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July 11, 2013 / Kate Gross

Library for Life

There is a particular smell to the rooms of English Dons. Rooms lined with books and obscure feminist curios, hard chairs for uncomfortable undergraduates and something softer for them. A musty, pompous smell of old coffee and obscure tracts. We were obviously going to snicker when, gathered in one such room, our tutor told us to invest in books whilst we were at University, because we were building our own “libraries for life”. Wot? Spend my student loan on books? When would I ever want to read the Faerie Queene again, seeing as I didn’t quite finish it first time round? But, like gardening and the National Trust, the rightness of what he said has come upon me with my advancing years. And now we live in a house of books. Even Billy’s efforts to exist only in the Cloud don’t extend this far. Our home is like the inside of my head. Full of words which have walked alongside me, lit my way and reminded me that my own life treads over experiences others have shared before me right back to the beginning of the beginning.

If there is a theme to my writing this blog, other than the obvious one, it is sharing some of these words. And if there is a theme to what those near and far have done for me since the Nuisance arrived, it is helping to fill up my life-library, giving me so many more.

Because you know me, you have sent me books. Neatly piled against the wall in my attic, waiting patiently to be read, because there is a bit of a queue for my attentions. Now, I love this. But there is a cautionary tale. There is someone dear to me (he shall remain nameless), who sent me three books back in the darkening days of November. When I thanked him, I asked him to explain to me why he had sent me those particular books. What was it about them that spoke to him? Why did he think I would like them? What would they bring me? The nameless one, being not as good at emails as picking books, didn’t reply. So those books sat at the bottom of the pile, unloved over the winter. It was only when another friend recommended Raymond Carver’s poetry that I realised Book One was his short stories. And someone else gave me Sloane Crosley and told me if I liked her, I should really read David Sedaris. Which was Book Two in original parcel. And book three? Oh, just Billy Collins a pithy American poet I hadn’t come across. So when I last saw my nameless friend, I explained this to him. And to you now. The best books you have sent aren’t just paper, but have come with pieces of you. A note which tells me this was your favourite book as a child because it scared you senseless. Or perhaps I might need some comforting, gentle reading and here is the Darling Buds of May, a book to turn to when you want happiness on a page. Or, now you have time on your hands, perhaps read this short biography of Deng Xiaoping because it will teach you all you need to know about the modern world. So each book has been a double treat. First, reading the thing itself. And second, thinking as I read it about the person who sent it and what it meant to them. Sometimes this has been a puzzle and I’ve wondered whether I knew the sender (or they me) at all. It’s very personal. There is something in offering a beloved book which is like offering a bit of your soul up for scrutiny. The really good stuff touches on some big themes about life and what it’s all about, and in the books you’ve been drawn to and sent me, I’ve sometimes seen glimpses of lives which perhaps aren’t as Facebook-perfect as they might outwardly appear. Which suits me just fine, because mine sure isn’t.

If there is a justification for the extravagance that is a three-year English degree, this is it. Good writing is “the human voice/And do we not find each other interesting?” . Reading is an experience by which we can connect ourselves to what we are, to a great web of life, the same grooves being scored over and over again across the world in different times and tongues. John Berger: “The poet places language beyond the reach of time; or, more accurately, the poet approaches language as if it were an assembly point, where time has no finality, where time itself is encompassed and constrained”. Life, death, love, loss, war, “god in the details”, men are like buses, they fuck us up our mum and dad, and so on. It’s all there.

We look for different things at different times. I have already written about the books I loved as a child. But there is nothing like the tormented adolescent discovering Shakespeare (though some people higher on the cool-o-meter than I say that music was big here, too). “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow/Creeps in this petty pace from day to day/To the last syllable of recorded time”. What does it mean? Who knows, but oh, when you are fifteen with glasses, lankly hennaed hair, a bit of puppy fat and far too much unrequited love, it suddenly means so much because LIFE IS SO HARD. Perhaps you are Prince Hamlet (or were meant to be? Your diaries suggest this may be the case). And the writings of African-American feminists raised on slavery, share-cropping and segregation somehow speak to the oppression of A-levels and middle-class life deep in west-country England like nothing else. And then university, work, proper relationships, and John Donne. Motherhood: more Sylvia Plath and Rachel Cusk (and some less mopey stuff too). I could go on. There has scarcely been a period of my life which hasn’t been accompanied by reading something which helped me make sense of it.

It is hardly surprising that since the Nuisance I’ve been reading what I can about the experience of illness. But here’s the thing. There ain’t much there. More accurately, there is less there than you would imagine given that it is a pretty universal experience. Unsurprisingly I’m not the first to spot this, and in fact Virginia Woolf wrote a whole essay about it:

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go out, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals… it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy as one of the prime themes of literature.

My theory is that either people are too sick to write and die, or they survive but it is so grim and boring that they can’t bear to write about it, (and no-one wants to read it, anyway. There’s not a lot of sales in sickness). Like childbirth, when over it is erased swiftly from memory: as Emily Dickinson said, “there is a pain so utter/it swallows substance up/then covers the abyss with trance/so memory can step/ around – across – upon it”. There are exceptions. First, what I think of as The Cancer Canon. I’ve rather gorily devoured these autobiographies, usually written by journalists or public figures, looking for some clue in their journeys as to how to conduct my own, or perhaps how mine will end. This is not an uplifting process. Their stories haven’t finished so well. But still, Ruth Picardie, John Diamond and Philip Gould stand out. Brave, interesting, funny and very, very sad memoirs which are written with a light touch, though the endings and after-words are torment. Then, the rest. This is a mixed bag. There is a decent anthology of writing about illness called The Soul of Medicine, though it has a bit too much about shamanic healing in it for my liking. I quite like Julia Darling’s collection Sudden Collapses in Public Places, and her poem about chemo is good. Hilary Mantel’s autobiography is incredible, writing about illness and how it shapes the self both inside and out (and it’s way shorter than her historical tomes). But really, Raymond Carver is the guy I’ve come to love. So here is What the Doctor Said. If you click on one link in this grossly hyper-linked blog, make it this one, because I love it so.

I’m a little way into this reading project, and I suspect I’ve only skimmed the surface. What I wanted, in writing this, was to ask for your help. Out there are people better read and better informed than me. So, send me your additions to the “N” for Nuisance section of my life-library. Not actual books, just “have you read?” messages. And feel free to keep sending me other things you’ve liked reading, I always love it. Thank you.

June 12, 2013 / Kate Gross

Passing the ball forward. (Or, how Anglo-Saxon Poetry finally proved useful)

I had another one of those moments last week where I watched my own life like a movie. Just a moment, a vignette in instagram colours, with the camera close up on our faces. I was in hospital. Billy had brought the boys in to have an ice cream with me after tea, and brought my mum too. I hadn’t seen the boys since I’d been admitted at A&E the night before. And my mum hadn’t seen me. I rushed up to give my sweaty, slightly odorous boys a mummy hug. They resisted my cuddles so I was left to ruffle their tousled heads whilst they told me purposefully about a snake, a fight with Fletcher, something important that had happened that day. Mum hugged my arm whilst I was mid hair ruffle. And she looked at me the way I look at them.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about parental love: what it is now, how it might change over the years, and what it’s really for. I’ve been preoccupied by the weight of my love for the little Knights. The weight of my worry for them like a vast anglo-saxon góld-hòrd. Worry is the currency of my love, because worry is just what I do, and how love manifests itself in Kate-world. Worry for how they are now, how they will be in the future. I hope my worry-love doesn’t weigh them down – I am so used to living this way that the gold and jewels of concern anchor, rather than tether me. But I try hard not to pass the weight to them because little shorts have such small pockets, and carrying treasure around would make it very hard to climb the highest trees and slide down the sheerest drops. Knights (or even cnihts) need to travel light and fast, accompanied only by gossamer armour and weapons of their own choosing.

My parents have the same treasure-house of love for me. It has never weighed me down. But realising how limitless this parental store of treasure is has been one of the best parts of becoming a grown-up. I think I started to get it when I was about 23, about the same time I started seeing dirt and recognising the necessity of housework. Before then I was entirely self-centered. Entirely. Parents were a blurry backdrop, an irritation, available to take things from and argue with when needed. They remembered my birthday, I forgot theirs. But slowly, slowly over my twenties they became people as well as parents. Formed human beings with actual features and personalities. Then I had my own children and suddenly I could see right inside their góld-hòrds. Could anyone love anything as much as I loved Oscar and Isaac? Aha. That is how they love me. And how completely, unspeakably crap it must be for them to watch me labour with the Nuisance. I know they would have it instead of me in an instant if they could. And how sure I am that that losing a child is the worst that can be in the world. There is a horror, an unnaturalness which compels me to read and think about it, and to remember that how I would feel is how my mum feels and her mum before her, and before her, stretching back into the pre-history of Grosses. In my readings I came across The still point of the turning world, a story written by a friend of a friend whose little boy died of a degenerative disease. She writes like an angel and the book will stay with me forever. Read it, or some of her blog, because it’s the real deal in every way.

But what is the treasure house of love for? I have lots of unanswered questions about how it will feel to love a child of 10, 20, 30, 40 or more. Mum tells me it changes and instinctively I know the treasure house will offer up different bits of its vast hoard at different times. But I have answered the question of what it is for for the under-fours to my satisfaction. Being surrounded by this golden love provides security, even before a child can register their surroundings at all. It is what makes my Knights confident in their world. It is like gold in their banks to draw on for the rest of their lives. Even if the Mummy-Master of the góld-hòrd isn’t there forever, the bank accounts remain full of the gold checked in early on. That knowledge has been an inspiration and a comfort to me and I know to others in even graver positions than I. Realising that all children don’t have this is such a profoundly sad thing.

Billy had a conversation with his Dad about parent-love when the boys were born. Billy’s wise, wise Dad. He said to Billy that a parent’s love was like a ball. It got passed on to each generation. But the ball only went one way – from parent to child, to parent to child. You don’t expect to get the ball passed back to you by your own kids in this particular game. Yes, of course we love our parents. We need them (however old we get, we always need them), we adore them. But it is just a different kind of love to the sort you give a child. And as parents, our job is to pass the ball forward not hang around waiting to get it back in the same form.

But that doesn’t mean that we thirty-something in-betweeners, we who are both breeders and children can’t say thank you when we realise just how big the ball is, how rich the parental treasure house. So, for Billy and for me, how lucky we are to have been loved so much. The gold in the bank of all that love when we were small and now we are grown, and what it has let us be and accomplish. I wish so much I could promise to repay my Mum and Dad by wiping their incontinent old bottoms, grilling doctors and holding their memories together when they begin to fray (or smuggling them to Dignitas so they can be put down together like a pair of old dogs, as they threaten). I’ll be there if I possibly can. It’s the least I can do.


Some extra words of explanation..

When I was at university I spent many hours studying anglo-saxon poetry (eg the Wanderer). At the time I thought it was utterly thankless. But since, I have realised how the poems populated my word-bank and formed my mental landscape. And now very often when I search for a word I find myself wanting an anglo-saxon compound. Bone-house for my body, góld-hòrd for treasure house and so on. Me and Gerald Manley Hopkins both, though of course he was a complete GENUIS and I am rather less so. Anyway, it finally came in handy, so thank you to the late, great Professor Malcolm Parkes for teaching me so patiently.

For those wanting actual news of me: I started chemo 2 weeks ago and have just had round 2. The foxhole beckons with its usual joys, but so too do intermittent hospitalisations to keep the risk of infection from my still-healing liver at bay. We’ll keep you posted.



May 24, 2013 / Kate Gross

Bring on the foxes?

I’ve been putting off writing because I’m still in limbo. And I like to write my blogs like bookends, when I know what’s what and what’s next. Uncertainty I can live with, with but writing about it sucks. So I write when I have control (or as much as I can muster). I hate communicating whilst in suspended animation, because I feel like I have nothing to express but hopes and fears. And if I express hopes, surely that jinxes them, just as buying 2 for 1 suntan lotion at the start of May buggered the weather for the month?

My limbo is waiting to start chemotherapy whilst my liver heals, whilst we determine whether these pools of fluid where chunks of tumour were removed are or aren’t going to get infected and become septic abscesses once my defences are weakened by the foxes. This is the subject of some debate between my panoply of doctors in Cambridge, the Marsden and Houston. Who knows who is right. In the mean time I’ve psyched myself up for the return of the Fox. I’m ready for it. I want it. But every time I’ve got myself down to the Marsden poised to open my veins, the doctors say no. So there has been much frustrated weeping, swearing and sitting around, all the while with the painful knowledge that I need the chemo – and soon – to nuke any remaining cancer cells swimming around my body. And until I start the chemo I can’t think about finishing it, can’t allow myself to think about what might happen after that and the life I might resume. These last few months of nuisance-time have become more tedious, miserable and stressful than expected, and induced in me a whole new level of boring solipsism.

I am trying to see silver linings in the May storm clouds. There is a benefit to my current, circular stasis. I am feeling pretty good. Better than I have since the brief window of wellness before the operation and after chemo. I have bought the boys undying devotion by taking them to Legoland and doing up their bedroom (now a small boy symphony of bunk beds, castles and Tintin posters). The three of us have bonded again and I’m pretty confident I’ve found my way out of that particular labyrinth, and regained my rightful position as top dog in the family. Despite the boys telling me that “Dad’s the Decider”, I know better. Larkin has receded and been replaced by run-of-the-mill grumpiness, which is reassuringly familiar. I’ve started painting the walls, there being nothing like beginning a massive DIY project to bring on chemo, I hope, leaving me to spend the next three months looking critically at a job half-done. Worry about my insides has been displaced by a new obsession with my outsides, specifically my face: eyelashes have been extended, eye-brows manicured, and my tired thirty-something skin has been subjected to potions which have sat in my bathroom cabinet for years (note: obsession hasn’t yet equalled successful transformation to Carey Mulligan). I’ve summoned up the emotional energy to watch Les Mis, and been surprisingly bored by it (though Jackman’s guns delivered a superb performance). I’ve had plenty of time to finally read some of the books you’ve sent me. Nourishing my mind with a book of silence (thank you Milly) and my romantic heart with stories of love on the Nile in Upper Egypt and in Blitzed London. And, for another post, reading whatever I can find in poetry and prose about illness. Surprisingly little, it seems. But that is a subject for another day…

But today I’m not feeling very lyrical. So excuse me if I just post some recent photos, if nothing else to show that life is going on at 47 Ross St and grumpiness has been punctuated by quite a lot of cool stuff.

At Legoland

Making a transformer cake with Dad

4th Birthday Party

With Billy just before his triumph in the Wimpole 10k

April 22, 2013 / Kate Gross

Little tousled heads, so far away

This is going to be a hard one to write. But I hope that plumbing the depths a bit further will drain some of my self-pity if not these wretched abscesses. Larkin is still in the ascendancy (incidentally, did my public service blog remind you of Lesley Knope? The old Toad says givitarest, do-gooding Pollyanna). I am rather cross with my mood for still being black. I mean REALLY, there are people who survive so much worse without self-identifying with smelly old Librarians who themselves had nothing much to complain about. Hello, victims of brutal sexual violence, disease, hunger, loss in Eastern DRC. Hello people of Syria. Hello lady in the bed by the window who hasn’t looked up in 6 days.

But anyway, back to me, me, me. I wrote in my last post about pain standing between me and mummyhood : rather a recurring theme. It was March 20th that I last acted like the parent I want to be. That is a long time ago. Now, lets be honest. I wouldn’t win any mothering prizes at the best of times. I’m slapdash, lazy, like my children best when they are having “quiet time”, swoop in for the glory and kisses and leave Billy to rule the naughty step and clean their teeth. But I take my lackadaisical mothering very seriously. I do it with energy. I love my little Barbarians messily, with fervour and a passionate commitment to exploring worlds both real and imaginary. I’m no longer the Deputy Director of Parks and Paperclips because all of my remaining fervour is required with them at home.

This last long month of hospitalisation* has been a Labyrinth which has always seemed to leave me on one side of a tall hedge and Oscar and Isaac on the other. At first the operation made the hedge impenetrably thick. And I didn’t care. I was too far gone with pain and the crazy meds to be able to communicate with anyone, even my best beloveds. But as the pain receded and the exhaustion settled in I could communicate quietly, gently, with grown ups who gave more than they took. Billy and my parents walked quietly down the path with me and I have never felt more grateful for their company or closer to them. But though I saw their little tousled heads run past me in my dreams, during the day Oscar and Isaac remained out of my reach. With every false start when I left hospital they got a bit closer. But the idea of them was easier than the reality. Barbarians and delicate invalids don’t mix. After fifteen minutes of having Transformers shoved in my face I would give up and retreat to a darkened room. And now – despite this latest incarceration – I feel my stamina growing. I feel closer to the mummy I want to be than I have for along time. But though I’m in touching distance I’m not there yet, and this is perhaps the most frustrating time of all. To want so desperately to play pirates, to tell stories, to have a proper cuddle (without hotly crying down their backs, though at least they are oblivious to my inconveniently timed tears).

I know what you wise people will say to this. I have to give myself time, and be patient. But what if time is the thing I don’t have? As always, my present frustration and sadness is rooted in a bigger fear, a sort of looming Larkin, that this is somehow How Life Will Be. That the good times will recede and recede to nothing and Oscar and Isaac will only remember poorly, labyrinth mummy, not the energetic, disorganised, loving, fun mummy I know I really am. Rather like I look at my elderly ward mates and can’t imagine them ever being young and fit and well, like Dad’s Dad was to me always poorly Grandpa despite having been a vigorous type and general business dynamo.

There is a practical side to this worry. My long month of liver-related yuck now looks to be bleeding into forthcoming chemo yuck. The feeling that the good times are squeezed. I don’t know if I will get to be the Mummy I want – much store is being set on the uber-holiday in August (before then, the Legoland birthday trip is looking shaky..). I spend a lot of time trying to think what it must be like to be nearly four and to go through all this. The boys adjust to a new normal so quickly, and can be distracted from most things by weaponising robots and ice cream. They haven’t learnt how to worry yet. So Mum’s in hospital? Does her bed go up and down REALLY high there? Maybe this is my problem, not theirs, after all – I just can’t bear for this to be their new normal. I hope it won’t be, and that we’ll look and feel more like the family I love so much soon.

* I’m back in hospital – in Cambridge, at least – once again incarcerated by abscesses, temperatures and pain.

April 9, 2013 / Kate Gross

Glum Girl

Hello from super-size me land. I’m pleased to report a very successful operation: I now have 20 percent less liver than I did a month ago. Inside that twenty percent lurked at least 6 tumours, nuked by the chemo but undead, like little cancerous zombies waiting to do me in when my back was turned. Having had the operation gives me a coins-toss chance of a complete cure from the Nuisance, odds I never really thought possible 6 months ago. So I write to share good news. Really, the best news I could hope to bring you right now. And yet, and yet, for some reason I am glum, and I write to share that too.

Glum because I went into the Operating Room One person and seemed to come out quite another. Those foul foxes sucked all the strength out of me and this operation was no cakewalk. I’m not the same person who was running on beaches 48 hours before having the Nuisance chopped out of her bottom bits last October. I’m a weaker, frailer, tireder person. A bit of an old crone really. So the operation brought pain. Real, screamy, sweary pain like I had never had before. Crazy drugs which gave me hallucinations and made me shout at the doctors (poor, embarrassed Billy). Infection which took me back into hospital 2 days after I’d got out. And with all this physical stuff came a mental dislocation from myself, which I find more disconcerting than anything. Can’t talk. Can’t read. Can’t watch tv. Can’t write. At its very worst the pain seems to form a barrier between me and the world so I look at my boys and they seem so far away that I can’t possibly be their mummy properly ever again.

Glum, also, because of Houston. Sorry, Texas, but I’m just not feeling it. What an ingrate I am. The weather rocks! I’ve had truly world class care from some of the nicest, most impressive medics I’ve ever met. I like them, I’d trust them with my life again any day. In my private room I didn’t have to cope with the sadness of expectorating geriatrics on top of everything else. I like guacamole and TexMex food. Here was a damn good choice. But when it comes down to it, there is no place like home and Houston ain’t it. I don’t miss our endless winter but I do miss 47 Ross st. A restorative walk round the Backs. Familiar faces popping in to see me. And since Billy and the boys decamped home on Friday, them. More than anything. How lucky I have been to have my whole family here for so long to cheer me and steer me through the worst of it.

And I suspect glum, really, because I don’t know what happens next. In a literal sense, the path is clear. I come home, have another 3 months of chemo and then go on an awesome summer holiday. But what then? What has the Nuisance got up its sleeve next? Dead as a Dodo or just sleeping for a while? Now that there is a real possibility of life without the Nuisance I am suddenly more scared than I ever was before of it. I think because the last few months have really shown me about illness. I get it now. I have a healthy fear of what it does, and most of all how it stops you from being you. Frankly, I don’t know how we all manage to live with this shadow beside us all the time, because it will happen to all of us soon enough. I wonder if perhaps I am turning into Philip Larkin? This gloomy me is not the person I am used to being. But I trust that PollyAnna will return, somewhere between the 59th Freeway North and Cambridgeshire, or when my right shoulder straightens up and I lose my wizened crone walk, or perhaps when I finish this blog and decide my brain isn’t under anaesthetic any more. Or when I realise that I am back to normal because all I want to do is devour Thatcher obituaries and articles about her handbags (really, there is no denying she was a stylish dame). Or when I finish the ubiquitous and yet super exciting thriller sent by Cruffy to pass my time here. Or when I walk arm in arm with my parents under the shade of Texan Live Oaks and feel connected to them, nature and the world again. Or when I have a cuddle with my boys and feel the reassuring blanket of home cover me and remind me that whatever happens, all will be well, and all will be well, and all will be well. Because though I can lose myself to pain and grey for a while, I know I will be back, and you will all be there.

March 7, 2013 / Kate Gross

In praise of public service

In my old life, my role was to shape a state – and later, states – ability to respond to what their people need. But things are topsy-turvy, and now I am the grateful recipient of the state’s offerings, as a patient, Cambridge city resident, and as a mother of soon-to-be school boys. Before, it was my job but it wasn’t about my life. Too young, too privileged. But I knew why I was doing it, if only in the abstract, and I used to carry the story of the Happy Prince in my head to remind myself that behind each jewel on the statue there was a person’s story, just as in my work there were people not statistics on the end of the decisions I was helping to make.

Then I started AGI, and I didn’t need the Happy Prince because the stories were up close and personal. The student I met at the National University of Rwanda who told me how he hid in the forest for months after his family were killed in the genocide, how he emerged and was sponsored through school by a kindly foreigner, about his dreams for the future and for his hilly, beautiful country. Kadie, who helped our very first AGI teams get themselves settled in Freetown, showing us what to buy in the market and how to get the aircon fixed, who died when she was younger than me, of godknowswhat, leaving a seven year old boy behind – and how this wasn’t abnormal in a country where you are beating the odds if you reach your fifties. Albert, our driver in Liberia who had lived through the war there, and is now just trying to build a life for his family, whose wife wants to start a sewing business and whose kids want an education and a decent job. None of this is about politics. It’s about people needing to be able to rely on the system around them to protect in times of uncertainty and to provide for their needs. And now, in my limited way I can understand this even more clearly. The desire to protect your kids, especially when your own future is uncertain. The need for financial security for your family. What it feels like to be dependent on people, to need so much from others. How the shadow of loss can shape a family and the decisions you take. As I’ve said before, I’m abundantly clear that hardship is a spectrum and we are at one, exceptionally privileged, lucky and well-supported end. But I see the whole of that spectrum more clearly now, nonetheless.

All of this has been percolating away in my mind for the past few months. But this week it’s at the top of my mind because I’ve decided to step away from my old job at AGI permanently, so the organisation can appoint a new CEO. The people who need me most are under this roof, and my treatment path and my future are too uncertain to keep things in stasis. There is too much going on at AGI and in Africa to wait for me. I am so proud and happy to have spent the last five years building an organisation which has my beliefs about public service at its heart. An organisation full of people who look for the stories behind statistics to motivate them as they support some of the most fragile countries in the world, and help these countries provide public goods themselves rather than relying on outsiders to do the job of building roads or curing the sick or educating the young. Of course, there is so much I am missing and will miss about my work. Most of all, the feeling of hot sun and the inimitable smell of elsewhere when I get off the plane in Juba, Freetown, Kigali or wherever. Seeing those I now call friends who carry the responsibility of government there, and being energised by the wonderful people of AGI who work alongside them. AGI is too dear to me to step away forever, and though I am pretty sure it would bust our fundraising targets to insure me to travel to Africa with the nuisance in tow, I hope to get back to work in some smallish way in the Autumn, probably irritating Nick and the gang with some back-seat driving.

I’m not really thinking about the long-term future. It seems too much like tempting fate. But I am so sure now that even administrators can feeling a calling. If I have a vocation, public service is it. Here in the UK. Out in the world. Government is a fact of life, a necessity everywhere. It can be done well and it can be done badly. Where it is badly done, the weakest and the poorest suffer most, and that single fact animates me most of all. But we pushers of paper, desk jockeys, bureaucrats, mandarins, eminence grises don’t have a trade. We are masters of the general, of the finely written minute, of action and reaction, of complexity, of taking decisions, of making things happen, of creating something from nothing, and of caring whether it works or not, and who it works for. These are things I am proud of, though they are not fashionable, as my former big boss Gus said on the radio this week. So I will spend the next wee while in my own small state, the principality of 47 Ross St, making sure that the weak and vulnerable (Billy, who the boys beat up every day) are well cared for, there is a part of me that will hope to return to a bigger stage one day.

Post script – read Sul’s story which is everything I mean above and more about the places and people we work with :

February 28, 2013 / Kate Gross

News from your own correspondent, Foxymoron

3 months and 6 cycles of fox down, I had a scan last week to see what’s what with my not-so-golden insides. Some good news at last: the foxes are doing their job. Tumours are shrinking. All being well, family Gross-Boyle will be travelling en masse to super-size me land next month for the operation to chop the nuisance out of my liver. More chemo will follow after that (but as they say where we’re heading, tomorrow is another day, so I will be O’Hara-ish and worry about that when I’m feeling stronger).


This is about the best news we could hope for at this stage. It is doubly good because the foxes are so relentlessly horrible that if they hadn’t also been doing their job, I would have been beyond miserable. And now that I have a break from chemo I have enough distance to describe the feeling of being chased down the foxhole. I thought it might be cathartic for me to have a massive, bloggy moan about it, and helpful for anyone with friends or family in the same boat. Those with a weak constitution, look away now.


My sort of chemo happens once a fortnight. Here’s how it rolls.


Days 1-3. The fox triplets, oxaliplatin, irinotecan and 5FU are “infused” into my bloodstream over 3 days. Infused is the kind of misnomer which populates oncology. It sounds like a calming herbal remedy being absorbed by osmosis into a serene patient (who is probably reading zen poetry and chanting contentedly). The reality is 7 hours in hospital having toxins pumped into you by a bleeping machine surrounded people older, balder and surely sicker than me. This is followed by 2 days at home wearing a mini-pump in a tasteful nylon bum-bag. During this period my food intake is limited to bread, cheese, tomato soup, sweet potatoes and foxes glacier fruits (I admit the name has a pleasing symmetry for me, but they also take away the dull taste of metal in my mouth). Normal food repels me. It is a cruel echo of how I felt when pregnant, right down to dry heaving whenever the mood takes me. Which is often. But the concoction of anti-nausea drugs and steroids pep me up and though I feel sick, I still feel like me.


Days 4-5. The drugs end, both foxes and counter-foxes. I see why steroids can be addictive. Suddenly my world is sucked of colour, like I’ve gone from Oz to Kansas. I turn in on myself and speaking, even thinking become too much. I am tired, but not the kind of tired that sleep helps. And because the foxes are working their hardest on cells which renew themselves most often, I am dry like the Sahara in nose, mouth and eye. I wake up in the middle of the night feeling like a desiccated coconut. My nerve endings are screwed and I feel the cold like little electric shocks in my fingers, toes, nose and mouth, making excursions in this endless winter painful. I get my appetite back, at least for steak and kidney pie with ketchup which tastes like heaven. But my main human interaction is still with the hosts of A Place in the Sun: Home or Away. This is depressing on so many levels.


Days 6-8. I sometimes wonder if the foxes are at their most potent in my digestive system. I imagine things down there like a game of pacman, with the foxes ruthlessly hunting down the nuisance. And for the advanced player, enter level 4: the gut zone. Here the foxes are armed with some kind of nuclear weaponry. Billy and I lie on the sofa watching House of Cards as I produce gases which would be lethal to a lesser man.


Day 8-9: Very gradually I start to feel myself again. The fog lifts. A glimmer of technicolor shoots across the grey Kansas sky. But then the last laugh of the foxes: a migraine appears, regular as clockwork. But this is a known quantity. I have the drugs (and I don’t have a brain tumour. They’ve checked). But I’m wiped out for another 2 days by the triptans doing their amazing work.


Day 10-13. Good days. Good in the way you feel after a vicious bout of food poisoning. I’m relieved beyond measure that my body does what I expect, and my head is clear and able to think again. Consumed with energy, but my body is scarred by the trauma it has just been through. And I find these chemo-scars hard to shake off. My poor subconscious is so traumatised by the toxic foxes that as soon as I see, smell or think about chemotherapy, hospitals, my medicines or anything related to the above (including the arrival of the poor district nurse), I’m sick. Inconvenient. So now I have added hypnotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy to my smorgasbord of treatments. Because it is the only way I can get myself back into hospital for day 14, when the foxes start over again. And because I need to reassert my conscious over my subconscious, and remind it that whilst the foxes are grim they are giving me a future.


Thank you for bearing with my moan. And thank you for the help you are giving me when I’m down the foxhole. Thanks for the meals cooked, the quiet but enlivening company, the sunny walks, the boy-looking after, the distracting and hilarious emails, the scented candles and silk dressing gown, the chauffeur service, the DVD-choosing and watching. All of these are little lifelines and so very much appreciated.




February 10, 2013 / Kate Gross

Legally Wed, Part the First (I suspect)


For many years I have inwardly mocked my friends who tell me that their wedding day was the happiest of their lives. No longer! It appears that one cliché is indeed true. Yesterday was completely magical, and to prolong my wedding high I wanted to share with you the words I said in mine, the first of our speeches. Whilst not delivered as elegantly as I’d like (constricted by my spanx and having had an intimate sicky moment with one of Voewood’s 101 toilets seconds before), they are words which formed in my head pretty much as soon as I got out of hospital last October, and so I’ve been saving them up to share for quite a while. Plus some photos which I have nicked from facebook (thanks Chris!), and of what may be my favourite wedding present, all the way from Sweet Salone. So whilst there may be sad, bad, foxy and folorn times ahead, for the moment wherever you are reading this raise a glass to the Boyle-Grosses, Gross-Boyles, Groyles, or indeed the Boss family. And especially to Oscar who spared Billy and I the humiliating shuffle that would have been our first dance by spectacularly vomiting all over us and the dance-floor through sheer excitement and exhaustion. Hurrah!


There isn’t much which is orthodox about our wedding today, so I know you won’t be surprised to see me standing up to make the first speech to welcome you. So, welcome. We are so pleased to be here today with you all. There are of course lots of things about today that aren’t as I imagined. But when we thought about my wedding day, the one thing that both Billy and I would always have wanted is all of you here to wish us well and to support us in our married life. So thank you for coming all this way, from Ireland, Canada, France, Egypt, Lebanon and London, and thank you to so many grandparents for looking after your kids tonight. And especially big thanks to you wonderful people who have made today happen at short notice and when I couldn’t do much myself. To Jenny for being in charge of everything from music to pudmin and for being my rock. To Kirsten for doing the beautiful flowers. To Annabel and Sarah for being my stylists. To Jo and Jussi for designing the order of service. To Claire for our stunning wedding cake, and to Nadia and Elen for taking our photos and video. We are blessed to have so many talented friends able to do so much to make our special day so perfect.


I wanted to speak tonight not just to prove the point of equality in the Gross-Boyle marriage but also because there are three things I wanted to get on the record in front of you all. These three things have been going round my head since I woke up after my operation in October – and gestating for a long, long time before then.


First, I wanted to say something about my wonderful friends. Over the past 20 years I have managed to gather around me some remarkable, clever, kind and beautiful women, and of course Dave. So especially to my Keble coven, I want raise a glass. Girls, you are the very best thing I that came out of Oxford since Cambridge.


Second, I wanted to talk about my mum and dad. They have somehow managed to pull off the trick of being my dear friends as well as my parents, and the best bonma and bonma Oscar and Isaac could want. You gave Jo and I a sense of wonder at the world, a desire to explore it. And you gave us empathy for people with lives which were very different, and so often so much harder than our own. I will never forget the things you showed me: a mongoose eating a snake by the creek in Dubai, the Living Goddess in Kathmandu, the swimming pool carved out of rock at Les Marecottes. If I can pass this gift of wonder at the world on to Oscar and Isaac it will be the very best thing I do.


Finally I wanted to talk about my darling Billy. I have a lot to say but time is tight so I will save the long version for my blog. The short version is this. I first met Billy when Ian invited him to the house Tammy, Jenny and I shared to play poker one night. We met in the hallway as I exited the loo. I looked at him and thought, first, he was the most handsome man I had ever seen, and second, that somehow I recognised him as someone I had always known. That moment was the closest I have come to being in the movies. It was nine and a half years ago, and I have loved him more and more with every day we’ve spent together since then. As well as being beautiful to look at Billy is the person I most respect in the world. His intellectual curiosity and his quest for self-improvement are a constant source of inspiration and challenge to me. He is kind, thoughtful and steady like the very best kind of Jane Austen hero. He is a wonderful and patient dad who will teach the Oscar and Isaac everything they need to know about both maths and manliness. But most of all, he is my Billy. And everything I am and all I have done is because of him. I love you Billy – Cheers!









January 30, 2013 / Kate Gross

Twice as nice

I am writing this because across the Atlantic, in a hilly city by the sea, a lady I like very much has just had twins. So this post is not about cancer. It’s about that other cliché in my life, my double trouble, two’s a handful, twice as nice little blessings, and how we survived the first few years with them.


When I found out I was pregnant with twins I was petrified. A first time mum, with no idea how to care for one infant let alone two at the same time. I was ill prepared, especially for the deluge of cliché to come my way. Pregnant with twins equalled, in my case at least, vast like a mountain-side. People would stop and gawp in the street as I lumbered through Cambridge that hot April. “Twins is it?”, they would ask, apropos of nothing much. And then when they arrived, scrunched-up and alien-faced, the double buggy was peered into unceremoniously. “You’ve got your hands full”, people would helpfully comment as I levered one baby off my giant boob whilst burping the other in Starbucks. Sometimes the unwelcome interruptions were actually lifelines. Other mothers of twins – and the amazing woman I met I the Botanics with triplet boys – provided light at the end of my bleary tunnel telling me that really, after a year it all got easier and by the time they were toddlers they would play so nicely together. And they were right. So now, nearly four years in, I feel equipped to dole out some advice to my friend over the sea*.


I am obsessed with sleep. Always have been. But never more than when I was being woken every hour or two to feed a squalling baby. Then I became a frantic purchaser of baby sleep literature, trawling Amazon for, alternately, a plan to discipline the little buggers into sleep, Ferber-style, or something to soothe my conscience and tell me it was totally FINE for me to sleep on a giant mattress between two thirsty little boys, rolling alternately between them offering the soporific power of boob. After much angst I came to the conclusion that if a baby is a good sleeper then they will get there in the end. About 10 months in Oscar’s case. And if they carry the awake gene, like Isaac, then they will still be bothering you at 2am years later for a “tuck in”, to soothe a nightmare, or just to tell you that Oscar stole their sweetie at nursery. If I had to do it again, I’d put them in separate rooms earlier and rope Billy in for some leaving-them-to-howl training at, oh, about 6 months. Yep, and got them on the bottle earlier too, at least so that someone else could feed them night or day. And I’d stop worrying about it so much, because in the greater scheme of things the sleepless bit is a blink of the eye.


We must have spent nearly as much on twin paraphernalia as we will on our forthcoming nuptials. Our most useless purchases included: a side-by-side buggy that didn’t fit through the front door, meaning we had to wake the little screechers when we got to the house. A twin sling, costing a princely 120 quid. By the time it was safe for them to go in it their combined weight was approximately one car battery (too much for Billy if not for me). An inflatable breast-feeding cushion you cold strap to your front so you pranced around like the QE2. ‘Sleep Bear’, whose white noise was supposed to pacify infants into dreamland. Pah! All, all, failures. But we did make better investments. Various bouncy chairs which kept one child pacified (stupefied?) by vibrations whilst the other fed. TVs for the back of the car (plus early TV training: MoTs, remember the television is your friend, and the iPad your saviour..) A decent one-in-front of the other buggy which meant I could actually walk down Cambridge’s narrow pavements and through shop doorways. A room divider which penned the roaming infants in safely so I could go upstairs to the loo. A lovely doula who looked after the boys for a few hours most mornings so I could sleep (in retrospect a nanny would have been cheaper and better, but hey, what matters here is throwing cash at the problem by getting yourself help from whatever source you can, and as often as you can).


I am making it sound like an unmitigated nightmare. Let’s be honest, those magical first few months are as horrendous as they are joyful for lots of new parents, twins or not. I was kept emotionally afloat on a wave of oxytocin from my almost-constant breast feeding. God knows how Billy managed. But, just like those other MoTs told me it would, it got easier. Easier at 6 months, when they could hold a bottle themselves. At one when they could walk and get what they wanted rather than me fetching it. Easier when they could feed themselves (my advice here is to go for baby-led weaning. If you are going to get messy, why not get really messy?) Easier still at 18 months when the tractor obsession kicked in and they would be enthralled by live-streamed farm action from Wiltshire (thanks for everything, Tractor Ted) . And by two, biting had ceased to be the main mode of communication, and they had begun to play side by side. So boredom doesn’t happen in our house. And now, what could be better than hearing Oscar say to Isaac “come on, let’s play knights”” as they bundle off together in the park. Other children love them. Two playmates! How exciting. And they can share, cooperate and negotiate (you can have a lick of my ice cream if I can have a bit of yours) better than any pre-schoolers I know. And for Billy and I – well, we’ve truly been partners in this. We know how we hang under stress, which is pretty useful training for the Nuisance. Whether or not he intended it, Billy is a 50/50 dad because necessity demanded it (possibly 60/40, as he does all the crap bits like tooth-brushing and early mornings and I just swoop in for the glory). And now that the tough bit is over (at least till they hit 13), we wouldn’t have it any other way. Double the Transformers! Double the accidents and trips to A&E! Double the glove-putting-on in cold weather! Double the love.


*with apologies to the five or six other vastly more impressive twin mums I know who I suspect will be reading this and thinking I am a complete wuss because I didn’t have a toddler or another baby on my hands At The Same Time. Much respect to you, ladies.

p.s. I’m off down the foxhole again tomorrow. Back in 10 days. Hopefully. Bleurgh.

January 23, 2013 / Kate Gross

Bad verse, and a new chemo haircut

Tell me I look like Anne Hathaway,

Tell me this snow in my head will lift someday,

Or find me a small boat to go far away

To a place where poems scan again, and the weather’s fine again, and life is normal-sized again.

Tell me I look like Michelle from Dawson’s creek

That will make me feel less bleak

And help me style my crop to make it chic

And we’ll go out and drink red wine, and I’ll feel fine, and write better rhyme

Tell me I look like Emma Watson

Then clear my head of all this flotsam

Which is just debris from the toxic storms

And then we’ll got to a beautiful place and sit quietly, just you and me.

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