The seasons pass and the cycle of life continues, but not everyone is given the opportunity to watch it unfold.
In some ways, being a psychologist made Caitlin’s life quite difficult. For one thing, although people were generally interested in her work and impressed by her long list of degrees and doctorates, it was obvious that they always thought she was analysing them. As if she could just spend a little time around someone and tell everything about them from all their little behavioural tics and weird, subconscious habits. For another, they were more or less correct. It was hard for her to switch off. She drew a pretty firm line between the professional and the personal, but when you’ve spent all day working on a study about how certain individuals react to childhood trauma, it’s hard to go to a party that evening and not start to apply the same methodology while making small talk. She was just good at reading people. It was, at best, something of a mixed blessing.
A woman who worked in marketing was talking to her. She was a little tipsy, and her white wine sloshed alarmingly up the sides of her glass as she gestured at Caitlin and the others who stood around her. Caitlin moved subtly so that she stood slightly too close and, instinctively, the woman’s movements became more reserved in response to the miniscule incursion on her personal space. Her name was Gabbie. She was pretty and blonde, but she’d recently been through a break-up and was at the stage where she felt comfortable enough to talk about it. There were two men in the group, clearly attracted to her, who were asking pertinent questions, encouraging her to talk about her dreadful ex-. Caitlin just nodded along, happy to observe, to watch them all play out their predictable little dances. She knew it wasn’t healthy to occupy this kind of academic remove when in a social situation, but it was actually strangely relaxing to stand a little apart, to be aloof.
“Hm?”She turned in surprise and nearly spilled her own drink, much to her embarrassment.
It was Charlie, the host, an old friend. She pulled at her arm. “Come with me.”
Charlie too was a little tipsy. Almost everyone here was in their early-mid thirties, middle-class and urbanite, a smattering of London’s quasi-wealthy quasi-elite, professional, mostly single and largely childless. “What? Where are we going?”
“I want you to meet someone.”
Well didn’t that just set off alarm bells? Charlie was notorious for this kind of thing. “No, I don’t think…”
“Oh come on,” she said, “it’s not like that. It’s someone you’ll find interesting.”
Caitlin was led into the kitchen where a few stalwarts were holding court around a table filled with bottles and cans. She recognised Eric, another of her university contemporaries, bleary-eyed and chatting up what looked uncomfortably like someone’s teenage daughter. Now who’d brought her along and allowed her into Eric’s orbit?
“This is Max,” Charlie announced and Caitlin turned to see a man about her own age, standing a little awkwardly to one side of the main group, a glass of red in his hand. He was tall and stick-thin, but good-looking if a little frayed around the edges. He wore what she’d come to think of over the years as the uniform of the academic – beige trousers, brown shoes, a chequered shirt and a tweed jacket. He was prematurely greying at the temples and wore glasses. His hairstyle was a complete loss but, somewhat endearingly, he’d obviously tried to pull a comb through it before coming out.
“Hello, Max,” she said, holding out a hand. He took it a little nervously.
“This is Caitlin,” Charlie explained, “the one I was telling you about. Max,” she added to Caitlin, “is a neurophysiologist.”
“Oh. That’s very interesting.”
“Well,” he said, pushing his glasses up his long nose with the end of one finger, “I don’t know that that’s the prevailing opinion, but I’m glad you think so.”
“I’m a psychologist.”
“I know – Charlie wouldn’t stop telling me things about you. I probably know you better than you know yourself.” He smiled a bit lopsidedly.
“Oh, really?” She fixed Charlie with a significant look, but the hostess just laughed and started circulating amongst the other kitchen-goers.
“This is a bit embarrassing,” Max said.
“Um…yeah, it is a bit. I’m not usually good at small-talk.”
“Me neither. Most of my human interaction is based on slicing up their brains. If I had a scalpel and a sanitised bench, I’d be able to tell you exactly what everyone here is thinking.”
“Ah, but you probably wouldn’t get invited back.”
Another crooked smile. “No. Although it would certainly give everyone something to talk about besides cars and houses and…” he waved a hand, “whatever.”
“See, I’m the opposite. I’m bad at doing it, but I’m fascinated by everything people say.”
“But only academically, right?”
“Right,” she said, “it’s purely professional.”
“Like you’re studying monkeys in a zoo.”
“Very much so. I think the faeces flinging starts around nine.”
“Do you want another drink?” he asked, pointing to her almost empty glass.
They retired to a quieter corner. Caitlin found herself warming to Max. His awkwardness wasn’t just because he didn’t really know anyone here – he was just naturally that way. A sort of angular, stork-like figure constantly the wrong shape for every space he occupied. She kept the conversation going, but when it turned to his work – to their work, because there were some significant overlaps – he started to come alive. “It’s behaviour that fascinates me,” he said, “even though I’m not good at putting it into practice. The physiological effects our experiences have on us. How the brain makes new thoughts and new memories.”
“Cognition,” she said with a nod, “I’ve done a lot of research into that recently. Childhood experiences, that kind of thing.”
“Yes!” he said with obvious enthusiasm. “What I’ve wanted to understand my whole life is how we construct this model of the world in our heads.” He motioned with his hands as he spoke, his palms and his long, thin fingers enclosing a space roughly the size and shape of a human brain. His glass had been set down on a windowsill beside them. “When do we transition between raw, animal instinct and actual, coherent thought? When do we…wake up? Does that make sense?”
“It makes perfect sense,” she said. She took a sip of her wine. She’d had a few glasses now and two breadsticks with a little humus was the only thing lining her stomach. She was enjoying herself though, for once. “So much behavioural psychology revolves around studying animals, but bridging the gap to human interaction isn’t always easy. I think we’re struggling with definitions.”
“Right, right. I mean, why is, say, something a…a…dog or a mouse or whatever does just the mechanical workings of evolution, but you or I…” he gestured to her, “…you know, we have free will, allegedly.”
“You look at great apes,” she added, “where is the line there? When do we go from being slaves to a deterministic universe to having genuine thoughts and feelings, as we would define them? And then of course you start getting into questions of soul then and all that metaphysical nonsense.”
“I’ve cut open a lot of brains,” Max said before draining his glass, “but I’ve never found a soul inside one. Human or animal.”
She was feeling impulsive. Looking around the room, she saw how Charlie had guided the handsy Eric towards Gabbie and that they were now deep in conversation. And you didn’t have to be a psychologist to read their body language. The story was repeated in several places across the party. Had she become such a cliché? “You know,” she said, “maybe we should continue this conversation in a more…rigorous setting. We should exchange e-mails.”
“That’s a good idea.” He started patting himself down, even though she was certain he wouldn’t be the type to carry pens around.
“Here.” She reached into her handbag and produced a pen and one of her cards. “You have this,” she said, hanging him one of the neatly printed rectangles, “and I’ll write yours down on the back of another.”
She smiled as he gave her his address. As out of place as he seemed, she figured he was smart enough to see what was really going on. She put the card back in her bag. “Another drink?” she asked him.
He considered. “Yes. Yes I think so.”
Everything proceeded after that with a worrying degree of inevitability. She and Max were very well-suited to one another. Both were old enough and established enough in their lives that they knew exactly what they wanted from a relationship. Caitlin had had plenty of relationships before, but she never connected with anyone quite like she did with Max. Academically, they were not only equivalent in terms of their achievements and standing, but they found their work had significant overlap. They penned a few joint papers, even. Caitlin had never before considered the possibility that academic synthesis might be a precursor to mind-blowing sex, but life was always a journey of discovery, she was happy to admit.
They spent time apart. This suited them, as they had their own interests. Max was very devoted to his work, feverishly so at times, and she let him absorb himself in it when that took hold. She could understand and respect his need to push and the boundaries of knowledge. He was dedicated to her as well and, although his attempts at romance were typically bumbling and occasionally hilarious, she again regarded his eagerness to please with fondness. She, the lifelong student of human behaviour, guided him gently along the path to an adult relationship. It took them a few years, but eventually they moved in together. That was an adjustment, but not an unwelcome one. A few more years, and they talked about marriage. Soon, Caitlin was on the precipice of a domestic life she’d never before envisaged. It was dizzying.
“What do you think about children?” Max asked her one evening as they sat at the dinner table over pasta and white wine. She’d noticed he was distracted, picking at his meal and drinking slowly.
“Kids?” How was she to answer a question like this? She swirled her wine around her glass as she looked into the middle-distance, considering. “Well, you know, I’ve thought about it. Who hasn’t?”
“Me. Before recently, I mean.”
She raised her eyebrows. It had taken them so long to even get to this stage that, oddly, they’d never brought up the topic of children before. “Never?”
“I just always assumed I wouldn’t. I’m not very family-oriented.” Both Max’s parents were dead, and he’d had no siblings. Caitlin herself had only two half-sisters, both much younger than her. She too maintained a cool distance between herself and her so-called nearest and dearest. “And, you know, I’ve always thought it kind of…frivolous.”
She smiled at him across the table, the way she always did when he came at a subject sideways like that. “Having children is frivolous? I have a few friends who might take issue with that.”
“I just mean, with our lives being as they are, with us doing the things that we do…I mean…”
She put the glass down. “What?”
He pressed his fingers against his chest. This was obviously causing him a certain amount of anguish. He was a very reserved man, her husband, quite emotionally stunted, even. Coaxing him out of his shell had been a long-term project for her, but a rewarding one. “I don’t know how I’d feel, Caitlin. I don’t know what kind of father I’d be.”
She reached across to him and he took her hand after a few moments. “You’d be a great father. You’re very attentive. Interested in everything.”
“Is it enough to be interested in your children?”
“I think you’d be surprised how vital it is, Max.”
“Do you want children?” he asked her earnestly.
“Yes, I think so.”
“I suppose,” he said, squeezing her hand, “it’d be like a sort of scientific experiment. Seeing a child of ours develop cognitively would be…fascinating.”
“I agree. But, you know, you might find the academic things fall by the wayside when – if – it actually happens. Sometimes it’s okay to feel something without analysing it.” But even she wasn’t sure she could separate those things out in her head.
“People do seem to get a lot out of it,” he mused.
“I know. Makes you think there might be something in it after all.” They went back to their meal, but Max looked very thoughtful as he ate.
About two years later, on a cold January day, she gave birth to their daughter, Molly Maxine. She held the tiny, red thing in her arms as she lay in the hospital bed and made a noise somewhere between a laugh and a sob. She’d spent her whole life conscious of how her brain worked, of the shape of her thoughts, but now she was a complete mess. And women went through this all the time! There was such a swathe of human experience inadequately catalogued. But all that was just buzzing in the back of her head, because there was hardly any room inside now – it was all taken up by love for the warm, wrinkled creature lying against her, breathing gently. A little puckered mouth moved gently beneath a squashed, button nose and then huge, black liquid eyes opened up and stared right at her. Of course, they couldn’t possibly focus on her at this age. But Caitlin peered into her daughter’s face and was utterly overwhelmed by the feelings rushing through her.
Max hovered, a little uncertainly. His hair was almost totally grey now, although he wasn’t forty yet. He looked exhausted. It hadn’t been an easy couple of days. He gently reached out to touch the baby’s head, as if he might not be allowed to do so, and then let out a small, nervous laugh. “Wow,” he whispered.
“I know. She’s a whole person.”
“What do you think she’s thinking about?”
“Not much,” Caitlin said, brushing a finger down one soft, chubby cheek. “Just food and warmth. And love, I hope.”
“You were right,” he said.
“It did fall by the wayside.”
“What?” She couldn’t think straight.
“Everything.” He looked down at his daughter, and she could see exactly what he meant.
A spring day, like any other. Winter’s chill still cut through the layers of clothes she wore. Green buds were pushing their way through on the trees, but for the most part everything was bare. Caitlin felt grey and old. She’d turned forty two years ago, but it wasn’t about that. Silently, she watched Molly run around, playing on the park like it was just an ordinary day. Was it her imagination, or did she move a little more slowly than the other kids her age? Was she conscious of what was happening?
“What do we do?” she asked Max.
Like her, he looked washed-out, pale. His hands, still enclosed in woolly gloves, fumbled with the toggles on his jacket. “I don’t know,” he admitted.
They sat on a park bench. Coming here had been their little compromise with Molly. She’d always been a sickly child, and hated going to the doctor, so they bribed her with treats to stop her making a fuss. This time it was the swings. She was racing around like a mad thing, never able to keep at one thing for long. Quite unlike her father, who was determined and patient with everything he did. More like her. When she was tiny, they’d talked about which of them she’d grow up to resemble most, or whether perhaps the combination of their traits might produce something wholly new. Despite her prediction that they’d be able to keep their enquiring minds away from their own daughter, it had been hard not to look at her development through scientific eyes. She was a very bright child, walking and talking at a precocious age, and very comfortable with other people. She’d never been frightened of anything in particular, never a fussy eater or even a particularly grumbly baby. She was beautiful and wonderful, dark-haired like her father, but freckled and pale with bright blue eyes like Caitlin. It was impossible to know whether her fascination with the world around her was down to nature or nature, but it was the thing about her daughter that gave her the most joy. She was constantly asking questions, always frustrated that she wasn’t old or wise enough to understand all the answers. It was like she was racing ahead of herself, always two steps beyond where they thought she should be.
“I don’t know how much we should tell her,” Caitlin said, “I don’t know how much she’ll understand. She knows she’s sick, but…”
“We should explain it to her as best we can.”
“She’s not even five, Max. She barely knows her own body. How can we tell her it’s already failing her? How can we tell her…” Her voice failed her and she put her hand to her mouth, stifling the sob that had been waiting to erupt for over an hour now.
Max shook his head helplessly. “I don’t know, Caitlin.”
Molly had come to the edge of the play area and was watching them through the bars of the fence. Her little chubby hands wrapped around them and she poked her face through the gap. She had a wide, childish grin, complete with missing front teeth. “Mummy!” she called out.
Caitlin managed a feeble wave and forced herself to smile. “I’ll be there in a second, darling.”
Max reached out and she took his hand in a fierce grip as they watched her run back to her games. “It might be okay,” he said, “there’s treatment. Sometimes…sometimes it does all turn out fine.”
“You heard the odds the doctor gave her.” It was so hard to keep the bitterness out of her voice. It wasn’t Max’s fault. It wasn’t anyone’s. It just was what it was.
“We have to stay positive. That’ll help her too.”
“I know. I know.” Another squeeze of his hand.
Max had to go back to work, so she stayed in the park with Molly. After a little while she was tired out. That was the illness. They’d been noticing symptoms for weeks. Little things that were easy to write off, especially with a child like Molly who was often poorly. Caitlin had never been one of those fussy mothers, phoning the doctor for every little hiccup her baby had, but she’d cursed herself for not being that vigilant with this. At the hospital, the doctor reassured them that they’d done nothing wrong. It was just random chance, and this was not one of those cancers that they could have spotted any earlier. He had laid out the situation very pragmatically, perhaps sensing their scientific credentials, been up front about Molly’s chances. As heartbreaking as it had been to hear it, she was grateful for that honesty.
So, hand in hand, with Molly looking a little wan, they took a walk around the edge of the park, past the trees. Molly pointed to the first pink blossom poking its way out of bud on a nearby branch. “Look! Flowers!”
Caitlin nodded. “When it’s on a tree it’s called blossom.”
“Blossom.” She sounded out the word carefully, as if filing it away in her little brain.
Caitlin pointed. “Do you remember last spring, darling? All these trees along here were pink.”
Molly’s small face was very serious as she looked up and down the line of trees. After a minute, she shrugged impassively. “Don’t know.”
Of course she didn’t. She was a young child, and Caitlin knew better than most that her perception of past and future was still quite limited. She couldn’t conceive of a time more than a few months away, and the passage of seasons was just theoretical at the moment. She’d read the picture books, knew the words, but she was just not cognitively developed enough to understand. To her, this was like the first year of her life, the first she’d really been conscious of in any meaningful sense. Caitlin thought back to her first ever conversation with Max at that silly party, and how they’d talked about emerging thought. When had Molly gone from being a little ball of raw emotion, only able to attend to her own needs, to being aware of her environment and what it all meant? Had she even reached that stage yet? These years were so formative. It seemed unutterably cruel that she might be snatched away in the midst of these discoveries.
Caitlin knelt down beside her daughter. The branch was quite low, so she could reach it and pull it towards them. “Look, little one,” she said, “the flower is just coming out of the bud. Soon they’ll cover the whole tree.”
“Oh.” Molly said. One of her hands closed around the branch and she leant in to the blossom, very close.
“The blossom grows into fruit. Like apples?” It wasn’t an apple tree – she didn’t know what kind of tree it was – but that wasn’t important.
“Uh huh,” Molly nodded.
“Then the fruit has tiny little seeds inside. And when a bird eats the fruit, the seeds get scattered. Then they grow into new trees. Understand?”
“Hmm.” She was still playing with the branch, wrapping pink fingers around it. She’d taken off her mittens. “Then what?”
“Well then it all starts again.”
“Where do the leaves go?” she asked, peering up at the bare tree.
“They fall off in autumn, darling.”
“Well…that’s part of the tree’s life cycle too.” She was trying to think of how to explain it to a four-year-old. “Every year, the tree grows its blossom and then its leaves, and the leaves drink in the sunshine to feed the fruit from the blossom. Then, when the fruit falls off, it doesn’t need the leaves anymore, so they fall off too.” That was right, wasn’t it? She was a behavioural psychologist, not a botanist.
“Oh.” She seemed satisfied with that rough account. “They come back,” she summarised.
“Yes, darling. Every year they die, but they come back to life again.”
“I suppose it is.” She’s never really thought about it before. She held Molly very tightly. “Darling, do you remember when you had to go to the hospital this morning?”
She stuck her tongue out.
“I know, little one. Well, you’ll have to go back there soon, I’m afraid.”
“So you don’t get poorly again.” It was all she could say. Unlike the trees, she understood this situation perfectly, but how do you tell your daughter she’s dying? Molly didn’t ask any more questions about it, she just kept playing with the branch, staring at the blossom pushing its way out into the world.
Summer. They’d had plans, all made last year when Molly was smaller and the world still looked bright and hopeful. Caitlin had suggested northern Italy. She’d been lucky enough to spend a year there, studying abroad. As much as possible, she wanted to pass on her experiences to her daughter, to show her the things that she’d seen. Max wasn’t much of a traveller – he was so dedicated to his work that he rarely took holidays – but she’d convinced him with stories of sitting on a balcony watching the sun go down over the hills with a bottle of wine. She wanted to find a villa in some hillside village, not a place tourists would normally visit. Her Italian was a little rusty, but she was looking forward to the opportunity to brush up, and to expose Molly to something a bit different.
It was all impossible now though, of course. The treatments had begun in late spring, and the regime would have been punishing for an adult. For someone so small and fragile, it was like climbing Everest. Every maternal instinct she had had been tested by their frequent hospital visits. She understood the need for this, of course. The poison they pumped into her body was the lesser of two evils but it broke her heart to see her daughter so sick, and knowing it was something she had given permission to be administered. And all the motherly assurance in the world did nothing when Molly knew perfectly well she’d have to go back again soon. She’d learned quickly to look ahead beyond a few months now. She was supposed to be starting school in September, but was unlikely to be well enough.
Today though, things weren’t so bad. Molly, despite everything, was responding better than expected to the chemo. She was strong and, now, between visits to the dreaded ward, she was as well as she was likely to be. They sat in a meadow not too far from home. The sky was a perfect blue, speckled with fluffy white clouds. There was that odd summer noise, the distant thrum of traffic or lawnmowers or whatever it might be, and the breeze was warm and gentle. Caitlin wished she was able to enjoy it, but her whole life had been taken over by a constant feeling of sick dread in the pit of her stomach. Molly was old enough to pick up on it, but somehow she knew to support her mother in return. Paradoxically, they’d grown very close in the past months. Max’s way of coping with this situation had been to throw himself into his work. That wasn’t such a bad thing, she’d decided. She had been fortunate – between research projects, she’d elected to take a sabbatical. Someone needed to be around and, as much as she disliked living the cliché of the stay-at-home mother while her husband worked, this was not a time for those concerns.
Molly played in the wildflowers. She’d suffered from hay fever for the first time last year, but now it didn’t seem to bother her. Another irony – her immune system was taking a battering from the drugs, so there was nothing to overreact to the pollen in the air. Caitlin watched her play. She was as adventurous as ever, dropping to her knees and digging at the soil with her bare hands. Outwardly, she still appeared fairly healthy. A little pale, underweight now, with dark rings under her huge blue eyes. Her hair was thinner too, but she looked no worse than any other child who’d been under the weather recently.
“Look!” Molly ran back towards her with something clutched in her fist. A dandelion clock. She held it up. “Look!” she said again.
“A dandelion,” Caitlin explained.
“Dandelion,” she repeated with a smile.
She could tell her daughter was confused again. The meadow was speckled with yellow dandelions too, still in full bloom, along with a few tufty ones, turning pale and fluffy. This one was just a little further advanced.
“This is what happens to them,” she said, prising the flower from her surprisingly fierce grip. “These are seeds, see?”
Molly peered at it, as fascinated as ever. “Seeds?”
“To make new flowers.” She remembered the conversation in the park, when all this had started. “Remember I told you about the blossom, darling?”
She wrinkled her little brow. “Yeees…”
“It’s the same. The flowers come out in spring, then they turn to seeds in the summer.”
“But how do the seeds go in the ground?”
“Ah, watch.” She held the dandelion up and then blew on it, sending the seeds scattering away in the breeze. It took her three tries to clear them all. “See?” Molly squealed with delight and went to find another one. When she came back, Caitlin showed her the game. “See, this is what we say – we count each time we have to blow. It goes…one o’clock…two o’clock…three o’clock…” A few seeds still clung on for dear life. “Four o’clock!”
Another frantic search for a dandelion in amongst the wildflowers and this time Molly played. She counted off in her childish voice. “One clock…two clock…three clock!”
“It’s ‘o’clock’.” She hadn’t really been taught to tell the time yet. It wasn’t exactly a priority, but Caitlin knew she had to keep things as normal as possible for her daughter. “It’s a game. We pretend to tell the time. When they’re fluffy like that, we call them dandelion clocks.”
“No,” Caitlin laughed, “clocks. Don’t get those mixed up, darling.” She pulled Molly onto her lap and held her thin body close as they sat in the sunshine. She was still clutching the empty stalk and looking out at the meadow. “When the seeds fall on the ground,” Caitlin continued, “they burrow into the soil and then spring up as new flowers next year.”
Molly nodded. It was always hard to know if she’d truly understood something. “Next year,” she repeated.
“So all those little fluffs you blew away, they turn into flowers one day.”
She fiddled with the stalk and went to put it in her mouth, but Caitlin took it from her. “No, darling, don’t eat that. It’ll make you poorly.”
Molly waggled on her lap. “I’m already poorly,” she announced, as if it were the simplest thing in the world. The way she’d absorbed it into her worldview wrenched at Caitlin. There was only so much they could explain to her, and it was so hard for her to make sense of when she felt so much worse after every hospital visit. She knew she’d already built up a strong association between the two events in her childish mind. It was the kind of thing she’d studied for years, and she could see the effects the trauma was having. Molly had gone back to wetting the bed, and she was far more insular and quiet that she had been before all this. But then, how much of that was her, and how much of it was her picking up on the mood of the adults around her? It was impossible, even for a psychologist, to know the truth. For Molly, these last few months were the only criteria she had for judging the world. It was a harsh introduction. She held her daughter very tightly and just tried to exist in this moment, free of any preconceptions about the future.
It had rained earlier that morning, and now the ground was damp and puddles covered the path that wound through the park. They were visiting some of Caitlin’s family in London. Another strange irony of this whole dreadful experience was how it had brought out the people in her life – people she hadn’t thought of as particularly close – in support of their plight. She had her pick of babysitters every weekend. People seemed to want to give her and Max a break as much as possible. Evidently it was all taking quite a toll, but she was just numb to it. She only thought about Molly.
Except, right then, she was mostly angry at Max. “You might have told me what you were doing,” she said. She didn’t want to shout. For one thing, they were in public, for another Molly was close by, skipping ahead of them. She wore a hat that covered her nearly-bare scalp as she splashed through the puddles in her pink wellingtons, singing a little nonsense song to herself.
“What difference does it make?” Max looked tired and drawn. His whole frame had reduced, and the gangly body she had once found charmingly awkward now looked almost ghoulish. He was like a rough sketch of the man she’d fallen in love with.
“I don’t want you wasting the time we have…the time…on nonsense.”
“There’s useful research going on, Caitlin. If there’s even a chance we can…”
She threw up her hands in despair. Her husband had been working long hours for months now. She’d started to think the way he was fixating on his job was unhealthy, and she’d confronted him about it this morning. It wasn’t ideal, but it was the first opportunity she’d really had. He was reticent at first, but she’d pressed him and he’d finally cracked. It turned out he’d been immersing himself in some crackpot online community that was looking into alternative cures for various cancers. He had all sorts of weird theories in his head about vitamins and toxins and who knew what else. “You’re a neurologist, Max! A scientist! Why are you falling for this?”
His tone was defensive, but he wasn’t a naturally confrontational person. “I just want to save my daughter.”
“I know. But that’s why she goes to the hospital, Max.”
“And has her prognosis improved?”
“Please,” she said, her voice starting to crack, “don’t do this. It’s hard enough already. I need you to be by my side. I need you to support me.”
“I am supporting you.”
“No, you’re supporting yourself. This is just a weird kind of therapy for you. A way to feel like you’re achieving something. But you can’t fix this. We have to see it through to the end.”
“To what end?” he asked bleakly. They both watched Molly playing in the puddles. The ground was carpeted in a thick layer of multi-coloured autumn foliage – reds and yellows and golds and browns, all piled up and glistening wetly like jewels as the sun poked through the grey clouds. She kicked a pile of the sodden leaves heaped up by the side of the path and the sound of her innocent glee filled the air. “To whatever end,” Caitlin said. “If there was a quick-fix, don’t you think I’d take it, Max? It kills me. Every single day, I watch her grow a little more. She learns something new and, god help me, all I ever think is ‘what good will it do?’ Do you know what I mean? What sort of cruel universe works this way?”
“I’m trying to be dispassionate, Caitlin. I’m trying to think rationally.”
“I know. And that’s just who you are, but this isn’t a time when that’s going to help.”
Molly rushed up to them. She looked very small now, wrapped up as she was in a huge coat. The weather had already begun to turn cold and it took a heavy toll on her. They’d have to get her back indoors soon. She had leaf held carefully out in front of her in both hands. “Mummy! Daddy! Look!” She showed them. It was multi-coloured: green on the outside, at the edges, but mottled with a symmetrical pattern of pigment that went from yellow to orange to red towards the stems that separated each section. It was something she’d never have looked twice at on the floor, but seeing it isolated like that, it was very beautiful. She’d always been told that seeing the world through a child’s eyes was an amazing experience. She longed to be able to enjoy it properly.
“Wow!” she said, crouching down in front of Molly. “Look at that!”
“It’s pretty,” she murmured, running fingers down the stems and across the colourful surface.
“It is,” Caitlin agreed.
“Why does it go like this?”
She pulled Molly closer so they could look at the leaf together. Max hung back, a little uncomfortably. “See, darling, it starts out green. Remember in summer?”
“Yeah.” She was transfixed by the leaf.
“Then in autumn – now – they all change colour and fall off.”
“Well…it’s just what happens. Do you remember when I told you about it in spring? The blossom comes first, then the leaves which feed the fruit. The fruit’s finished for the year now, so the leaves can go.”
“Yes,” Molly said, with the patient, oddly patronising tone only a small child can master, “but why does it change colour?”
“Well…” She looked up at Max helplessly. “Do you know, Daddy?”
He crouched down too, and the three of them, their tiny family, all looked down at the fabulous leaf. “They’re green in summer,” he said, “to catch the sun. They have to be that colour because that’s the colour of the special stuff that eats the sunlight.”
“Oh,” Molly said. Again, Caitlin could sense how she was taking all this in.
“But when it gets colder and the sun goes away a bit, the green stuff isn’t needed any more. So it goes away. And what’s left are these colours.”
Caitlin nodded along. She’d read this before, and it came back to her now Max explained it. “Secretly,” she whispered to Molly, “they’re always this colour. It’s only when the green goes away that we can see it.”
“I know. Isn’t it amazing?”
Molly moved her head up and down in the boisterous nod of a child. Then she looked down at the leaf and then up at the bare branches of the tree above her head. “The leaves fall off,” she said, “and the tree goes to sleep.”
“Exactly,” Caitlin said.
“Then wakes up next year!”
She ran her tiny fingers over the leaf again. She was quiet, obviously thinking things through. “Poorly leaf,” she said after a moment.
Max frowned. “What?”
“Poorly,” she repeated, “look. It gets poorly and then it falls off. Dead.” She dropped it to the ground. There was an odd sense of finality to the action.
“No, darling,” Caitlin said, oddly concerned about this sudden wave of nihilism, “the leaf is just one part of the tree. It has to drop off so it can grow again next year, that’s all. Don’t be sad.”
“Not sad,” Molly shrugged. She removed herself from Caitlin’s grip and skipped off again, back to singing little snatches of songs and kicking through leaves and puddles.
“This is the only life she remembers,” Max said as they straightened up.
“I know. I had the same thought a while ago. She was too small to remember much of her life before this year. It’s just little bits and pieces.”
“Instincts,” Max said.
“Hm. Yes, exactly. But now she’s building up memories. Storing things in her mind. Learning. She couldn’t stop if she tried. She’ll just keep going and going until…” She trailed off, unable to keep the tears out of her eyes.
Max took her hand. “I’m sorry. I’ll try to be here more. It’s hard though, feeling so powerless.”
“Yes,” she agreed, “it is. That’s why we have to keep going though. Because of next year.”
“Because of next year,” he said quietly, and he drew her in close.
“I didn’t think you were supposed to have decorations any more,” Caitlin said to the Sister. “Isn’t it an infection control risk or something?”
“The director pays for new ones for the children’s wards every year,” the older woman said with a smile. “It has medicinal benefits, you know? Makes things as normal as possible.”
“Sure.” Caitlin sat beside Molly’s bed. Her daughter was almost swallowed up by the sheets and pillows, so small had she become now. Her great head of tousled black curls was gone, and her eyes now looked huge and alien in her pale, sunken face. She had a tube running from her nose but somehow she was still bright and happy. She played with some dinosaur toys on her lap, making them roar and fight. She spent a lot of time asleep. She was desperately, desperately weak. Caitlin almost couldn’t bear to be here, but she equally couldn’t bear to be away. She had a little room off the ward. This place was perhaps the worst place in the world at this time of year. It was the day before Christmas Eve. In every other bed was a child just as ill as Molly, and coming here had been an eye-opening experience. She hadn’t realised what a sheltered life she’d led until she spent time with the other parents and carers here – they were almost universally worse off than her, some desperately so. One mother had four other children, all healthy, but no husband to support her. She didn’t know the details, and didn’t want to judge, but there was just no way she could be there for a son, not when his brothers and sisters needed her too.
There were people called play specialists who looked after the children. It was a real job, with real qualifications. They were unsung heroes, along with the nurses and even the healthcare assistants. And the cleaners and the man who brought the post and of course the doctors. All the way up, from bottom to top, they all just wanted to help. No one could be in this environment and not have their heart crack in two at the sight of all the suffering. The boy who covered the reception desk, fresh out of university, on a temporary placement to cover maternity leave, had lasted just a couple of weeks. She didn’t blame him for asking for another assignment. Caitlin wanted one too, but that wasn’t an option.
Max returned with some drinks from the vending machine. He was a shadow of the man she’d married. Caitlin didn’t like to imagine how she must look to him. It didn’t matter. To call it a secondary concern would be a gross exaggeration. She took the tea gratefully and put it on the bedside table to cool. The Sister finished performing whatever checks she needed to and put a comforting hand on Caitlin’s shoulder before leaving to continue her rounds. “I just spoke to your mother,” Max said.
“Oh?” Caitlin barely left the ward, and she wasn’t allowed to use her mobile in here.
“She said don’t worry about Christmas. She wanted to know if there was anything she could do.”
“No,” she said.
Molly had begun to deteriorate quite rapidly in mid-November. At first they’d thought it was just a secondary infection brought on by the battering her body was taking, but a couple of weeks later the doctors had confirmed what they’d been fearing for so long. She was losing her fight. They’d been here for over a week now. They were trying everything they could, but Molly was so delicate after a year of harsh treatments that they were concerned the cure would literally be worse than the disease. They were running out of options. So of course, plans had had to be changed. Those new family ties, intended to be cemented over the festive season, would just have to dangle a little longer.
“Is it Christmas soon?” Molly asked.
“Yes, darling,” Caitlin told her, “just two days. Father Christmas is on his way!”
She’d diligently made her Christmas list, but her life was fragmented and confused now. She slept so much, and she was ill all the time. This was one of her few lucid moments in the last few days. “Do you remember last year?”
Her brow crinkled. For her, it was like a lifetime ago. “Sort of,” she said.
“That’s when you got these,” Max told her, taking one of the dinosaurs out of her hand and making it attack the other one Molly still held.
“No,” she said insistently, “they’re friends now.” She took the misbehaving toy back from her father.
“Do you remember the spring, darling?”
She nodded. “Blossom,” she repeated back.
“That’s right. You’re so clever and you’ve been so brave.”
“Can we go home soon?” she asked.
“Yes, little one, of course we can.”
But she and Max both knew that was a lie. They were at the end of hope now. Her beautiful daughter’s body had fought for as long as it could, but she knew from the way the doctors tried to soften their bad news that this was the final stage. Outside, the air was freezing cold. The ground was frosty most mornings and she could see the bare trees being buffeted outside the window. They were saying on the news it might be a white Christmas. The baubles and tinsel on the tree in the corner were gaudy to her eye, and she just wanted it to go away. But they had to keep pretending everything was normal. That was the whole idea. You had to lie – to yourself, to everyone else – or that was the end.
“Christmas is a fascinating thing,” Max was saying. She wasn’t sure if he was talking to her or Molly. “At the darkest time of the year, civilisations throughout history have held festivals centred around life and light. When it was cold and frosty, and they didn’t know if the sun would ever rise again, they went out and cut the only green branches left and put them in their homes. They lit fires and candles, and they sang songs and they ate and drank. Even on the longest, darkest night, they made a little springtime for themselves, hoping that the better days would come again.”
“Hope,” Caitlin said.
“That’s right. Even in winter, we can still dream about the spring.”
“Poetry, from you?”
“I’ve just been thinking about this stuff a lot.”
She reached across the bed and squeezed his hand. It was thinner and bonier than before. How long had it been since they’d both had a good meal? Since they’d done anything normal? Too long. A whole year, or that’s what it felt like.
“It’ll be spring again one day,” Max said.
“No,” she whispered, looking down at Molly, who’d drifted off to sleep while they’d been talking, “no it won’t.”