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February 27, 2014 / Kate Gross

Letters of Note

Our postman is knackered. The poor man has had a lot on his plate recently. I think he may request a new, quieter round, perhaps one where he sees my be-spectacled face and tea-stained dressing gown slightly less often. I, on the other hand, am in heaven. Not literally (not yet), but in writing-paper, parcel and ink heaven. From around the world, from inner spiral and outer circles, post has arrived. Letters have been laughed over. Parcels opened. Cards have been wept on. And now, the letters need to be shared, because if there was ever correspondence deserving of a wider audience, this is it.

My letters of note have begun to fall into distinct categories.

First, we have letters of the past. I love to hear from you, my erstwhile class-mates, co-workers, boyfriends, beer-drinkers. I wonder if you are creeping out of the woodwork with the sole purpose of brightening my mornings. I am becoming increasingly like my centenarian Grandmother, in a blissful reverie of youth, facilitated by your letters and (O! horror!) photos. I have been reminded of my fourteen-year old self. Apparently I was kind, and my hair was shiny. I remember putting a lot of effort into my shiny hair, and very little into being kind, so someone from school remembering me as not all bad is a great relief. I have been transported back to the sixth form, which I spent wearing the clothes of a middle-aged woman (why, when I actually had the body for it, did I not wear actual hot-off-the-streets fashion?) I must have been the only teenage raver wearing Jigsaw and Hobbs as I dabbled in class-A drugs and hard house. University seems less distant, though it was nearer twenty years ago than ten, because so many faces are still around me now – though now with far better hair. But still, so many wise, interesting people who are no longer in my daily life, but who have written to tell me about theirs. To tell me of manifold career changes, of children, of things that have happened that they wished hadn’t, and things that have happened that they always wanted. They have reminded me of the outwardly confident, inwardly terrified eighteen year-old who turned up Hopkins’ towery city all those years ago. The girl who wore brightly coloured g-strings (though I suspect false-memory syndrome from this particular correspondent; the g-string wearer was actually the cool girl the room below me rocking a leopard skin coat, with a talent for darts and a perfect memory for song-lyrics); the Kate who was won over by all these fascinating new people who would talk about Shakespeare as well as unrequited love; the Kate who developed a suspicious new interest in Rugby (players) but hadn’t the sense to realise that eating chips with cheese and salad cream every night might lead to some extra pounds here and there.

We have the letters of uncertainty. I asked you, more than a year ago, to share with me how to live when you don’t know what will happen next, when your world has been shaken apart and the pieces haven’t settled, and maybe never will. The stories you have told have taught me so much. There is the story of my Palestinian-Jordanian friend whose family are spread across a Middle East that is fracturing (all over again) as I write. Amman. Jordan. The West Bank. Gaza. Syria. Uncertainty, fear, loss and suffering as geo-politics as well as family politics. The stories I have been told from South Sudan since fighting began there in December. My friends’ dramatic escapes from Juba. The fact that only white and rich people got on the planes out. The million people who have fled their homes, the towns and villages destroyed, in this – the newest country in the world – on the cusp of tearing itself apart. The stories of families who find joy and happiness even though life doesn’t pan out the way they expected; the letter from my beautiful, blind, disabled, master-skiing, Schubert-sonata-playing, loving cousin Patrick which I shall treasure forever. The note from a friend who lost his unborn baby just before Christmas, who shows courage which can only come from being part of the most wonderful family himself.

Then, we have the miracle letters. There are prayers, lots of these, accompanied by angels, holy oil and the Virgin Mary (thank you, my beloved Muintir, for the waves of love from Belfast). And there are secular prayers. Stories of miraculous recoveries. My favourite is about a young, fit guy who fell into a coma after suffering completely unexpected heart and lung failure. He spent 6 weeks in this coma, with his family and friends (flying in from around the world) keeping vigil by his bedside. The doctors repeatedly told his family he wouldn’t make it. But somehow he did, and now he’s completely well. Even his medics were prepared to describe it as a miracle, which is not a term any self-respecting doc I know bandies around lightly. Listen; I’m not expecting to reverse the course of nature here. But who doesn’t love a story about someone who defeats the odds?

There are letters which make me glow. I think I actually might emit some kind of phosphorescent light when I read them. These letters tell me that what I write matters, that this little voice which has started to roar is listened to, that people actually READ what I have to say and find me (yes me) inspirational. I can hardly believe my luck: remember, my earliest career choice was Poet Laureate. Being told my words mean something to people is about the highest praise I could receive. Please continue. But be warned: too much and I will start believing your hype. I shall develop some kind of Messiah complex, meditate silently in the sun, refuse visitors and cake and expect you all to follow my wise teachings via this rather didactic little book I am writing (yes I am. It’s all about MEEEEE, obviously).

Finally, there are the letters which provide solace. My ever-wise mum asked you for stories of children who had lost parents; happy stories, where the children turn out All Right. We have received many of these (how I wish there weren’t so many). These letters are really not mine to share, but I have to. Please forgive me, correspondents, I don’t follow the rules anymore. First, this from a beautiful girl faced with a potential new step-mum who said she would never try to replace her mother: “I had to hide my confusion and laughter, it was like someone telling me that you could replace fire with wind. As far as I was aware, the position of biologically giving birth to me, nursing me and giving me my eyes, sense of humour and apple figure wasn’t up for grabs. I smiled back and thought “you wish”. No-one could ever tell me they loved me like she did, and no-one ever really needed to again, because it was my grounding, my bedrock. Just because I wasn’t told it every hour again, didn’t mean I didn’t feel it encircle me.” And this, from a wise and funny man I wish I knew better. “Many people wonder how their children will handle milestones if they are not around. I hope that I can shed some light on this, as I have gone through nearly every major milestone with just my mum. Graduation, birthdays, weddings, births, monster truck shows – the big events. And here’s the thing. It’s hard, but there’s a bittersweet aspect to every milestone. You can take stock and you have a moment in your own heart where quietly, on your own, you can simply reflect. You learn to try and soak up everything that you can because you, more than most people, know that things don’t last. I have always tried to make time and drink it all in, and to make sure others are drinking it in with me. I like to stop and make sure that it’s in my mind forever”.

The sun is shining on me today in Cambridge. Someone has sent me macaroons, and I have a box of your letters at my feet (also, by the way, the real Letters of Note which is truly wonderful). Billy and the boys will treasure what you have sent us forever. Correspondents, we salute you.


Leave a Comment
  1. Laurie / Feb 28 2014 10:46 pm

    Dear Kate,
    Sorry not to have been the straw that broke the postman’s back. Not sure I actually have your address address. But I liked this post and a combination of reading about the last category of letters, and bumping into another friend of my brother recently, in Addis Ababa, I felt I should write a letter here. It feels a bit unoriginal now, but maybe it’s still worth it. Hope so.
    Very sadly and very suddenly two years ago, Peter Kerby, the then head of DFID in South Africa, was taken ill and died shortly afterwards. I knew him and he was good friends with my brother. He was a lovely guy. A few weeks ago I bumped into his wife Anne who had moved back to Ethiopia with their adopted children. She told me that she was grateful for an email I’d sent her at the time and had been thinking about it recently.
    In that email I’d said, you’re not going to feel this way now because Peter’s only just died, but I want to tell you that it will eventually be ok and in particular that their kids will somehow cope, carry on and still thrive even while of course they will always miss their dad. And she told me last month that that letter was indeed comforting and also starting to come true. So I am pleased to hear that you are also finding solace in some of the letters you are getting.
    And I said that to Anne, as I say it to you Kate, in a different position, because my dad died, also of cancer (Leukaemia) when I was 8, my brother was 11 and my sister was only 4. And while I don’t claim to be anything extraordinary, I am happy. I have a beautiful 8 year old son of my own (god I have only just realised that parallel), a beautiful partner, a great extended family I see a lot, and friends all over the world and nearby. Even 33 years on of course I miss him. I see his photo on my mantelpiece most days. I occasionally feels pangs for STILL not having read his book or PhD thesis (which turned out to be on a similar subject to my incomplete BA thesis, which was weird because I only realised afterwards and I thought he was a historian not a political scientist). And now mum says my brother and I are getting his habits and have ended up in the type of jobs he always wanted, though we never did or knew those things when he was alive. So he has had a huge impact on us without applying any pressure at all.
    I think it was tougher on my brother becuase he was a bit older and angrier that my dad did not want to acknowledge that he might not beat cancer. So he feels he didnt get a proper goodbye. I’m sure you won’t do that. And it was definitely tough on my sister who was so young that her memories are hazier. So having all of these memories you are archiving I’m sure is also a great idea. But we’ve all done fine.
    I know exactly what your friend above means. I remember going back to school after the summer holidays when dad died and a well meaning class mate said they couldn’t believe I could cope. I was not a fighter but felt like punching him. I didn’t but I thought to myself, well what choice do I have?
    We did end up with a fabulous step dad, and my brother got it spot on in his wedding speech when he talked about having three parents. Ours never said “he would not try to replace our dad” as far as I remember. I’m afraid I don’t think that stopped us saying “you’re not my dad you know” when we felt angry, or probably mainly just busted. I expect he then felt as confused as your friend above. But he handled it.
    It was tough for mum of course, especially before she did meet someone again. But we were not very aware of that. We all adapted differently. I think mum worried I’d adapted too fast in a way. But the kids will all handle it differently. But with you approaching this so brilliantly, of course that’s going to help them.

  2. Nina Owen / Mar 10 2014 11:35 am

    Hi Kate,

    I’m Dave’s sister. I sent you a message on FB but I’m sure it’s gone to your “Other” inbox. From your posts you are handling this as a warrior with a huge open heart, squeezing every last drop of joy out of life – a true inspiration.

    Much love, Nina xXx

  3. dancinginthespirit / Mar 30 2014 8:33 pm

    I don’t know you at all, and came across your blog via FB via Mumsnet…you are inspiring, you do write beautifully, with a candour, strength and humour that as far as I can tell is all your own. I do pray, and I do believe that Jesus still does miracles today – sometimes we see them, and sometimes all too painfully we don’t, but I will pray for lots of miracles for you and your boys. I love what you’re doing with the recording the stories and planning ahead for your sons – if I were in your situation, I would love to think that I would do the same. My Myers-Briggs is really ENFP, but my P is very close to my J, and my N is very close to my S – and when stressed I definitely go into planning mode, in every detail! To have the sound of their mother’s voice, and to have her pen put to paper will be such a precious thing for the boys in years to come whatever happens. With prayers and blessings from across the internet, Judith x

    • Kate Gross / Apr 13 2014 5:36 pm

      Thanks Judith!

  4. Austin Haylock / Dec 10 2016 8:01 pm

    Hello Kate,

    I recently found out a friend of mine was diagnosed with a rare disease that is most likely going to take her life in a short amount of time. I’ve read a few of your blogs and I would consider myself an “old friend” of hers, as we used to date about 10 years ago. She is 32 years old and has a gorgeous 6 year old daughter named Blair.

    I am surprisingly having a tough time with the news, but reading your thoughts are proving very helpful.

    I know you are in heaven looking down on the world now, but I wanted to thank you for sharing your thoughts with us and thank your family for keeping this blog active.

    You are truly an angel.

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