It was a morning of cloudless blue skies and cold sunlight, too cold to melt the luxuriant carpet of snow that had fallen overnight on Shelby Park. It was a morning for breath to billow smokily from mouths and for the wearing of woollen gloves. It was a morning for Molly and I, and nobody else.
I stopped the car outside the park’s rusting iron gates, unclipped my own seatbelt and helped my daughter with hers. A minute later I was at the passenger door, lifting her out of the car and thinking how impossibly light her eight-year old body seemed to have become, and how quickly it had … how quickly it was happening.
‘It’s a bit icy out here,’ I said, lowering her to the pavement. ‘Watch yourself.’
‘I’ll be okay, Dad.’ she told me. ‘Don’t worry.’
She looked up and gave me a smile so full of honest confidence that it made me feel small to be treating her like a sick kid, today of all days.
I locked the car and we went through the gates, Molly’s gloved hand pressed tightly into mine. She was getting a little unsteady on her feet, and foolishly I fretted that the chill January breeze might blow her over. But on we went, our steps crunching into deep snow, our eyes looking for a suitable spot.
There was guilt then, I remember. Anna should have been there to share this, but instead my wife was back at the house, keeping herself busy preparing a special lunch for our return and probably looking at the clock every few minutes or so. She had made a small fuss when I had suggested that Molly and I come to the park without her, and I had weathered her feelings of anger and fear much as she weathered mine. It had occurred to me that part of her outburst had been fuelled by jealousy, and that was something I had come to understand completely. I felt it too when she and Molly were playing together, and I could see Anna stealing moments just for herself. Time, and it’s passing, had become an almost tangible presence in our home.
The doctors had said that Molly had perhaps another month left to her, though I think that both Anna and I sensed that the end would come sooner. It was unspoken between us, but we sensed it all right, saw it in each others’ eyes across the breakfast table as we tried to live a normal life when every moment brought us closer to losing our little girl.
But I had promised myself to try and put such thoughts aside, at least for today. At last Molly and I found the perfect place for our purposes, at the base of a small hill where the snow had gathered undisturbed in powdery drifts. We squatted, and between us we made a little mountain of snow, scooping handfuls of cold whiteness and packing them tightly together. Together, we gradually shaped the mountain into a lumpy, uneven sphere.
‘Okay?’ I asked Molly.
‘Okay.’ she answered, a little breathlessly. ‘But I wanna take off my gloves.’
‘It’s too cold,’ I insisted. ‘Molly -‘
‘They’re wet.‘ she told me firmly, tugging them from her little hands, her tiny, perfect fingers. ‘They feel yucky.’
‘Well, okay.’ I surrendered. ‘But tell me if your hands hurt.’
‘I will.’ She jammed the gloves into her pocket and returned her attention to the ball of snow.
I stood, wincing at the whiplash crack of my knee-joints, and we rolled the snowball a few feet along the ground, watching as it gathered mass. When we stopped, our faces red and a thin film of sweat steaming on our foreheads, our snowball was as high as my waist and Molly’s shoulders.
‘What do think, then?’ I asked her, smiling.
‘Awesome on toast.’ she responded smartly, one of her mother’s many quirky expressions. Her breath jetted forth in hard little gasps. ‘Let’s start … on the rest of him.’
‘In a minute.’ I told her. ‘We’ve plenty of time.’
She nodded, reluctantly I thought, and again I marvelled at the seemingly infinite well of courage my little girl had discovered inside herself. From somewhere nearby, I heard an excited barking, and looked across to see a tall, grey-haired man in his fifties throwing a ball for a glossy black Labrador that was chasing it in long, exhilarated leaps. I watched the dog seize the ball in its jaws and run in two or three joyous circles before returning to its owner. As the man took the ball he looked up, and saw us. He raised a hand in greeting, and though I’d never seen him before in my life, I grinned and waved back.
‘Dad.’ Molly tugged at my sleeve. ‘Dad, come on.’
‘Okay.’ We knelt, corralling more snow, making another mountain and sculpting another sphere. This one we rolled until it was perhaps the size of a large football, then I lifted it atop the shoulders of our growing snowman.
That done, I dug in my overcoat pocket for the things we had brought. I handed them to Molly, almost reverently, as though I was entrusting treasures into her cold pink hands instead of a carrot from the rabbit hutch and a few pieces of coal, two for the eyes and enough left for a small smile.
She reached up and pressed them gently into the head, giving it a friendly if somewhat lopsided set of features. Then she scowled, an exasperated sigh streaming from her mouth.
‘What is it?’ I asked her, frightened. ‘Molly, are you okay?’
‘We should have brought some more coal.’ she said quietly. ‘Made some buttons for his front.’
I swallowed, a terrible dragging weight in my chest. ‘Maybe next time.’ I managed.
Molly said nothing, simply looked at me with her exquisite grey eyes. Much passed between us in that moment, I think, an assurance from her that her mother and I would be okay, a promise from me that we would try.
I looked at my little girl, my Molly, then back at the fine snowman we had made together. The flakes were melting, of course, but they had been born perfect, pure, unique, and I saw then that however short their life, that uniqueness, that and the fact that they had ever existed at all, that was what truly mattered.
I pulled her close, gently, smelling her hair, her skin, her sweet, sweet breath, and whispered, ‘I love you, Molly.’ Then we stood and turned for home, where I knew Anna would be waiting for us, the table prepared, a birthday lunch one month too early.