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November 21, 2012 / Kate Gross

On not having golden insides

Here’s my secret. I’ve never knowingly failed at anything, and I’ve been waiting anxiously all my life to do so. Thirty four years, so very many exams, too many hours working late into the night and worrying about what result I’d get on my GCSE maths coursework or my Middle English paper. Or my slightly-pointless-MPhil. Driving test, AS level general studies, job interviews, getting a mortgage. Tick! All of them ticked (well, perhaps some more scrape than tick). Believe me, I’m not saying I am some kind of genius – oh no. But I am an absolute control freak who looks at failure and says “not for me, thanks” and instead switches on the desk light. Or, in times of crisis, phones a friend or throws money the situation (c.f. physics GCSE tuition).

But throughout these hours of graft, I’ve had a niggling feeling that there would one day be something which I couldn’t do simply by knuckling down. Something outside the intellectual arena which has, broadly speaking, defined success in my life so far. And now there is. I think the most difficult part of the Nuisance (other than ‘Norphan-Angst) is that even though it is in me and part of me, I can’t control it. And so when I desperately, desperately want to beat it with a stick and give you all the good news that I \am winning this battle, that’s not in my power.

This truth about myself explains why this last week has been difficult for me. I’ve described the news coming out of my scans as middling good, middling bad, depending on which way you look at it. On my Pollyanna days my glass seems very much half full. But of course, some days the complete opposite applies. Continued uncertainty, a long treatment path which will involve many, many more twists and turns, good news and bad is the not what you want to hear from me or what I want to be happening. A clear-cut “A”, a B –  (room for improvement) or perhaps even an F for dismal failure would have been easier to handle. Uncertainty becomes no-one except the saint. So, I shall have to get used to a different world where I can’t be in control of everything. This is probably good training as Oscar and Isaac grow up and decide to deviate from the path Mummy has chosen for them. And you? Well, you will need to support us through a long period where the outcomes are uncertain, statistics plentiful but dodgy, (some of the) medicine unproven, and provide metaphorical and real hand-squeezes to Billy and I as we approach each and every scan or test. Bring me your own stories about difficult and uncertain times so that I can learn from you how to be.  Remind me of the big truth  (which I’ve seen a lot of through work, but thankfully never experienced first hand): bad things happen in the world and people get through far, far greater than this with dignity and humour. Make like Cruffy and tell me that uncertainty leaves room for the Thing with Feathers. And play to Pollyanna by telling me that whatever happens, all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. And what I mean from this is not that I will be fine: that isn’t in your power or mine. But that whatever happens, all SHALL be well.

P.s. any cancer lexicon deployed in response to this  post will be redacted like a Downing St FOI response. You have been warned, friends.

P.p.s. For those requiring real news, rather than musings: chemo starts soon, I’ll have 3 months of that and then more scans to see what’s happened to my liver & if there is any other spread. I am currently in unseemly good health, eating masses and being active, taking O&I swimming, having sword fights with Frank etc.


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  1. Lizzie / Nov 21 2012 6:44 pm

    Hello lovely Kate – Ruth sent me the link to your fab blog and dammit woman, would you stop making me cry? What a stunning writer you are, talented lady.
    Much much love coming to you from Muswell Hill (maybe we should re-institute those days where you’d come round and drink lots of tea and/or wine at our house in Greenham Road? Albeit with a new venue) See you soon, I hope, in Cambridge.
    Lizzie xxxxxx

  2. / Nov 28 2012 3:54 pm

    Hi Kate. We haven’t spoken much – I opened the gate for you and the boys once at Westcott and we’ve exchanged “hellos” as fellow friends of Ruth. Thank you for the Emily Dickenson poem, I hadn’t come across that one. I’m getting to know you a little through friends’ responses to your blog, and I find myself wanting to say “it’s ok not to be strong.” There will be times ahead, if they are not already here when you will feel sick, weak and incapable. This may be met with dread, but really it is ok. It’s ok to be the one looked after, to feel dependent and to know that you can fall and be caught.

  3. Ruth T / Nov 28 2012 10:24 pm

    Hello Kate, I read this a few days ago and didn’t respond straight away because I’ve been thinking about it. And what occurs to me is that perhaps you’re actually much better than you think you are at uncertainty. Maybe your feeling that you’ve been in control of life so far is actually the illusion! I hope that doesn’t sound harsh, and it’s not meant to under-estimate or undermine the incredibly hard work you’ve put into the success you’ve had intellectually and professionally. But I’ve worked with you now in two jobs. Your lines about a situation in which …”the outcomes are uncertain, the statistics plentiful but dodgy …” seems to me to be the perfect description of the challenge of preparing a Prime Minister for PMQs! And neither you – nor anyone – could predict or control future events when briefing senior politicians on home affairs issues or security threats. Yet you developed a well-deserved reputation as one of the coolest heads and one of the wisest counsellors, throughout all the twists and turns. There was no certainty there, no matter how much “homework” you did.

    More recently, you’ve just had five years’ worth of running a start-up charity in high pressure circumstances, which is a roller-coaster ride of another sort. Any new charity – like any small business really – is constantly teetering on the brink of both triumph and failure. Every day could go either way – in fact most days actually contain a bit of both. You faced no certainty over funding (again and again), no predictability over what demanding clients will ask of you, no control over how much your partners will pull their weight, and no guessing what left-field problems the highly talented highly opinionated human beings that is any staff group will throw at you next. Hard work is of course a massive factor in your – and AGI’s – success. But a lot of people work very hard and their organisations still collapse or stagnate because their leaders can’t cope with the stress of not being able to predict or control external events. Instead, yours has flourished and impressed – and so have you.

    This is much more difficult and more serious and more personal, of course. Life definitely won’t be how you’d planned it. I’m sure you’ll have times when the pressure of not knowing what comes next feels intolerable. But I’m not sure you need to learn from our stories “how to be” – my experience of you is that you’ve got a pretty good track record yourself to draw on. But if you want to release the inner control freak, feel free to put a big black pen through any part of this that doesn’t pass the non-cancer-lexicon test!

    Ruth T xx

  4. trenchantly / Jan 5 2013 7:20 pm

    Perhaps it’s not a straightforward battle. There are some things you can—are—doing. There are some things being done to you, that you can’t control. But if you can control some of them, then it’s not true that you “can’t control it”. If you are doing all that you can, then you can’t do any more. That’s the limit of your control. Forgive my dry analysis, but you are an analytical person after all.

    As an aside, when other people drive me—I really don’t enjoy it. My inner control freak. But even when I drive, people still (and in Juba, do) drive straight at me. I do what I can.

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