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When Petals Fall (excerpts)

*

My daughter’s skin is gilded by sunlight. She’s fifteen months old, and kneels on a carpet of shredded flowers, plucking them from their stems, completely absorbed by the colours and textures. Beyond her is London in peak summer, and the blasts from traffic and lawnmowers throw the quiet little scene into relief. As I watch, I try to press into memory the scent of cut grass, my daughter’s expression, the blue of her dungarees and the pinks and lilacs of falling petals. We have two years before her diagnosis.

*

I open my eyes to silence the alarm. It’s dark, and the rain spatters an irregular beat against the glass. Leaving the light off, I grapple across the room to find my running clothes, and pull them on. They are stiff and musky with the week's sweat. Hushing the bedroom door closed on my sleeping husband, I move through a quiet house, hearing no sounds from the children’s rooms. Outside, icy rain pricks my face, but I don't go back for a hat or gloves. Facing the hill out of the village, I run, and the slick blackness of the pavement judders under the light from my head torch. It’s steep, and I push my legs to turn faster, whipping my reluctant lungs into a pattern. Inbreath, step, step, outbreath, inbreath, step, step, outbreath. Halfway up the hill, pain edges into the long muscles of my thighs and my calves. Inbreath, step, step, outbreath. I pull the pain closer so that it strums through me in cleansing beats. I go harder, and my breathing breaks into ragged snatches as I top the hill, but I enforce the rhythm. Inbreath, step, step, outbreath, inbreath, step, step, outbreath. Muscles shriek for a slowing down, but I won’t, I can’t stop. You have a goddamn flesh-and-blood, living body and you will feel every shard of this. Fluid streams from my mouth and nose. but I let it be. I run a long rope loop of the fields around our house, and always back through the graveyard. I will not picture what’s there. I run to purge what’s in my mind. I run until my knee pops, and keep running.

***

 

The doctor looked down at her paper again. ‘No. I’m sorry. It's leukaemia. There's no doubt.’

 

I knew that I should say something, but I didn’t know what. All eyes were on me, and I had the sense of being an actor on stage, forgetting my lines.

 

This was ridiculous, and I was half afraid I might laugh. Juliette wasn’t ill. They had made a mistake.

 

Despite this certainty, tears stung the back of my eyes. I wondered whether I was supposed to cry. Where was Stéphane? I needed someone else to tell me what to feel.

 

When the tears started to fall, they did not feel like mine. Juliette turned on my lap to look at me, so I pressed my face into the top of her warm head so she wouldn’t see.

 

The kind nurse from earlier, the one who said Juliette could smack her, bent down in front of her now. ‘Do you want to go to the playroom, lovely?’ Although Juliette was groggy, she slipped off my lap and took the nurse’s hand.

 

Someone handed me a phone so I could call Stéphane. I stared at the numbers on the keypad but couldn’t remember his number.

 

‘Fetch Juliette’s notes,’ the consultant instructed someone. They were found, and someone read out the number for me to dial.

 

‘Don’t tell your husband the results,’ the doctor said quickly as the ringing tone began.

 

‘Why not?’ I asked, but then I realised. He had to drive safely to hospital.

 

The phone rang and rang. I brought the face of my watch in front of my eyes. What time was it? I couldn’t work it out from the dial. Were the children having a bath at home?

 

Finally, Stéphane answered.

 

‘Hello?’

 

His familiar French voice was untroubled, and the silence between us was taut. I knew that the moment I spoke he would know, and everything would change.

 

‘You have to come to the hospital now.’ I had no other way to say it.

‘Why? What's happened?’ Stéphane paused. ‘Did they give you the test results?’

 

I looked up and around at the multiple eyes upon me. I could hear Stéphane’s

breathing. ‘It’s leukaemia, isn’t it?’

 

I wasn’t supposed to tell him. Why had I even mentioned it earlier on the phone? It was meant as an interesting, crazy comment, not as a warning. ‘Please, Steph,’ I tried to sound calm, ‘just get here.’

 

I ended the call just as a new face appeared in front of me. ‘Mum,’ the nurse said. ‘We’ve moved all your things to a side room.’

 

I nodded to show I understood, but I didn’t. Why this special treatment?

 

Like a sleepwalker, I allowed the nurse to lead me towards the playroom to collect Juliette. My daughter looked tired, and I lifted her into my arms to follow the nurse’s uniformed back to her new room. I sat beside Juliette on the bed.

 

The nurse asked Juliette if she was hungry. ‘It’s fishfingers, chips and peas tonight,’ said the nurse, with a big smile.

 

I could smell the food. I wanted to throw up.

 

‘Shall I fetch you a plate, Juliette? And some fruit yoghurt?’ The nurse sounded as though tonight’s supper was the highlight of her life.

 

Juliette nodded and said, ‘Yes, please.’ She loved her food. I smiled, trying to imitate the nurse’s enthusiasm, but when the nurse came back bearing her prize a few minutes later, Juliette had fallen asleep again.

 

Stéphane arrived. The skin on his face looked stretched and white. He opened his arms and pulled me towards him. The material of his coat was cold, and he smelled of the outside. ‘She’s going to be okay,’ he said quietly, desperately, into my ear. ‘She’s going to be okay.’

 

‘Where are Elodie and Pierre?’

 

‘I asked Emily to come. She said she would stay the night. It’s going to be okay,’ Stéphane repeated. His voice was forceful with desperation and his accent was strong. He sounded most French when he was either drunk, or upset, and I knew he was not drunk. I wanted to believe his words, but nothing about this situation felt okay.

Juliette woke at our voices and Stéphane let me go so he could hold his daughter. The consultant reappeared, and Steph sat, with Juliette on his lap as the doctor repeated to him what she had already told me. Stéphane’s shoulders shook with silent sobs. It was only the second time I had ever seen him cry.

 

The doctor was saying something about Juliette’s treatment, and the name of another hospital. ‘Addenbrooke’s. It’s in Cambridge.

They’re expecting you tonight.’

 

I looked at Stéphane. Why could Juliette not stay where we were? This was all too frightening. ‘We’ll go now,’ said Stéphane.

 

‘Don’t worry, we’ve ordered an ambulance. It should be here in—,’ the doctor looked at her watch, ‘twenty minutes. Would you like something to eat while you’re waiting?’

 

An ambulance? For God’s sake, why? How can a girl who spent the day jumping on her bed need an ambulance? I wanted to take Juliette home, forget all about this for now. ‘But it’s late,’ I said. ‘Can’t we drive her there in the morning?’

 

‘No. I’m afraid we need to get Juliette up to Addenbrooke’s tonight. Her treatment will probably start straight away. They’ve asked us to set up a drip, which is why she needs the ambulance.’

 

‘A drip?’

 

‘The drip will start putting fluids into Juliette’s body, so it’s ready for chemotherapy.’

 

There was bile in my mouth. Chemotherapy? But chemotherapy was for adults with cancer. Baldness. Sickness. Death.

 

‘Don’t worry. The Addenbrooke’s team are excellent. They’ll take good care of Juliette.’

 

The consultant said some other things, and then she left us. Juliette had melted into Stéphane’s lap, contented. She looked no different to how she had done all day.

 

‘How are you feeling, darling?’ My voice sounded thin and unnatural. ‘Did you hear that about the ambulance, Loobyloo? Isn’t that exciting?’

 

‘Just me?’ she asked. ‘Not Elodie and Pierre?’

 

‘Just you.’

 

‘Are you coming with me?’

 

‘Of course we’re coming with you.’

 

At three years old, it sounded exciting. She trusted us. Why wouldn’t she?

 

Another smiling nurse brought us a plate of cheese and crackers wrapped in plastic, with little foil packets of butter. Stéphane refused them. I thought I was hungry after not eating all day, but my mouth was so dry I couldn’t swallow. I spat the food back onto the plate and stared at the orange splatter.

 

Juliette ate a cold fishfinger, and a chocolate biscuit, then Stéphane held her as she drifted off to sleep. It was well past her bedtime now.

 

We stared at each other, dazed, not knowing what to say. Would we both stay the night with Juliette at the new hospital? If we did, how Elodie would get to school in the morning? Would Pierre be frightened when we didn’t come home tonight? I ran a distracted hand over the small bulge of my pregnancy, thinking about the new baby. How were we going to manage any of this?

Stéphane’s eyes locked onto mine. ‘She’s going to be okay,’ he said again.

 

Nurses came in and out of the room and Juliette, awake now, smiled at the bright language and singsong voices as they explained what they were doing with the drip, but no cosy language could disguise for Stéphane and me the horror of what was happening.

Another dab of numbing cream on the back of Juliette’s hand. ‘We’re going to put in a little tube, Juliette,’ said the nurse. ‘This is for the doctors to give you some medicine.’

 

‘Am I poorly?’

 

‘Yes, darling,’ said the nurse. ‘Your blood’s not well and the doctors are going to make you better.’

 

Better than what?

 

Juliette’s cheeks were pink. The only thing wrong with her was that she was tired. Everything these people were saying was nonsense. A nurse tore open a packet that contained a needle, and I looked at the dimpled back of Juliette’s hand as they pushed it in. Juliette’s blood shot up through the thin tube. It didn’t make sense. They had made a mistake. I pictured us all laughing, rolling our eyes at the doctors’ foolishness, their embarrassment, and how Stéphane and I would take Juliette home. What a good story it would be.

 

As I thought this, the nurses hooked a bag of clear fluid onto a stand, like the ones I knew from television hospital dramas. A tube snaked down from it into Juliette’s hand. ‘You are so brave, Juliette,’ said the nurse. ‘I think you deserve a sticker.’

 

Another sticker?

 

‘Which one would you like?’ Juliette smiled despite her tiredness and pointed at the one she wanted; a pink heart with limbs, flexing its muscles with a smile. This time, the nurse did it for her, pressing the heart next to the sticker from earlier. Juliette beamed.

 

The bottle-green uniformed ambulance crew turned up soon after, bringing more cold air from outside. ‘Which one of you is joining Juliette in the limo?’ one of them asked.

 

‘I’ll follow you in our car,’ said Stéphane. We both knew that him driving was the safest option.

 

Juliette needed a nurse in the ambulance to monitor her drip. The one who volunteered, came to introduce herself.

 

‘I’m Carol,’ she said.

 

It’s almost Christmas, so that’s appropriate. I smiled to myself, feeling insane.

 

The ambulance men lifted Juliette onto the stretcher. ‘Cor! You’re heavy!’ they complained. ‘What have you been eating?!’ Juliette grinned as they covered her in big red blankets to keep out the December cold.

 

Stéphane and I followed the stretcher out to the hospital entrance, and I squeezed his hand quickly before he set off for the car park.

 

Once in the back of the ambulance, Carol made a huge fuss of Juliette, settling her onto a big mound of pillows. ‘Oh, look at you, Juliette,’ she said. ‘You look just like the Queen!’ Juliette giggled, and the ambulance set off.

 

I looked over at my golden-haired daughter, small, serene, and vulnerable, like a precious flower wrapped in paper. I wondered what she was thinking. She did not seem curious and, thankfully, she was not scared. Not yet.

Juliette was swamped in medical equipment, and I smiled at her, trying to communicate a reassurance I did not feel. Could I erase the hour of her parents’ odd behaviour? Was any of this real? I had to get a grip, be strong for Juliette’s sake.

 

As the miles passed on a dual carriageway, I dredged my memory for what I already knew about leukaemia. None of it was good. My head was splitting open.

 

I kept smiling at my baby, willing her to sleep so I could let the mask drop. Finally, despite Carol’s chatter, Juliette’s eyes closed, and I could let go. The kind nurse handed me tissues and tried to tell me about Addenbrooke’s, but I couldn’t stop crying. After a while, the ambulance slowed and through the small side window above Juliette’s head I could make out row upon row of parked bicycles.

 

It was after ten at night, and we had arrived in Cambridge.

 

Juliette stirred only slightly as her stretcher was unloaded into the dark chill at the hospital entrance. Carol and I followed the green uniforms that wheeled my daughter through the bright concourse and down corridors to a wide set of doors. As one of the paramedics pressed the intercom button on a door marked C2, my eyes fell on a cheerful notice with a cartoon drawing of a child covered with big red spots.

 

‘Have you got spots?’ the caption asked. ‘If you do, you can’t come in!’

There was a buzz, and the paramedic pushed against the now-unlocked door into a wide corridor with bright orange lino. My first sight was of a small boy on a bike. He was completely bald. When he saw the ambulance men, his face lit up in a huge smile. He shuffled his bike to one side so we could pass. Hundreds of photos and cards were pinned on a noticeboard just beyond the boy. All the children in the pictures were bald, too.

 

A nurse showed us into a small room with a bed, and I tucked Juliette into it without undressing her. She did not wake up.

Stéphane arrived a few minutes later. His face was pale, and his eyes were unnaturally wide. A doctor appeared and introduced himself as Dr Neville. He explained that Juliette would stay at the hospital for up to a month. I think he tried to reassure us. My ears strained with trying to understand, but all I heard was:

 

CANCER. CANCER OF THE BLOOD.

 

By the time Dr Neville left, it was after midnight. It was too late to call Emily, our babysitter, to check on Elodie and Pierre, but she had told Stéphane earlier that they were fine.

 

Next to Juliette, there was a single bed that pulled down from the wall, which meant that one of us could stay. I couldn’t bear the idea of Stéphane leaving, so a sympathetic nurse brought an extra blanket so he could sleep in the armchair. Every two hours, nurses came in to take Juliette’s temperature, check her blood pressure and change the bag of saline. Each time, good manners made us sit up until they were gone. At some point, Stéphane joined me in the narrow bed. I wept silently into his back.

***

Term began again for Elodie and Pierre. This meant more encounters with the stricken faces of people who may have heard the news, but hadn’t yet seen us. Most of the parents at the school gates smiled kind smiles, and only a few dropped their gazes to busy themselves with a younger child or the contents of a handbag. As for me, I couldn’t turn away from the excitement of Juliette’s classmates as they bundled up the path into the Year One classroom, yet nothing on these shiny faces revealed a space where their friend should have been. The Juliette-shaped gap had already closed for her peers, and this evidence ripped through me like a blade.

 

I felt sick, and vulnerable as Elodie turned to join the Year Three girls. I was eight weeks’ pregnant now, and no one but Stéphane and I knew. Had we been stupid and reckless? We feared people would think we were trying to replace Juliette, but in honest moments, wouldn’t I admit that was exactly what we were trying to do? The pain of Juliette not being there had become absolute, to the point where it was almost abstract; a concept that in my semi-mad state I believed I could manipulate into something else. There was a hole in our family. A baby could fill the hole. The question over whether I had the capacity to love another child that wasn’t Juliette, had not been a factor in its conception.

 

Every day I woke, put my feet on the floor, and did what was necessary and expected. I washed the children and their clothes, packed lunches, and kissed knees. Raphi had started to walk and needed me to hold his hands as he strode into his fifteenth month. And now I had an embryo growing in me. I was a person, the manifestation of a mother, with people who depended on her. But sometimes in the rare quiet moments, the ache of missing my dead daughter pushed all the air from my lungs. Sometimes I imagined seeing her, standing at our kitchen entrance the way she used to. In the semi-darkness of Raphi’s bedroom, I could see her shape in a pile of clothes on the bed. And then I daydreamed that the holiday Juliette had been on was almost over, that she was due home any moment, desperate to tell us all about it. As long as this might happen, I could stop the volume of pain from bursting my eardrums. Stéphane didn’t like me doing it.

 

‘Juliette’s dead,’ he said with a voice steeped in blunt, cold reality. ‘She’s not coming back to us.’

 

I knew it, but I did not want to know it. I carried on, opening my mouth to speak, never certain if the sentences that came out made any sense. My words, other people, were all a sludge of meaninglessness. I retreated into my head, craving sleep and the dreams where Juliette was still alive. These were too rare, but sleep did at least bring a few hours’ relief from the knowledge she was gone. But the seconds on waking before I remembered she was dead were agonisingly short. The earth kept turning, pitiless, and another day without Juliette would begin.

***

Ten years have now passed since I recovered from the breakdown, and Juliette has been gone for two decades; four times the years she was here. The idea that I could live on without Juliette for this long was unimaginable when she first died, but I’m here, scarred and as flawed as ever, but stronger.

In the last twenty years I’ve learned a lot about the person I am. My beautiful, exceptional daughter died. Losing her ripped me to pieces, and not everything went back together the way it had been. Intense grief ground me down to the essential parts, and a lot of the chaff that I thought was me has blown away. Some of that chaff was the delusion that I could control what happened after Juliette died. The rest was the frothy, insubstantial, inauthentic bits of me that seemed to matter so much before Juliette was ill. Maybe I would have lost these anyway as I got older, but I’ll never know.

 

One of the most important lessons I learned after losing Juliette, was how little control I had. Running, in the way that I did was a physical manifestation of this fantasy. If I could dominate my body then surely my mind could be brought into step, too? I learned the hard way that there is no such thing as doing bereavement perfectly. The only healthy way is to let the waves of grief wash over you, and even through you. It means summoning a huge measure of trust in the process. Resist, as I did, and you find yourself pounded on the rocks.

 

While I was depressed, I thought so little of my value to my children’s lives, I came close to wanting to end my own. Waking each day, I was almost ashamed, as though finding the strength to carry on betrayed Juliette. I almost believed that I should give up, to prove how much I loved her. I also wondered whether after their sister had died, that my living children felt betrayed by my continuing to live. These were mad, circular thoughts but in my darkest states, they were dangerously seductive. To end massive pain in whichever way that can be achieved, is an understandable craving and I know that in my own case, I had to make a conscious choice not to die, and my children were the reason I wanted to survive. At first, I was driven by the feeling that even if my happiness was over, I could not accept a life without joy for Juliette’s sisters and brothers. Over the last ten years, this feeling has shifted, but become more profound. 

 

I am at a point where Juliette’s absence is familiar, and the importance of her loss is fully integrated into my life, yet even after all this time, a memory or thought hits me and I get a flash of the fresh, raw despair that Juliette didn’t live. Children shouldn’t die, and when you lose a child, those who remain exist forever with the ghost of what should have been. I ought to have had Juliette beside me until my death, and my children’s lives should have included Juliette’s presence into their own old age. For years I asked, ‘Why my daughter?’ but now my resigned answer is, ‘Why not my daughter?’ The universe is neutral regarding life and death - that’s my belief at least – and it is the people in it that matter, especially the love you share with them. On this I take my cue from Juliette. She carried everything with strength and good humour, and her life was entire, though temporally short. As a person privileged to have loved her, I will always regret not having the chance to watch Juliette grow, to have known her as an adult, but the few years she had, she lived with extraordinary courage, and the purest joy. I think those are some pretty brilliant guidelines.

© Geves Lafosse 2024

***

Praise for When Petals Fall:

 

I find this difficult, but in the spirit of wanting the story to be more widely read I've curated some comments from those who say they were moved by it:

'I've rarely read something as moving and engrossing and utterly harrowing.' - Lisa Jewell

When Petals Fall is 'very honest, very brave, and very well written' - Jojo Moyes

'It goes without saying that the book is heartbreaking and terribly moving, but you have also written in a way that gives the reader access to those emotions and in a clear, fierce, and an honest voice. The most heart-rending scenes are beautifully rendered and yet stripped of sentiment.' - Christian Livermore

'You possess an intense natural empathy – personified in this piece through the vicissitudes of your child’s illness– and you communicate it beautifully. Poignant, painful, there is absolutely no artifice in this piece...It is clear you have wrestled with much as you have forged this work, but you have never once lost that burning compulsion of grief that spurred you to write it in the first place. It blazes out on every single page. This is a great piece of writing. And an important piece of writing. It possesses such a competent voice and goes straight for the unvarnished truth with no prevarication.' - Frankie Bailey

'I wanted to let you know that I have already read most of your book and it is wonderful.  It is a wonderful, wonderful memoir of your amazing daughter.' - Carmen Reid

'I’ve just finished reading, and please forgive me but I find myself needing to reach out to you without a delay of even a few days. When Petals Fall is the most profoundly moving bit of prose that I have ever read. Many times I found myself having to put it down, walk away and regather myself before being able to continue. If it successfully captures even a small impression of what you have been through then you have truly seen hell, and your ability over the years since Juliette’s death to keep putting one foot in front of the other is remarkable. You reject the idea that it is bravery - I disagree.'  - Stuart C

'It's both beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time and I really feel as though I know Juliette. I'm so sorry that you no longer have your beautiful, brave girl with you but I can't thank you enough for putting it all down and sharing it with us.' - Fiona H

'What is amazing is how your raw grief starts to turn to strength.  I found myself laughing in parts… and it’s beautiful too…Really, the pages were going too quickly towards the end, I wanted to slow it down.' - Ali H

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