It's every mother's greatest fear that she will have to leave her children. My daughter Kate Gross lived with that fear for more than two years, before she died of colon cancer a few weeks ago. I wish she was here now so I could tell her that the boys are getting on just fine.
Oscar and Isaac were three when Kate was first diagnosed. Twins, but very different little beings. Oscar dark-haired, violet-eyed, solid - and with an astonishing ability (in Kate's words) to 'focus on things, to know them utterly'. Isaac, blond and agile and restless. 'Each of them,' she says, 'carved out his own space in my heart, a space which fits him exactly.'
As a child, Kate became quite worried about the possibility of losing parents. 'Is she a 'norphan, Mummy?' she would ask, a question shaped by favourite books (The Little Princess, Ballet Shoes, The Secret Garden) and Disney movies (Bambi, Snow White). When she got cancer, she wrote to me about her fear for the boys. I replied, briskly:
a. It takes two to 'norphan, and they have the best dad in the world
b. They will have us, and will always be surrounded by a huge network of fabulous grown-
ups who are your friends
c. Children are ridiculously robust, and they quickly recover from anything if they are loved. They would not know how to pine, and will be hurling themselves around or Transforming (or whatever they will be doing in future) within a quite insensitive period of time
d. We all end up motherless sometime
e. You could remain forever in their minds as a golden Madonna rather than a potentially grumpy old cow.
I was, of course, as full of fear and anguish for the boys as she was.
We sought out stories from adults who had lost a parent as a child and were nevertheless happy and well-adjusted, stories of non-wicked stepmothers, stories of dead mothers who were forever remembered and never replaced in their children's hearts. There were many responses. I remember this one in particular:
My grandmother came to live with us when my mother was taken into hospital. Back then, there was no discussion and it was all a bit of a benign mystery and in truth a little exciting to have lots of people visiting. When we were told of her death it didn't seem so terrible - still there were people and fuss (and a party with lemonade in the sitting room with the curtains closed - this was high excitement), and what did it really mean? There was never, ever a sense that she had stopped being our mum or that my dad wasn't still married to her; just that she wasn't visible.
Over the next two years Kate did a great deal to make it as right for Oscar and Isaac as she could. She recorded herself reading aloud the 'chapter books' we had read to her and her sister once, including the whole Narnia series, so that the boys could listen to them after she was gone. She placed some of her soft T-shirts and silky pyjamas in their room, so that they could cuddle her smell. She invented a Family Quiz board game with laminated cards, each containing a question to prompt memories of a shared history: Which country did Mum live in when she was a child? What were Isaac's nicknames as a baby? Where did Oscar learn to swim without armbands?
I called all this 'advance mothering'. The most important element of the advance mothering was the book she wrote, Late Fragments: a book written so that the boys, when they grow older, can come to understand who their mother was and what she held dear. We are overjoyed that so many people across the world are reading Kate's book and finding it speaks to them about life, friendship, work and love. But we never forget its real audience, the two pairs of hands which Kate hoped 'will hold a battered paperback when others have long forgotten me. Oscar and Isaac, my little Knights, my joy and my wonder.'
There's another legacy that Kate couldn't have forecast. She asked for donations in her memory instead of flowers at her funeral, to be made to her favourite charity, Street Child. The charity works in Sierra Leone, where Kate herself had worked, and it has much to do with 'norphans. Last week we had an email from them, saying that they are planning to open new starter schools in rural areas once the Ebola epidemic is over, and wondering if they might name one after Kate. One day, Oscar and Isaac will visit that school, we hope.
The Knights have coped better with Mummy's absence than we might have feared. Little scientists, they have asked lots of questions about why doctors can't cure all diseases, and which ones exactly they can't cure. Deeply attached to Dad, they asked about what age you are when you get cancer. Usually old, says Dad - Mum was just unlucky. How old was she? they ask. Thirty-six. And how old are you, Dad?
But truly, five-year-olds are different from us. We spend much of our thinking time in the past or the future. They think only of now, and if now contains Hero Factory and Minecraft, then now is just fine. There is a sadness inside, but so far they connect with it only occasionally.
Before Kate's funeral, I told them that people might cry. Why? they asked. It's just what grown-
ups do when they miss someone and are sad, I said. Oscar thought for a while then repeated, pondering, 'It's just what grown-ups do.' Isaac went quiet, then said, 'I had a dream. I was on a train and Dad wasn't - he couldn't get on.' The sadness of adults connected, briefly, with his own, and was understood.
But Dad had already tackled the fear, when Isaac told him about it, with ten different ways he would bust Isaac off the train so he would not be alone. Both boys know that they are loved and safe in the present. And they have inside them a store of treasure - five years of extraordinary, unconditional love from their mother, on which they can draw for the rest of their lives.
Kate Gross died peacefully at home from colon cancer on 25 December 2014. Her book Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You (About This Wonderful Life) is out now, published in hardback by William Collins. Kate finished writing her book in September, and received finished copies a few weeks before her death. She leaves behind her devoted husband Billy Boyle and her five-year-old sons Isaac and Oscar.
Donations to Street Child in memory of Kate can be made at http://www.virginmoneygiving.com/SomeoneSpecial/kate-gross
This blog first appeared on Mumsnet