Few people would have pegged Marie-Laure Picat as a likely heroine. The portly, plain-looking 37-year-old lived quietly in a village in central France, shunned attention, and said her only real quirk was an adoration of the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants. But on Aug. 10, when it was revealed that Picat had died the previous day, most of France spared a thought and shed a tear for the mother who spent what she knew would be the last year of her life fighting to guarantee that her four children would remain together once she had gone.
"After Astonishing France, Marie-Laure Dies of Cancer," read the headline of daily Le Parisien's story on Picat's Aug. 9 passing. "The Death of Mother Courage," echoed France Soir. "Marie-Laure Picat: The End of a Battle," observed the website agoravox.fr.
But while Picat's death marked her lost fight with cancer, it also signaled the end of her victorious war to ensure her children would grow up together as a family after she died. After learning that the liver cancer doctors had detected in July 2008 had become incurable, and knowing that her husband, from whom she was divorced, was unable to care for their children, Picat immediately began the search for a foster family. At first, her quest was seemingly impossible: finding a family with a home close to hers, in her Loiret village of Puiseaux, that would welcome all four kids as its own.
"When I found out I was terminal, I knew there was one thing I had to do: protect my children," Picat said in a March interview with TV channel TF1. "I needed to be sure they'd be able to live normally."
Incredibly, Picat found the right family less than a kilometer from her house. However, authorities told her that the final choice of who took care of her children wasn't hers French social services would have to handle their placement. They also noted that even if social workers approved the foster home Picat selected, that home could take only three children, meaning one of her children would have to live somewhere else.
So Picat decided to do something she later admitted bothered her: she took her story to the media. The press descended in droves upon the tiny village and, before long, news of Picat's struggle made her a national heroine.
Within three weeks of Picat's going public, in December, French authorities granted a waiver allowing all four children to live under the same roof with the family she'd chosen for them. President Nicolas Sarkozy hosted Picat and her kids Julie, 12; Thibault, 9; Matthieu, 5; and Margot, 3 at the Elysée. The family was invited to Disneyland Paris for Christmas a longtime dream that had been put on hold due to lack of funds.
Soon, people from all over France were sending Picat letters of support, some accompanied by checks and cash. At first she sent it all back. "I wasn't doing any of this for money," she later told the press. "But when people insisted, I decided I'd put it in a bank account the children could use later."
Then she did one better. Encouraged by the support of strangers from all over France, Picat decided to write a book. The Courage of a Mother explains why she felt the need to seek the public attention she would never be comfortable with. Published in March, it quickly became a best seller with more than 65,000 copies sold. Picat has put the money from the book away for her kids; she did the same when the film rights were sold.
But writing her story wasn't just about assuring her children's financial future. "It's a bit of a testament for them," she said. "I'm answering any future questions they may have about all this or me in the book."
Doctors hadn't expected Picat to live into 2009. But she did just that and bettered her goal of seeing Julie turn 12 last May by hanging on for Margot's third birthday. She died the next day, by which time all four children were already settling into their new home.
On Aug. 14, France will be watching as the Picat children see off their mother and bury her according to her wishes holding her family's beloved SpongeBob SquarePants stuffed toy.