How Kate Gross left an extraordinarily beautiful legacy for her Belfast-born husband and twin boys
The former aide to Tony Blair and CEO of a charity packed a great deal into her too short life, including penning an outstanding memoir.
It is after a poem by Raymond Carver that Kate Gross named her book, Late Fragments. "Did you get what you wanted?" They are words you hear a lot at this time of year, as children go back to school and compare their Christmas hordes. Kate's five-year-old twins, Oscar and Isaac, (by her Belfast-born husband Billy), her "darling, consumerist selfish little boys" as she cheerfully called them in her final piece of writing, did get what they wanted, in a sense.
The plastic Minecraft figures she wrote of having "bought under duress" as she prepared for her final Christmas were there under the tree.
Eventually, they will find out that their main present, however, is the quite remarkable book their mother has left them. "There are two copies of this book that matter," she has written on its opening page.
"There are two pairs of eyes I imagine reading every word. There are two adult hands which I hope will hold a battered paperback when others have long forgotten me and what I have to say."
This article began life as a simple book review, which I had hoped would be published in time for Kate to read. But she died on Christmas Day, aged 36, a few minutes before Oscar and Isaac came running down the stairs asking, "Is it morning?", and two years after discovering that she had colon cancer.
Among the first people to pay tribute to her was Tony Blair. She had worked at 10 Downing Street as his Private Secretary for Parliamentary and Home Affairs while still in her twenties. A more unlikely source of praise to emerge has been Damian McBride, the most ultra-loyal Gordon Brownite there is.
"The best and brightest firework on Bonfire Night," he wrote last week. "She was utterly brilliant, almost mesmerising in her command of the facts and of Gordon's brain, and reduced the rest of us - the supposed experts in working with the man - to stunned silence on the sidelines."
I never saw her in action, not like that anyway. I only have a few facts to place the scale of her prodigious talents in some sort of context. I was living with my Belfast-born friend Billy, who would become her husband, when they first met 12 years ago. She would have been 25 at the time. Already among her tasks was to write the Queen's speech for the state opening of Parliament.
If memory serves, it would have been that year that she found herself having to organise some sort of Christmas party for her team. It was not proving straightforward.
The year before, the previous head had invited everyone round for dinner at her large home in the countryside, which is where people who run things in Downing Street tend to live.
Kate, on the other hand, was in her mid-twenties and dividing her time between a flat with her mates, somewhere near Clapham, I believe, and our place in north London. We were a collection of four student doctors, plus various other hangers-on such as Billy and I in a huge suburban house, fortuitously made available by the timely demise of one of our number's very elderly granny.
And in the garden there was Matt, an entirely unreconstructed Neil from The Young Ones, who had been forced to curtail his travels round India selling jewellery made of hemp after contracting a rare, debilitating form of diarrhoea, and was living temporarily in our back garden in his Mongolian nomadic desert tent, occasionally sending stool samples to specialists in tropical medicine.
This was the environment in which New Labour's plans were translated into Royal voice.
It's possible that our house was even suggested as a location for this Christmas meal, which in the end I believe took place at a restaurant in Chinatown.
"Did you get what you wanted from this life?" The obvious answer, in Kate's case, is no. What she wanted was to watch her boys grow up. But the reason that she did so much and achieved so much in such a short time, at least as far as I can tell, is that she would never have phrased the question to herself quite in this way.
Most children are consumerist and selfish in their own endearing way, but so too are most adults. Kate was not.
Back in the early 2000s when she left Oxford, the banks, the consultancies and the law firms had the place practically on lockdown, vacuuming up the type of people who were out to get what they wanted. Kate would have been a prized acquisition. She became comically exasperated over the last year, she said, of "people using the news of my early demise as a chance to beatify me". But certainly she was more interested in what she had to give.
As the founder and CEO of the Africa Governance Initiative, of which Tony Blair was patron, she was acutely aware that, had she not been ill, she would have spent much of the last year in Sierra Leone where an early and more agonising demise has met so many people, and created so many orphans.
At the start of her book, she even repeats a surprising question that someone once asked her: "What was the best thing cancer had given me?"
She wrote of a "feeling of being alive, awake", a sudden sense of perspicacity. Of how the words that now make up the book suddenly came pouring out. Anyone who knew her, both before she became ill and after, quickly came to realise she had the truest form of intelligence there is. That power to see just that little bit further than most people, to bring clarity to an idea or to a conversation that for most other people had begun to blur on the boundaries of their horizon.
For everyone else, the best thing Kate's cancer has given us is her words. Late Fragments is not merely about living and dying at far too young an age. It is about the joy of family and friends, of falling in love. It is the story of a truly remarkable person in her own remarkable voice, seen and expressed with a depth of which few are capable. Had she lived the long and extraordinary life she was destined for, it is a tale she might have shared only with her grandchildren, if anyone at all.
Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You (About This Magnificent Life), by Kate Gross, is out now, William Collins, £14.99
'I want my sons to care where they came from'
Among the many things that Kate Gross wrote about on her blog, what inspired the most passion in her words, were her Belfast-born husband Billy and her twin sons.
"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," she said of her feelings towards her other half in the wake of her cancer diagnosis.
She also reflected on how their relationship had evolved from its early days when they met as 24-year-olds: "Walking back from dinner last weekend, I briefly saw our younger selves careering down the street to a party, laughing, carrier bags of booze in hand. I wondered with a mixture of nostalgia and sadness where those days went. For me at least, the desire to party all night dissipated somewhere along with the nappies and the jobs and the move to cosy, quiet Cambridge."
She also spoke of the impact her illness would have on their relationship: "Outwardly, I know we look less like equals. I appear the dependent, the one who gets driven around, cooked for and generally molly-coddled. I am allowed lie-ins and get taken on nice outings.
"He is my talisman against the smells, the sounds, the vomit and the endless potential for bad news to arrive without warning."
Her husband's Irish roots also made her think deeply about the heritage and identity of their sons: "As the carrier of the boring old English bloodline, I often wonder what it means for my sons to be little Celts. Will they grow up feeling Irish? What does it mean to 'feel' Irish anyway? When we drive down the Falls Road from Billy's childhood home into town, we pass a mural depicting a spider's web leading to the famous black door of 10 Downing Street: a warning to those who collude with the oppressor. Will Oscar and Isaac carry Yeats' 'fanatic heart' beating somewhere deep inside them, or will they bear their history as lightly as their father and his have?
"I find myself wanting my sons to know where they have come from, and wanting them to care.
"For the boys, being Irish means being part of a pack. It means having a gang of kids to chase around with. It means funny accents, being swung from the feet by Uncle Colin and fed contraband goodies by their smiley Aunties. It means Dad's stories about how his best mate Paul Magee was stung by jeggy nettles climbing into 'The Base' in the bottom of the garden, or how he and his feral little mates were caught in the crossfire of rubber bullets during one hot marching season. It means holidays spotting seals in Strangford Lough and swimming in the clear, arctic waters off the Antrim coast as we dodge the horizontal rain showers. It means a diet of exotic carbohydrates like soda bread and massive, hard white baps stuffed with Worcestershire sauce crisps. For me, the whole thing is a glimpse into a delightful foreign world, a world which makes me feel uptight, straight-laced, and very, very English."