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October 12, 2013 / Kate Gross

What is lost

A year ago today I was told I had cancer. By the end of that same day, October 12th 2012, I was in emergency surgery, my tummy cut open on the horizontal to carve out a big ol’ tumour which had burst out of my colon and begun its wicked migration around my body.It won’t surprise you that I have found myself approaching the 12th October 2013 with trepidation. Is it an anniversary to mourn or to celebrate? I still don’t know.

Some months ago, someone who never fails to make me think differently about things asked me what was the best thing about having cancer. When she said this, I collapsed a bit inside. It seemed so thoughtless. Cancer doesn’t give “best things”, or indeed much that is in any way welcome. Instead, it is easy for me to rattle off a list of what it has taken from me. First, the golden-girl future I always assumed I’d have. Never having quite reconciled myself to the fact that I wouldn’t actually be Prime Minister or UN Secretary General, suddenly an ever more exciting future making the world a better place disappeared. So too did my more immediate (and realistic) plans to take the family to live in California so that the boys could really bulk–up on Sunny D and Pop Tarts (and Billy and I could take Silicon Valley by storm – a poor man’s Sheryl and Dave, if you will). It wasn’t that I assumed I would die, or couldn’t imagine working again. It was just that I couldn’t imagine working the way I had done before. The place I’d assumed I’d get to required – at least for the perfectionist – 24/7 diligence, sacrifice of self (which is not the same as self-sacrifice) and a brutal commitment to my blackberry.  The Nuisance took away the easy bickering of a relationship which had weathered a decade and two kids. At our age Billy and I should have been fighting over who took the bins out, not having heart to hearts over the kitchen table. The Nuisance took away the mother I had become, and who the boys were attached to, even if I wasn’t always impressed by her style. Flustered, grumpy, energetic, imaginative, shouty, careless, fun. Instead I became careful, soft, absent, lethargic and exerted no discipline whatsoever over Oscar and Isaac for weeks at a time. Who would, in my position? I only want them to remember Good Cop. The Nuisance stole the fictitious little Josie Boyle from our family and replaced her (in my mind, not literally) with a puppy, which has the advantage of not having to come from my largely defunct reproductive system. The Nuisance took the reciprocity from my relationships. By now I should be out of the phase where my parents prop me up and I, finally, should be doing some of the propping. But I’m not. The Gross-Boyles should be off round the country imposing ourselves on friends, and I should be offering the Oiseaux a shoulder to cry on and a helping hand when the baby is sick. But instead I have been the visited one, the crying one, the receiver of gifts for far too long.

This is a long list, and yet these are only the day-to-day things the Nuisance took from me. Ever selfish, these little losses are what grate most. Besides, whatever happens, the bigger loss which loomed (looms?) over our family is something I will never have to actually see. Lucky me.

But despite all this gloom, the truth is there is a best thing about having – or having had – cancer. What it has stolen is the normality I took for granted. But I have taken from it, too. For starters, there is a feeling of being alive, awake, which reasserts itself so strongly after illness that you can’t help but feel joy. Rather like your first time on ecstasy but with less pounding music and vomiting.  Every time I ‘woke up’, whether from my fortnightly chemo or after my operations I experienced joy – perhaps even the sublime – in a way I haven’t quite before. The first time this happened was in the incongruous setting of  Ward L4, on the 13th October 2012. I opened a window in the middle of the night and leant out to feel the cold autumn rain on my face, mingling with sharp, blissed-out tears. Then there is the way I feel about the people in my life. Billy and I have grown a love known only in power ballads, a depth of understanding and companionship which in any fair world would last us both a lifetime. My parents, always such dear friends to me, now closer physically as well as emotionally since their relocation to the flatlands. And friendships which survived on the leftover bits of time after real life was done have had a renaissance. Perhaps I imagine it, but the ties between my loved ones also seem closer. Naturally, Oscar and Isaac and their beloved Bon-Ma and Bon-Pa (for Oscar, AKA “the spares”). But do I also detect old friendships being picked up, more effort being made, more diems being carped within my dear urban family? I hope so. And whilst the world may have lost a future stateswomen, I have, at least, found my voice. And with my voice, an intellectual and spiritual hinterland which had been too long lost between the answering of emails and the wiping of tiny bottoms. I am woman, hear me roar.

I am not sure whether what is lost is greater than what has been found. Perhaps I should simply celebrate the fact that I can ask that question at all. Certainly, as I edge my way back into the world of work, I have felt a deep sadness at this seeming resumption of my old life. It makes me wonder whether, just perhaps, I might have got more out of the Nuisance than it has got from me?

Who am I kidding. I would still swap all this strange wonder the Nuisance has given me to exist in a world where I could be careless with life again. Of course I would.

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7 Comments

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  1. Josie / Oct 12 2013 11:59 am

    One side of your equation could be strengthened, I feel, to take account of the impact of the voice that you have found. You touch on it in noticing that ties between your loved ones seem closer, but it is more than this. The insight and wisdom that you have pulled from your last year and shared so generously with others – people who know you little and perfect strangers – has been and continues to be a huge thing. You once wrote that if you had a vocation, public service is it. You’ve continued to live this vocation with deep effect.

    I wonder, also, do you need to weigh up what has been lost against what has been gained? Of course you would swap – but to me that somehow means one side of the equation beats the other. It’s actually kind of wonderful that the weaker side isn’t beaten.

    Would you name it the Nuisance still, were you naming it now, or would you adopt a different moniker do you think?

  2. Jess Glover / Oct 12 2013 12:34 pm

    This blog is like a book I wish I hadn’t read – so I had it yet to read. (And I think you can also congratulate yourself for not deciding to cook up a whole load of methamphetamine) xxx

  3. hebe in dc / Oct 13 2013 1:19 am

    So beautifully written

  4. Kirstan Marnane / Oct 14 2013 2:39 pm

    You have indeed found a beautiful voice – both soft and hard, honest and raw. I am very grateful to you, Kate, for sharing what you learn from this. I felt your face in the autumn rain as you described it. And how the extremes of pain and joy somehow set one another off – this is a weird human mystery. Your writing is touching so many of us, maybe even making us better, as another commenter already wrote.

  5. Matt Mercer / Oct 16 2013 2:49 pm

    Hi Kate,

    I interviewed you a couple of years ago for Ernst & Young’s magazine Dynamics….

    I hope you don’t mind me contacting you out of the blue like this – I just wanted to reach out after reading this piece on Mumsnet…

    I’m really sorry but I had no idea about your illness – so it was a real shock to read your article, beautifully written and expressed though it was.

    I just wanted to tell you that while I’m so, so sorry you’ve had to endure such an awful experience, I’m also very relieved that you’ve come through the other side.

    It really was an absolute pleasure to interview you: to meet someone so enthusiastic about their work, so compassionate, so focused on doing good and so instantly very likable is so rare. Whatever the next months hold for you as you tiptoe back into the world of work, I’m sure that these traits will hold you in excellent stead and help guide you through whatever experiences await.

    Wishing you every happiness and excellent health from here on in!

    Very best wishes,

    Matt

  6. Sally Sellwood (@Recipejunkie27) / Oct 16 2013 7:57 pm

    My son had leukaemia. He was diagnosed on our wedding anniversary, when he was just over 2 years old. He’s nearly 9 now, and although I always have a stab of sadness everytime we hit 13th February, overall, I’d say all the bad times are now firmly consigned to ‘the bad times’ while all the good that came out of it stays with us still. I hope you stay well.

  7. Ruth French (Catchpole) / Oct 31 2013 9:51 pm

    Kate, I never had the pleasure of getting to know you socially, but working with you in No10/Cabinet Office days was an unbeatable experience. Your ability to cut to the core, see past the nonsense and go after what mattered is something that I hope I learnt from you and have carried with me into my new life away from the civil service. You have clearly lost none of this in the tough year that you have endured. I’ll keep following your blog. All the best.

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