These are words my husband spoke to me when I was pregnant with our first child. He already had one grown child, so he knew more than I did about the fierce love a parent has for their child. He also was familiar with the joyous poignancy of each step that a child makes toward adulthood, the mixture of pride, pleasure and loss that we feel as our offspring move through the rites of passage that will eventually result in their adulthood and independence from their parents. In the moment, we do not always think of childrens’ toddling steps, first days of school, and development of their own interests as our “losses,” but collectively they add up to the ultimate separation that simultaneously delights and grieves most parents.
All parents grieve, but imagine the added anguish of knowing, from the moment of his or her conception, that your child will be obligated to spend time in military service, and will most likely see combat. David Grossman’s heart-splitting novel “To the End of the Land” takes us inside an Israeli mother’s torment as she sends the younger of her two sons into battle. Ora, the mother, is seized by the irrational idea that the Israeli Defense Forces cannot bring her bad news if she is not present to receive it. She believes that if she stays away from her home for the 28 days that her son Ofer is in danger, she will somehow protect him. She also thinks that if she keeps talking about him, he cannot cease to exist. Thus begins a long hike through the hills and mountains of Galilee. She is accompanied by an old friend (Avram) with whom she shares a complicated past.
There are many layers to the story, but the backdrop to it all, of course, is the issue of what war does to young people who live with war as a constant presence. The book is made all the more wrenching by the fact that David Grossman’s own son was killed in Israeli/ Palestinian conflict during the writing of “To the End of the Land.”
I was at times uncomfortable during my reading of this book, because I did not think that the Palestinian situation or perspective was adequately represented. But it is a novel and does not claim to be an evenhanded exposition. People who read the book looking for propaganda for either side of the Arab/Israeli conflict will be disappointed, but those who read it as a story that gives us a glimpse into a mother’s pain will be touched. The book will stay with you for a long time, and I believe that Palestinian mothers could also identify with Ora’s desperation. In the end, that understanding of one another’s fear and pain might save us from each other and from our own worst impulses.
LESLIE A. KLINGENSMITH is pastor of St. Matthew Presbyterian Church, which recently celebrated 50 years of ministry in Silver Spring, Md.