolman. We met a couple of days after I’d moved into my new place after my divorce in 1999 and she carried me through some of the lowest periods of my life. Naturally I’ve written a lot about her in my memoir and in honour of her birthday, I thought I would share a short extract…


It was hard in the beginning, but I persevered in my stubborn campaign to show everybody that I could live on my own. The days dragged. When Chad was with his dad, the loneliness and silence wore on my nerves. My mind became my worst enemy and time was its ally. There are too many hours in a day to think. If it wasn’t for a few faithful friends, besides my parents who visited often, I would probably have driven myself over the edge.

“What can I do to help?” The question was asked by friends and strangers eager to make a difference, but didn’t know how.

“I don’t know. Pop in for coffee,” was all I could come up with.

That was until an angel walked into my life.


Henda stood barefoot on the top rung of the stepladder, balancing confidently, in a cute pair of denim shorts and a T-shirt. Her spiky dark hair barely moved as she executed textbook ‘W’ motions with the paint roller. The yellow paint gave an instant lift to my sparsely furnished lounge.

I watched in awe of her skill with a touch of envy. She’d also been a gymnast in her teens and I knew what commitment that took. Muscles are earned.

When the roller started making a peeling, sticky sound, she turned to apply more paint and caught me staring at her toned legs. Our eyes met. My cheeks flushed and I quickly lowered my head. The truth glared back at me. I’d grown thin and my muscles sagged. I hardly wore shorts anymore.

“Can I offer you something to drink,” I asked Henda to avoid becoming emotional.

“No, thank you.” Her bright orange lips parted in a smile of perfectly straight, white teeth. She dipped the roller into the paint tray and rolled it back and forth.

The floral curtains framing the extra big window had been altered by a friend we both knew, which is how we met. Henda used to be an interior decorator, I was told by our mutual friend, and she’d offered to paint the inside of my house. After years of tenants, the house was in need of attention, so I gladly accepted. She’d admitted to being nervous about meeting me. I remember being taken aback. It always surprised me when people told me that. Was I really that scary?

I asked Betty for some Rooibos tea, even though I craved coffee. I’d learned the hard way that caffeine stimulated the bladder, which increased the risk of bladder infections. I’d had enough of those to deal with to last a lifetime. I felt self-conscious as Betty held the cup to my mouth so I asked Henda about her family.

“I have two daughters, Monet and Cézanne, aged six and four, born on the same day, two years apart.” My jaw dropped. “I planned it that way.” She smiled.

Her eyes welled up several times as I told her how my life had changed and she shared a bit of her life with me. In time, it became clear that this talented woman wasn’t only passionate about her art, but her compassion for others ran deep.

“I wish I could fix you,” she said months later, lip quivering and eyes brimming with tears.

“Me too,” I sniffed. She squeezed my hand and tugged at her outfit.

“Maar ek kan jou huis mooi maak.” She always reverted to Afrikaans when she was emotional. She grabbed a tissue from her handbag and disappeared outside. By the time I’d manoeuvred my wheelchair to follow her out the door she’d taken the spade from my gardener. His face was a stunned mixture of confusion and amusement. Despite her long manicured nails and stiletto heels, she dug the last hole for the standard roses he’d been instructed to plant. He wiped the sweat from his brow and glanced my way. I grinned. He shook his head and busied himself with adding compost to the holes. Even with the hot, humid weather, Henda looked as if she’d stepped off the pages of a fashion magazine.

She found projects in my home and garden that she said had to be done. Then she campaigned tirelessly to raise the funds to do them. I soon learned that it didn’t help to argue once she’d made up her mind. Besides, it felt good to see my house being transformed into a wheelchair accessible haven with all her practical ideas. Her gregarious nature and sophisticated sense of humour were like a tonic for my troubled soul. She came back, day after day. The more time we spent together, the closer we became. She was the first real friend I’d made since the accident, one who never knew me to be anything different than paralysed from the neck down and still chose to spend time with me…

She often held me close until we were both all cried out.

Henda was that kind of friend, the one who is always honest with you, the one who stands up for what is right, the one who tries to take your pain upon herself, the one who wants to fix everything and make things right.

Henda had greater wisdom than anybody I’d ever known. She knew that the responsibility of providing for me was too great a burden for my parents alone. She gathered a community of volunteers to give of their money, time and talents to make my life bearable. I call them my earth angels. Henda became such an integral part of my existence that whenever anybody asked, “What can I do to help,” my standard answer was, “Ask Henda.” I hated to be the one to ask for anything.

Thanks to Henda, angels came in their droves.

It wasn’t long before I was back in a manageable routine and life was running a lot more smoothly.



Happy, happy birthday to my dearest Henda. You’re beautiful, inside and out, and I am privileged to be able to call you my friend. Wishing you another half-century of love, joy, peace and happiness.

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Helping Others

Imagine not being able to move any part of your body except your head. You’re completely immobile, but not unaware. You have 20/20 vision. Your hearing is perfectly in tune. Your mind is alert. You can speak. You have very little sensation on your skin below your shoulders, but you can feel external pressure and internal pain. You have needs – thirst, hunger, warmth, comfort, company, stimulation and entertainment, but you’re unable to help yourself and you’re stuck alone with your thoughts. Emotions overwhelm you, but there is nothing… nothing you can do. You can’t wipe away your tears or rub the itch on your cheeks.

To be in a motionless state, trapped inside a paralysed body with nothing to do is hell on earth. No company. No radio, television, books, telephone or computer. Nothing, just you, staring into space.  It’s how I imagine solitary confinement to be, but worse, because you’re not guilty of any horrific crime against humanity, so the punishment almost seems unjustified.

Phumla was given that life sentence, but she was only fourteen years old. Her life had barely begun, yet she’d already faced more challenges than most people do in a lifetime.

Phumla Innocententia Charles was born on 28 March, 1996 with a hole in her heart. She spent a great deal of her childhood in and out of hospitals. In 2010, she was in an ambulance, between Mbombela and Pretoria en route to see her specialist. The ambulance driver fell asleep at the wheel and smashed into the back of a truck. Phumla was left paralysed from the neck down, like me, and robbed of the best years of her life.

I only just met Phumla recently through her dedicated occupational therapist, Mariaan Teubes, who’d come seeking advice from me on the specific needs of quadriplegics. When I heard Phumla’s story and how she dreams of finishing school, I knew that I needed to get involved. Since my accident in 1998, the rapid advancement of technology had saved my sanity by restoring a small part of my independence. Therefore I had a clear understanding of the difference it could make in Phumla’s life.

At the beginning of this year, Phumla took a giant leap to do grade 10 via correspondence which is no easy commitment, not even for an able-bodied student. She relied on others to turn the pages of her books and scribes to write her assignments and exams. Her big, beautiful eyes and shy smile, despite her severe circumstances, immediately touched my heart and I knew that this young lady was special. So I posted an appeal on Facebook, hoping to find a willing Earth Angel to help us get Phumla a laptop, powerful enough to run the specialised voice activated software, Dragon NaturallySpeaking. This will enable her to, once again, do what most people take for granted – read, write and learn on her own without help.

Some very special Earth Angels answered my call.

Miles Crisp from the Tarsus Technology Group offered to donate a laptop. He set his Johannesburg team in motion, and before long the Nelspruit branch manager, Jacques Robinson delivered a brand-new, state-of-the-art laptop. Going the extra mile, Jacques has committed to walking (rolling) this journey with me to get Phumla set up with everything she may require from an IT point of view to follow her dream of getting her matric. He is also working on getting her quality broadband connectivity at home, which will grant her the privilege of being able to do her own research for future school projects. She’ll also be able to navigate social media and thus engage with others who live with similar physical circumstances and find much-needed emotional support. She’ll be able to cultivate personal and intimate relationships and not feel so isolated. In time she will be able to work and contribute meaningfully to society and, once again, truly live.

Computer whiz, fourteen-year-old Ernst van der Merwe gave up some of his holiday to help me teach Phumla to use her new voice programme. He also loaded the WhatsApp web version onto her laptop. The smile on her face when she sent her very first message on her own was priceless.

Some of my amazing Facebook friends also made generous donations to fulfil some of Phumla’s other needs because they don’t stop at a laptop.

There aren’t enough words to express gratitude to the Earth Angels who give of themselves, physically, emotionally and financially to make a difference.

Look out world, Phumla Charles is on her way.

Jacques Robinson handing over the new laptop to Phumla.

Jacques Robinson handing over the new laptop to Phumla.

Ernst van der Merwe setting everything up.

Ernst van der Merwe setting everything up.

And away she goes.…

And away she goes.…

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Monday Motivation: At the heart of story, a wretched conundrum

Wow! I feature in a Monday Motivation for writers. Honoured.


​​​​Image courtesy ​​World of Good

Paul Smith was a business owner who devoted 80 hours a week to keeping the business afloat. (That is, as you will see, an apt metaphor.) The work was so demanding, and the Great Recession so crippling, that he found himself managing a bankrupt business, and presiding over a dysfunctional marriage.

When things were falling apart, he sought work as the groundsman on a large canal marina, and took up residence, sans wife and family, on a venerable and clapped out narrowboat called James.

He had no money, he had no resources, he had no partner to shoulder the burden of failure.

Slowly he started putting his life together once again…

Tracy had everything going for her. A husband she adored. A baby she would have given her life for. A vital, energetic and beautiful woman, she lived with her family on an…

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The secrets behind the practice of good writing: 16

Guilty, as charged. I love how writing teaches you more about yourself and life.


16 SecretsThe Secret of the Tic’ing Clock

Anything becomes a tic if you use it more than a couple of times. It’s a funny thing about writing. A reader might happily notice an action taken once, twice, even three times. But after that, it begins to irritate.

It’s not that the action itself is wrong, or even that it might not happen that many times in real life. This became abundantly clear when reading the completed manuscript of one of our mentoring participants.

She wrote a memoir – a deeply moving and uplifting memoir of her superhuman effort in overcoming extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Believe me, you and I would have cried many, many more times than she mentioned in her manuscript.

When reading her monthly submissions, I didn’t even notice the tears, because there was so much strength in her other actions. It was only when we read the full manuscript…

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Dark Torment by Tracy Todd

My first interview as an “author.”

I can’t help feeling proud that my short story was selected to be published in the book 36 Hours. It’s only a baby step, I know, but all part of my dream of having my memoir published which is currently in the hands of a publisher who has yet to decide whether they will publish it or not.

Keep holding thumbs.


We asked the authors who jointly contributed to the 36 Hours anthology a number of questions about their writing. Here are Tracy Todd’s responses:

Tracy Todd (2)

Is your short story fact or fiction – or a mix of the two? My story is fact.

What was the inspiration behind your story? Frustration. You’ll have to read the story to understand why.

Have you written many short stories? Is this your genre? No. Never. I’ve only ever written blog posts and a few magazine articles, reflecting on life as a quadriplegic.

Any novels? That is on my ‘to do’ list.

What do you prefer to read – short stories or novels? Or what do you love about each one? Why? Both. Depending on what mood I’m in. Short stories are lovely to read when you want something to read, just before bedtime to take your mind off your own troubles. Novels are great for long…

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36 Hours, 20 Writers, 4 Countries, 1 Anthology

I’m very proud that my short story made it into this book.


36 HoursThirty-six hours… Twenty writers… One anthology. On a mid-winter weekend last year, Allaboutwriting enticed a group of writers to a Magaliesberg retreat to write. Their challenge was to write a short story in under two days, from initial inspiration to The End. We spliced in stories by writers who participated online – plus the winners of a competition we ran later in the year.

We’re excited to launch 36 Hours which includes not only all the short stories but also advice on how to write a short story – advice given to our authors at the start of their mid-winter marathon.

To celebrate the publication of 36 Hours we thought we’d give you a taste of each short story – the first lines. We hope they whet your appetite.

You can buy a hard copy of 36 Hours from us at the Indie Book Fair, tomorrow Friday 20 March (we’ll…

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Advantages of Being a Quadriplegic

It’s easy to focus on what’s wrong in your life and most people would think that it’s inconceivable to find anything positive about being a quadriplegic. But when I started writing a list of advantages of being paralysed from the neck down, I was surprised by how much I could come up with. Please feel free to add to this list in the comments section.

  • Time is a gift to us all. Most people prefer to use it up doing menial tasks. I’ll sit with you for hours without getting up to do the dishes, not even once. Just bring along some stimulating conversation and don’t forget the wine.
  • My manicures last, because I don’t have to do the dishes. Ever.
  • The best thing about ordering prawns in a restaurant is that I don’t have to peel them, and if we eat them at home, I’m not the one responsible for cleaning them.
  • I can be a stay-at-home mom and housewife without guilt because nobody will employ me.
  • Waxing or epilating body hair is not for sissies. Clearly, I’m not one. I don’t feel a thing.
  • I get away with being bossy by giving it a fancy name: verbal independence. Without me telling you what to do, how will you know what I want, when I want it or how I want it?
  • Living life at butt-height can get very interesting, depending on whose butt I’m following. If my jaw is unhinged and my face is flushed, you’ll know that the butt cheeks are hot, hot, hot. Crotches can be scary though, especially if the zipper has been left open or they are wearing cookie cutters.
  • When I’m having a bad day, I have a good excuse to feel sorry for myself because that is what people expect from people living with a disability.
  • A drop dead gorgeous man will make my knees weak, but since I’m already seated, it won’t be obvious that I’m making a fool of myself.
  • It’s easy to fake calmness in any situation because my body will not react any other way.
  • Being short means that I don’t have far to fall. I like doing all my own stunts.
  • Not being able to do my own hair and make-up gives me a good enough reason to have it done professionally often.
  • I’ll be the last to leave any cocktail party when everybody’s legs are aching from standing all evening.
  • No matter where I go, I’m always waited on like a princess.
  • I never have to remember to load a chair in the back of my van.
  • I can’t get drunk on my own, so I always need someone to share the bubbles and laughter.
  • My butt looks big because I have a wheelchair stuck to it. What’s your excuse?
  • I can’t feel the pain and discomfort of ingrown toenails and shingles that often occur in my body.
  • As long as the mosquitoes follow my directions and bite me below my shoulders, I don’t feel the itch.
  • When I was little I wanted to be a model. Now I’ll always be a ‘roll’ model.
  • I can shop for hours without complaining about aching legs.
  • I can wear stiletto heels without complaining about aching feet.
  • There is always a reserved parking spot for me, although I wish they wouldn’t put it at the front of a building because lazy idiots tend to steal it.
  • I don’t have to stand up during those long hymns and prayers in church.
  • Disability shows up your strengths and weaknesses very quickly, so I know myself well.
  • I can run at 15 km/h without ever getting tired.
  • I can’t squeeze pimples, which means they heal a lot faster and they don’t leave ugly scars. Yes, I still get them. What’s up with that at forty-five?
  • Paralysis has taught me many life lessons – patience, acceptance, courage, compassion… And the list goes on. I’ve also learnt to accept the things I cannot change and focus on the things I can.
  • I can bump into somebody and they are always the one to feel bad and apologise.
  • My shoes never wear out. In my case, they should come with a lifetime guarantee.
  • I have a medical excuse for a fat tummy. It’s called quad gut. Being paralysed means I don’t have to worry about pulling in my tummy. What’s your excuse?
  • Injections don’t hurt. But, to be honest, they still terrify me.
  • I often get pushed to the front of the queue.
  • I can never be forced to give a standing ovation at a performance that sucked.
  • I never have to deal with a cold toilet seat.
  • People think I’m deaf, so I get to hear a lot more than I should.
  • I can be carried to bed every night. Thank God for my Sexy Legs.
  • I always stick out in a crowd. There’s no need to wave to get anybody’s attention.
  • I can wangle neck massages from anyone by just tipping my head and saying, “Ouch!”
  • I’m a cheap date because I get to drink everything through a straw. No more than two drinks and I’ll be plastered. Guaranteed.
  • I get to have dogs without the responsibility of picking up their turds. But if I don’t get somebody to do it, it backfires on me by getting stuck in my wheels.
  • My date has to feed me, which is awesome foreplay.
  • My ears are like little pleasure buttons in an erotic zone. Fortunately my ENT is attractive. It makes going to the doctor so much more worthwhile.
  • I can pee lying down. If I use an indwelling catheter at night time, I don’t ever have to worry about having wet dreams. That means I can play with fire too.
  • I can write without lifting a finger.
  • People love to take my photograph. It must be my smile.
  • I never have to pack and unpack my luggage when going away.
  • I don’t have to do the ironing. I hate ironing. And cooking.


It’s no wonder some people fake being paralysed because my life is not so bad after all.

I’m looking forward to your contributions.

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