It was so hard to keep breathing, as if every part of her apparatus – throat, lungs, all the in between bits whose names escaped her at the moment – had been rasped raw by emotion, and struggled to keep working. She had to get out of the house. If she stayed here any longer, something inside her would explode. Snatching her coat and wriggling haphazardly into it, she almost ran out the door (or at least as close to running as her breathless, uncoordinated state would allow.) The raw Spring air, heavy with the smell of greenness and wet earth, seemed a cruel counterpoint to her need.
She was aimless at first, but when she saw the village church looming in front of her, habit turned her feet in that direction. This was the place which had hallowed and legitimated all the important moments of her life: her wedding, her son’s baptism, the funerals of her parents, the strange, cold funeral of the man who had once been her husband, the man who had grown so strange and bitter and remote that she had watched his burial with an unacknowledged feeling of relief. But not this one! This was the death that must not happen – the loss that violated nature, love and reason.
Here, inside the church, alone in the failing light of ending day, she was free to express her grief. Even now, it was so hard to put it into words. But words were all she had: the telegram with its stark message, the one that other mothers all over Britain were receiving, “Missing, presumed dead.” And there, just below the superscription to herself, the name of her son, her only child. “Jimmy,” she whispered in a cracked voice, and the name released a few scalding tears, like the first spatter of drops that come while the storm is still waiting to burst.”Jimmy ... my Jimmy ..” No one had ever told her that grief could feel so much like fear, that she had to clench her fingers tightly to the edge of the pew and hold on to the world, so that it wouldn’t begin slipping sideways and tipping over, slowly and inexorably, into the huge, bottomless crater that now existed in the centre of her soul. If jimmy was gone, what was left? All those hours she had spent nurturing his body into life, coaxing him to eat, nursing him through childhood illness, keeping him clean and tidy (what was that strange relationship between little boys and dirt?), teaching him right from wrong, agonising over him in the secret places of her soul .. what was the point if all that carefully cherished life could be obliterated by an impersonal bullet? What was the point of her whole life if the one she had kept struggling for was now just another statistic on the War Office files?
She realised that she was angry, very angry. With some nameless German boy with a gun who was probably even more frightened than her son? What was the point? Who was really responsible for this travesty and futility? Who created the whole sorry, sickening mess? To her own astonishment, who had always been so reverent and correct, she found herself shaking her fist at the whole kit and caboodle at the front of the church all the pious panoply of faith; and owned that she was shaking her fist at God. Her inarticulate fury found words: “How can you do this? Do you have any idea how it feels to lose your only son, to see the treasure and darling of your life disappear into the darkness of death?”
Her words hung in the silence, reverberating in their accusation. She raised her tear-brimmed eyes, almost expecting a thunderbolt from heaven There was none. Instead her eyes fastened on the crucifix at the front of the church. Vividly she remembered when the vicar before last had introduced it. There had been outrage from the more “low church’ segment of the congregation, she remembered signing a petition of sorts that had circulated, protesting the imposition of such a “papist” symbol. The petition had been ignored, the crucifix stayed, and after a while no one had paid much attention any more. It was just another part of the furniture.
But now she noticed: the twisted body of the young man, every muscle taut with struggle. No quick bullet had released him, this was hellish agony. And his father? Whatever was happening there, in that immeasurable transaction between life and death, sin, justice and forgiveness, the Father cared. Her father cared. In the death of the son, a door was opened so that all could become his children. But that took nothing away from the pain and sacrifice of that moment. He did know how it felt, he knew exactly. Somewhere there was hope in that. Her heart was broken and her hope was spent, but those nail-pierced hands still held a different kind of hope – strange and difficult, written in a language her soul could barely speak, but no less real for that. She did not know how she would go on, but somehow she knew that she would. She was not yet ready to hear an answer to her cry, but she was ready to believe that one day an answer would be given. And when it was, it would be altogether right. She began to cry softly. Her loss might be just a statistic in the official reports, but there was One who had counted every precious hair on Jimmy’s head. And he grieved with her.