I first came across Kate Gross’s book in a women’s glossy about a year ago. I remember reading her mother Jean Gross’s heart breaking account of her death but also her description of the amazing way Kate had approached her life right through to the very end. She sounded like a woman I would have wanted to have known had I ever had the privilege. The book had me at its full title: Late Fragments: Everything I want to tell you about this magnificent life. Who doesn’t want someone’s version of that?
It’s hard to convey how powerful this book is. I listened to it on audiobook (my entertainment of choice during my walking commute) and the day I finished it (somewhere between Pret and Eat in Brighton – I don’t recommend finishing this in public) I walked into Waterstones and bought a hard copy to keep forever and dip into when I need reminding of how bloody lucky we all are. Jean Gross writes a beautiful postscript in the print version and you also get Kate’s list of “books which have shaped me” which you miss on audio.
Kate died from colon cancer at the age of 36 on Christmas Day 2014. She had five-year-old twin boys, a husband (“the best-looking man I’d ever kissed”), lots of close friends and a glittering, noble career in government. She was Tony Blair’s private secretary by her mifd twenties and later was invited to take a senior role at Blair’s African charity initiative – “changing the world one paperclip at a time”. She wrote the book when she knew her diagnosis was terminal (first as a blog), giving us an account of her life, her seminal moments growing up and what she’d come to know about living through the lucid lens of death.
It sounds morbid and no doubt it is sad but it’s also uplifting. So many times she describes the simple beauty of this earth – of looking up at nature and marvelling at it, of kissing people you love, of seeing friends and remarks upon how much she’ll miss doing those things, but also how blessed she is to have experienced them. There’s very little pity apart from the odd “you lucky sods” at those who will be left. No one can blame her.
She touches on subjects very close to home – friendships and how they suffer when you grow up, grow apart and have children. She talks of her love for the written word, her family, her university years that sound just like anyone else’s. She paints a rich life, but a real one too which is what makes it so poignant. It could be me, it could be you. She is pithy, she summarises the human condition so eloquently and is ever quotable. If I’d been reading the book rather than listening I would have done so with a highlighter pen to capture the way she puts things. Had she lived, I am sure she would have been a prolific writer of excellent books we would have all loved.
Finally, she asks us all, in her direct, poetic, couldn’t-be-further-from-a-cliché-way to live in the moment – “Because where can we live but days?”. Oh Kate.
She leaves with these commandments for life:
“Put your superhero glasses on…
Pay attention to the wonder all around you…
Always, always eat from your best crockery…
Get your dodgy bottoms checked out…
Be as grateful as I am that you love, and are beloved.”
Words to live by.
As Bronte said on reading her late mother’s letters: “I wish she had lived, and that I had known her.’
Thank you Kate.