Molly's short but sweet story

21st May 2004 at 01:00
The Time of Her Life

By Lesley McIntyre

Jonathan Cape pound;15

The Time of Her Life is a moving photographic record of the life of Molly McIntyre, a bright, charismatic young woman with severe physical disabilities who defeated all the odds. When Molly was born with a muscular abnormality on October 19, 1984, doctors believed her life would be short and she would never leave hospital.

In fact she lived until the age of 14, and thanks to her amazing spirit and the dedication and determination of her mother, the documentary photographer Lesley McIntyre, she packed more into her life than most young people ever have the chance of doing.

Lesley McIntyre's projects have included rural reconstruction in newly independent Zimbabwe and the Greenham Common peace camp; she has also worked for theatres including the Royal Court. She assumed she would be able to combine her career as a photographer with bringing up a child, but in her introduction writes: "I found myself grounded in our domestic life, the demands of such a fragile child being very particular." But she never stopped taking pictures.

Her battle to keep Molly in mainstream schools was particularly time-consuming, especially as she became a single parent when Molly was two and a half. Secondary transfer involved a lengthy appeals process and a house move.

We read how persistence (and support from the Disability Law Service) paid off, how Molly did well academically (at Sudbourne primary in the London borough of Lambeth and Elliott school in neighbouring Wandsworth) and took a full part in school life. Her mother recalls how Molly spoke up on behalf of a boy who was about to be excluded for behavioural difficulties; the boy stayed in school. Part of her story is told in the pieces of schoolwork that appear in the book alongside her mother's pictures.

At Sudbourne she recorded some of her own life in a timeline that shows her family lived in Norway, near her father's parents, for two years when she was a small child; in 1988 she was given her first kitten (Grace); in 1992 she made her first trip to the United States; in 1993 her grandparents celebrated their golden anniversary and in 1995 she returned to the US for the second time. Her teacher gave this an A and commented "very detailed".

A structured two-page essay written in September 1997, shortly after the deaths of her Auntie Carol and Princess Diana within three days, shows an extraordinarily mature insight: "Auntie Carol's service was a humanist ceremony. Myself and my two little cousins, Angus and Tommy, were there. We all laid bouquets around her coffin. The flowers we laid were very special.

They were special because they were from her own garden.

"Princess Diana's service was a religious service. Her sons' flowers were not from her garden."

But the full story is in the 57 photographs, which reveal the full extent of Molly's zest for living. We see her enjoying family holidays on beaches in Pembrokeshire, Majorca and Long Island, on school trips, riding a tricycle on the Palace Pier at Brighton, taking part in a workshop on Swan Lake and flying a kite in a London park.

In others she is shown playing dressing-up games with friends, as a bridesmaid at her uncle's wedding, demonstrating against education cuts in Piccadilly in 1995, on a visit to Sissinghurst gardens, at a wine tasting in the Moselle valley and, delightfully, sitting in a hairdresser's engrossed in Hello! magazine. The last picture was taken at home in Putney, south-west London, just four days before she died.

Molly's condition was never fully diagnosed, and she did not see herself as a sick child until the very end. Her story is poignant but also inspirational and full of hope. As well as a celebration of a daughter's life by a devoted mother, this book provides an opportunity to revisit the gap in legislation that means children like Molly have no right to mainstream schooling. Lesley McIntyre will continue to campaign for this, "because I continue to meet exhausted and frustrated parents trying to make sense of the system".

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