Kate Gross died of cancer on Christmas morning. She was 36, and left behind a husband and five-year-old twin boys. Her mother describes Kate’s final moments
“Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave
I know. But I do not approve.
AND I AM NOT RESIGNED.”
After that there was another year of chemo to try to hold off the further spread of the disease, and side effects, and a hundred different drugs.
Finally, in the last few months, there was the period of what Atul Gawande, the surgeon and writer, in his book Being Mortal, calls the One Damn Thing After Another or ODTAA syndrome. This, he says, “is what the closing phase of modern life often looks like – a mounting series of crises from which medicine can offer only brief and temporary rescue”.
The last two weeks were hard. They don’t tell you about dying, in the colour supplements. John Diamond, Ruth Picardie, Philip Gould – Kate’s cancer canon – they stop writing when they can’t focus any more. So, the unbroadcast pain, the indignities and the long hours of waiting are forgotten, like childbirth.
Indignities first. Actually, the fact that Kate’s bodily functions ended up outsourced to a number of external bags was convenient when she was mostly in bed, towards the end. But earlier, when she was less ill, it seemed unkind that when other lovely mummies were wondering which designer/investment/statement bag to take out with them, Kate’s choices were the large or small catheter bag, and which particular type of stoma bag (known to Kate’s circle as the AbdoBum™). “Mummy can poo into a bag,” noted Oscar and Isaac with interest.
Then, there was pain. These days there shouldn’t be much pain, they said. She’ll just get sleepier and sleepier. Not totally true. Palliative care is wonderful but always seemed a step behind the infinitely clever disease, reacting to each escalation of pain with higher doses or different medication – but only after some hours of sickness and discomfort, and only after summoning help via the tortuous mechanisms of out-of-hours GP services.
I went out one day to take the boys on a playdate, shopping distractedly, and found myself weeping in the car at Somewhere Over the Rainbow on the radio. “Birds fly over the rainbow, why oh why can’t I?” Why can’t she, I thought. And I came back home to the ruins of my daughter.
She had bursts of energy, deciding to come downstairs and sit in her chair for a while, drifting in and out, mostly making sense but with slurred, soft speech. It was lovely, but somehow seeing this almost-Kate made things harder.
Then she became very confused. “Katie doesn’t know what day it is … she doesn’t know who Jesus was or what praying is …” I sang to myself, almost as crazy as she was.
Kate and Billy in 2004.
Christmas won’t be spoiled for us for ever. A wise friend of Kate’s, who lost his own wife years ago, told us that because he remembered and thought about her every day the “big” days (anniversaries and Christmas) held no fears. I think he is right.
Kate once said, in relation to a mother’s love for her children, that “worry is love’s currency”. Well, for the first time in two years I don’t wake up worrying how she is. And two years of advance grieving has helped prepare us for today.
It has helped to have the love of family and friends, and the kindness of strangers, the thousands of messages we have received. Newspaper obituaries (I hadn’t realised until now quite how much it helps to have the life of someone you love rounded off in this way).
It helps that we can feel so proud of Kate’s work. She had always been high achieving. In her 20s she worked closely with two prime ministers; at 30 she was CEO of a charity that supported fragile democracies in Africa, hanging out with heads of state and wealthy American philanthropists. There are lots of babies who wouldn’t be alive now without Kate’s work, lots of children being educated, lots of parents able to find work and feed their families.
More than anything, it helps that we have Kate’s book, Late Fragments, written so that her sons may one day discover who she was and what she held dear. If anything good is to come from losing Kate, it will be that book and the effect it has on all who read it. Kate had, as her friend Katy Brand, the actress, said to her, the ability “to choose just the right word – to roll all the words around your head like ball bearings, until the perfect one drops into the hole”. But if not for the cancer, she probably wouldn’t have become a writer – like most high-flying working parents, she wouldn’t have had time.
The last two years taught us the importance of time, of stepping off the treadmill. As Kate writes in her book: “Everything has changed and yet nothing has changed. In other words, the petty frustrations and stupid ambitions and general rushing around have melted away, but the good stuff remains. And it’s better than ever.”
Because of the Nuisance, we became a much closer family. We bridged the distances that grow between parents and their adult children and came to know and admire Kate and Jo, much more than we would have otherwise. We became part of Oscar and Isaac’s daily lives instead of occasional visitors. And we were – and still are – overwhelmed at the way Kate’s friends and our own have responded to her illness.
I’ve learned that there is more love in the world than I ever knew and that perhaps all we need to do is learn to ask for what we need.
• Kate Gross died peacefully at home from colon cancer on 25 December 2014. Kate finished writing her book in September and received finished copies a few weeks before her death. She leaves behind her devoted husband, Billy Boyle, and her five-year-old sons, Isaac and Oscar.
Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You (About This Magnificent Life) by Kate Gross is published by William Collins, £14.99. To order a copy for £11.99, including free UK p&P, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846