I always find these first few weeks of January hard to get through. The days are very short and the nights far too long. There are days when it never really seems to brighten at all and you end up leaving the lights on in the house all day. Of course, it's no gloomier than it was just a fortnight or so ago but while the tree and all the Christmas lights and decorations make the last few wintry months of the year into a beautiful, magical time, their absence makes the first few weeks of a new year appear even bleaker than they might otherwise.
When my children were younger, we used to go away somewhere hot and sunny for a few days at the start of every January. As the boxes of decorations went back up and into the attic for another year, so the suitcases would make the opposite journey. We were very lucky that the primary school my kids attended didn't object to them missing a few days. They knew my little ones were hard working and that even though we were away, I'd still make them do a few hours of study every day, just by the pool or on the balcony instead of in class. That's the downside of being on holiday with a mummy and a granny who both trained as teachers. It always seemed to me that getting a few weeks in the sun and that dose of vital vitamin D, gave us all a big boost, both physically and mentally, and helped make the next few months in the cold and dark a lot more manageable.
Of course, once my eldest hit P6 and the shadow of the transfer tests loomed large, we had to knock our lovely January holidays on the head. Instead, I have to rely on tablets to maintain our necessary vitamin D dose and instead of a lovely shade of brown, we're all paper white until the sun begins to make more regular appearances around Easter time. Well, in the interest of accuracy, I have to confess that even after a week under the hot sun in Tenerife I was still ghostly white but at least the rest of my family got to change colour.
Without our few days away to look forward to over the last few years, we've cherished anything that has made the winter days lighter and brighter. Despite the always cold and often wet weather, I try to make sure that we all get out and into nature as often as possible at the weekend. We're on the beach at every opportunity, chasing the dog and trying to catch our breath as the wind whips around us. On very wet days, we head off for an adventure in the forest, where the overhead canopy provides a little natural protection from the elements.
During the weekdays, especially the mornings, it's harder to lighten the mood which is why, for years, a big part of our morning together was listening to Stephen Clements on the radio. His humour and enthusiasm would elicit a grin and a few giggles even from my grumpy pre-teens. Many a morning I would arrive at the school gates, only to be met with a refusal to get out until Stephen had finished a funny story he was telling or had revealed the answer to a quiz.
On the morning my son turned 10, I texted Stephen to ask if he could give him a shout-out. When he mentioned my Dan on air, it made his day.
Stephen went out of his way to make a lot of days special for a lot of people which is why such a wave of sadness washed over the country this week when news broke that he'd very sadly passed away.
Over the last few months, since his move to BBC Radio Ulster, I got to know Stephen a little better. We shared a few stories, a lot of laughs and I loved seeing his photos of his gorgeous children. He was such a proud dad.
My heart goes out to them and his whole extended family at this incredibly difficult time and my thanks goes to Stephen for all the light and laughter he used to add to our mornings. He'll be very much missed.