A mother’s very personal story about the spontaneous recovery of her dying child
When Pia de Jong’s third child, Charlotte, is born, the obstetrician points at a spot on her little back: “She presses down on it with her forefinger. As soon as she takes her finger away, the spot turns blue. The colour of a lake in a forest at noon.” Many other black and blue marks appear; they are tumours. Charlotte has a rare form of leukaemia. Her parents decide not to expose her to a treatment that can only be harmful and is probably pointless.
Her husband, a professor of mathematical physics, spends his nights researching black holes; De Jong quits her career to be a fulltime mother. They try to prepare themselves for the worst. One heartrend- ing scene has her looking for a grave site. Their house becomes a fortress where unwanted visitors are kept as far as possible at bay, although every once in a while some busybody or faith healer slips through to disturb the peace.
The family receives support from local residents who at first blush would seem worlds apart from the academic couple; like working-class Louis, who takes on the role of neighbourhood watchman, or their down-on-his-luck neighbour Mackie, or the young prostitute who brings them hand-knitted baby clothes and lights candles for Charlotte’s recovery. De Jong feels an affinity with these people, who have stopped caring about social norms, as has she: “If I’m going to help Charlotte, I must keep out everything else. I don’t have to be polite any more, or do anything I don’t want to do simply to keep up appearances. It’s only about her, about us. The rest doesn’t matter”.
The family takes heart from learning that a little American boy, Samuel, who had the same disease as Charlotte, wound up recovering spontaneously. Slowly but surely Charlotte’s bruises too start to disappear, and one fine day she is declared cured. De Jong wonders, “What shall I do now that this ordeal is over?” Not long afterwards she picks up her pen and starts to write.
Besides being written in a restrained, muted style, which makes this account of illness all the more poignant, *Charlotte *is also about the maternal instinct, grief and hope. It is the chastening experience of a mother who had to return to the basic thing at the very heart of life: love.