1I am sixty years old. My son, Thomas, member of the French air parachute commando cpa10, engaged in Operation Barkhane, was killed in action in Mali, in the Tigharghar mountains, on 29 October 2014. As a researcher, I could have approached the question of the death of a soldier with the distance learned in order to understand the social facts and realise their impact on the fate of those individuals it affected. However, when you yourself are at the heart of the event, when the soldier who has just died is your own son, such detachment is quite simply impossible. The mother in me has taken precedence over the researcher to simply bear witness to the distress caused by this death and the way in which I experienced it, in the hope that the tone adopted will be neither too impersonal nor too impudent.
Two years later…
2I am writing this almost two years after Thomas’ death. Death continues to prowl around his comrades-in-arms, in Mali and elsewhere. I follow the news every day, tremble when other deaths or wounded are announced, fear I may know them, and suffer at the thought of what other mothers will, in turn, have to go through. I am writing this in the Lot where, two years ago, I learned of the death of my son. It is a beautiful day, just as it was on 29 October 2014 : the last bursts of autumnal colours are blazing under a sun that encourages the tranquillity of life.
3Today I am considering the road travelled since that fateful telephone call informing me of the inconceivable : after the state of shock and the tributes, then the chaos and slowly learning the effects of absence, came the time for a connection—above all intimate and silent—with this death that had come to shatter my life. On the surface, life is back to normal again and is a flurry of activity but, at its core—beyond the words, affection, the warm gestures and friendships, beyond the attention or concern—lies the chasm dug by this absence, one that nothing will fill, that I carry inside me, increasingly hidden from others ; for the expression of suffering, once the time it is deemed legitimate has passed, is no longer considered persona grata by many of those around me. This is undoubtedly the salutary effect of the pulse of life.
4I am also weighing up to what extent the death of a child is no longer “ordinary”. To what extent it is an experience for which nobody is prepared anymore, because it is no longer “in the scheme of things” as it may have been in the not-so-distant past, or how it still is the case in countries other than ours where it remains all too “familiar” due to famine and war. Many others before me, mothers or fathers, have written on this subject, to speak of the pain and the loss, and to also say that one does not get over it (in the sense that these feelings end up fading with time). The death of a child, of each child who dies is, for their loved ones, a singular experience unlike any other child’s death. The singularity of Thomas’ death is first all of due to the circumstances. Firstly, because of his age : childhood and adolescence had passed, Thomas was now a man. He died in the year he would have turned thirty-three. At that age, he could have died in a road accident or following a long illness. The loss and absence would have been no less intense, but I would not have had the feeling that I felt, one of a death that is not ordinary. Because he was a soldier, and was killed in combat, “weapons in hand”, one might say that this expression was quite a romantic cliché. And yet that is exactly how he died. How can I, somebody who has only ever known peace, accept that my son died “waging war”, even if this war does not really have a name ?
5It was my son who died, but also a soldier. And, straightaway, his death was not just a private event. Through the tributes he received, it was a public affair—and it is not easy to live a private event in the public eye. It was also “another family’s” affair, for Thomas had two families : his relatives but also the army. For a long time I believed that it was just a convenient expression or, at most, one that was above all symbolic. It was not until Thomas’ death that I experienced the reality of it. “Brothers-in-arms”, soldiers are called. That fraternity forms bonds that are just as strong as blood ties can be. And it is a singular experience to have to share one’s bereavement with this “other family” : it is both comforting—grief adds up and the desire to make the deceased live through memories is, as a result, tenfold—and disturbing, having to accept that others, until then unknown, can feel sorrow which, if not similar to one’s own, is just as sincere and legitimate.
6This singularity, however, is also due to a more personal element : Thomas was my only child, and he died without any offspring. His death broke the thread that binds the generations together. He will not be a conveyor of life, and nor will I. No longer being this means no longer having the duty and the happiness of passing on a history, values, to ensure the continuity of the family story. And that is a singular pain when age means that you can no longer envisage reweaving this thread. Release from this attachment does not make me any freer, other than a kind of pointless freedom.
7 :45 pm, Wednesday 29 October 2014…
77 :30 pm, this Wednesday 29 October 2014, I was busy preparing the meal as I did every evening. Ordinary, everyday gestures at the end of a wonderful day of holiday, when the telephone rang… José picked it up, I heard him say, in a broken voice : “She’s here.” I took the handset he held out to me. At the other end of the line was the commanding officer of the Orléans air base. Some words I can no longer remember, but whose significance I immediately understood : they are telling me that my son is dead. The thing I had sometimes imagined, just to ward it off as I dreaded it so much, had just happened. I later learned that the commanding officers of both Orléans and of the cpa 10 had been trying to find me all day, at work and at my home in Toulouse as, making the most of the university holidays I had decided to take a few days off—something that gave me a few hours’ reprieve when I was unaware, whereas others already knew.
8It is impossible to put into words what I felt then : a twisting pain, wanting to scream, the feeling of a chasm opening up under my feet… In a split second, I understood that the world—my world—had turned upside down. There was no remission possible. Impossible to go back in time and re-write the page. I found myself thrown into another dimension, without having had the time to take stock of what had happened : less than a quarter of an hour later, on all of the television channels, Thomas’ photo was spread across the headlines of the evening news bulletins. A magnificent photo, about which I later found this comment, one that was so apt : the photo of a young man “who spoke with his eyes”. Finding oneself in front of his face, taking up the whole screen, in front of his eyes that sparkled with life and looked at the lens without batting an eyelid, in front of this enigmatic smile, that was both kindly and slightly distant, was a moment of total despair. That was how, like a “forced march”, I was told of his death, so that I was informed about it before the media—hungry for dramatic news—broadcast it on a loop… Is there another way to learn of the death of one’s son ? Slowly, progressively, with restraint ? I do not think so. In the announcement of a death for which one is unprepared, there is a radical violence that cannot be softened.
He is dead…
9How can one apprehend death when the photo that accompanies its announcement exudes such “quiet confidence” ? For me, trying to move from the representation of my son, alive, to that of my son, dead, first of all consisted in asking myself how he died. The questions to which I wanted immediate answers then came very quickly : did he suffer ? Did he have time to realise what was happening to him ? Did he die alone, abandoned ? It was a kind of solace to learn that he had died instantly. A long way from what had happened, deep down I know nothing, but I strive to think that death took him by surprise, that he did not see himself die. Why is this of great comfort to me when I would not like death to catch me unawares, when I would like to have the time to take leave of life ? I do not have an answer to this question, other than finding a form of relief in the idea of a death without solitary death throes. At the same time as my determination to find out exactly what had happened was taking shape, whatever the circumstances had been, another wish was growing that was just as essential : to see him. I greatly feared that I would be confronted with a closed coffin. Rationally, I would have been able to understand the reasons why. However, in view of what I was going through, it could not be a matter of reason, simply a necessary ordeal to accept his death and “start grieving”.
10Looking back at the end of this month of October 2014 also means remembering the time that passed so slowly between the announcement of his death and the repatriation of his body. These five interminable days where there was nothing else to do but wait, give news, receive news, try to take care of those affected by this death, with no diversion from the suffering : no formalities to take care of to keep my hands and mind busy. These formalities, so useful in such circumstances, were in this case efficiently and discreetly dealt with by others. It is doubtless a good thing to be freed from these material concerns in this way, but other contrivances had to be found in order not to fall to pieces.
11The long-awaited moment finally came for us to be “reunited”, a harrowing reunion as it promised a separation to come, definitive this time. Finally being able to see him. Lying in his coffin, motionless and dressed. Him, yet no longer really him. An empty face, so far removed from the smiling one that was present all over the internet. The face of a dead man. This one-to-one meeting with his body was essential. Better, it was salutary. Even the possibility of being denied this had been unbearable for me. There is no other way for death to become real than to directly confront its materiality. My only memory is of this long, silent “tête à tête” to bid farewell to my son in an unlikely place somewhere in Paris, close to a particularly noisy road junction.
12Then came the time for the military ceremonies. Firstly in Paris, in the Cour des Invalides, majestic and so stony. The slowness of an understated ceremony and a protocol without effusion. The memory of having waited a long time, standing, in the cold and damp, for the convoy to cross the Alexandre III bridge, saluted by a crowd in whose midst I would have preferred to have been, anonymous, one of the passers-by who had come to pay their last respects as he passed… Then to Orléans, for a tribute under a grey sky on a vast esplanade of the air base, where the Transall that was then to take his coffin to Toulouse was waiting. The image of this coffin “decorated” with the French flag, of these men and women in uniform, some of whom had returned from afar to be there, orderly and grouped, more than motionless, hieratic. The memory of the faces—filled with emotion—of his comrades-in-arms, tears in their eyes, muffled sobs. The memory of us, family and friends, also trying to remain straight and hold back our tears, as though to be in unison with the surrounding dignity. The memory of a ritual that would doubtless begin again every time a soldier dies, but comforting by its very solemnity. Lastly, the memory of a genuine address in a firm voice that spoke to me of a man, my son, whom I did not know, this soldier whose bravery was being honoured.
13Finally the time came to take him with us, “home”, to his town, to watch over him and say farewell, surrounded by our families, friends, colleagues and his brothers-in-arms. A funeral that took place in the warmth and sadness of his family, interspersed with emotional testimonies, drawing his portrait in small strokes. The memory of a final moment spent together to try, as hard as we could, to make him alive again by talking about him, listening to the music he loved, flicking through the photographs… So present at this final moment, despite the absence, when everyone pulls together this way.
Getting back on track…
14After the agitation and turmoil of this very long week filled with so many emotions, tributes that are both trying and comforting, numbed by grief but still standing, came the return to silence and the banality of everyday life. How does one not fall to pieces ? How does one master the pain, little by little, in order to “keep it on a leash” ? How, quite simply, does one get back to one’s life and activities letting the deceased find his place by making space for him ? His death shattered my life, but that of so many others too : my close relatives, his father, his girlfriend, his cousins, his friends, his comrades-in-arms… And, indirectly, our circle of family and friends. Everyone did what they could, with their pain, but it was also up to me—his mother—if not to take care of them then at least ensure that the march of time did not crush them. For, very quickly, the strange moment arrives where, still dented, it is as though we are “summoned” to fall back into line with others, to “go through the period of mourning”, one’s “grieving process” as they say, as if grief only lasts a certain time and that one had to move onto something else because life does not wait. We then learn to look happy, to hide our pain, even if we still have the impression of lagging behind, being out of synch, not really in tempo. That is what this society—one that surfs over events, devours them, zaps, has become unused to the presence of death—wants, when mastering it and the loss that follows takes place slowly, requires time.
15I forced myself to obstinately put one foot in front of the other or, in the words of José, who was by my side day after day, to “carry on pedalling”, get back to routines and perform my usual tasks, compel myself to the daily discipline of work in order to contain the unbearable pain, taking my place where necessary, fooling those around me so as not to have them endure the weight of my sorrow. I have gone through the phase of revolt against his death, anger too towards what has happened to us, but I am still a long way off the time when I will have learned how to “separate memory from the pain. Or at least in part, however much is possible, so that all the past will not be drenched with so much pain. […] I will not fear the scalding of memory” .
Meeting the adult who had become a soldier
16If memories of his childhood are very much present the adult he became, for his part, had remained a bit of a “stranger” to me, as do all children when they move away from us to live their lives, keeping their reflections and intimate thoughts for themselves or for others. When they are alive, one has the hope or certainty of getting closer to them and understanding them simply by watching them live. But his death deprived me of this perspective. And so I went to look for him, so as not to stop at his childhood and also to be able to cultivate the memory of the adult born from the child I loved so, by recreating what he had been, based on his actions, the photos he took or let people take of him, anecdotes or snippets told by others, in particular his comrades-in-arms. As a mosaic artist endeavours to fill in his picture, I try to fix each of these small pieces in my memory, like so many tesserae that need putting together so that his smile would no longer be as enigmatic as it often had been. This was all the more necessary as Thomas carried out his job in conditions that demanded great discretion on his part, silence even.
17That is how I returned to Orléans to walk in his footsteps, in the room where he stayed when he was not on mission, in the office he shared where I saw the picture featuring his other name, the one he had chosen for himself : Denzel. Denzel, like the first name of the Afro-American actor known for his engaged roles. Another little sign left along the way to say who he was. That is how I asked to do a parachute jump with all of the members of his group in order to feel, at least once, a little of this adrenaline he had been searching for, something I did in July 2015. Little by little, what I managed to gather this way—small signs, snippets told by his comrades about his missions, “minutes” of his military exploits—allowed me to define the silhouette of this young adult who had become the soldier he will always remain. His age group will get older and he will always be thirty-two.
18However remembering is not enough, for memories are volatile and die along with those who carry them. I made myself a promise after his death : to write Thomas’ name in places that had been important to him and to us , so that he was not confined only to our thoughts and die with them : a street in Toulouse now bears his name on the proposal of the mayor of this city where he was born and grew up, but also the dojo of the base in Orléans, a sports hall near Ouagadougou and tomorrow, I hope, a village library in northern Senegal. To these landmarks that draw his geography and history, we must add the stone used for the war memorial in this little village in the causse of the Lot that we chose as a home base, and on which his name has been engraved. And so, every 11 November, when the small community gathers together, Thomas’ name will be read out, just like all of those that feature on this stone. Giving something a name makes it exist. And that is why hearing his name along with theirs will be a way of continuing to keep him alive, keep them alive, a little, in the present and, with them, the combats they fought so that we are ensured of peace—this infinitely precious commodity—in the long term. He will be there, a silent vigil, at the heart of the joyous hubbub of the children when they meet here on summer evenings to continue their games, and the adults their chats ; when, at the end of August, the fête is in full flow, when the pétanque players throw their ball… I will greet him as I pass by there, coming back from a stroll, before going to our garden to see the two memory trees we planted there : a hackberry with a ribbed trunk like his silhouette and an umbrella pine under whose shade we can shelter.
From death … to engagement
19However, beyond the grief and the strategies and contrivances used to keep his memory alive, his death—with the number of upsets it generated, because it concerns the death of a soldier killed in action—forced me to look back at the meaning of his engagement. Thomas had built his way with conviction, skill too, choosing not to walk in our footsteps but instead to follow other roads, just as demanding, just as arduous, which would only be to his credit. Sometimes exercising silence and discretion, he often confronted us with a “fait accompli” : that was the case with Thai boxing, in which he quickly excelled (European champion in 2003, world champion in 2004), then with another fundamental decision : to join the army, where he mapped out this exceptional journey told by the tributes.
20I always thought that Thomas had exceptional physical qualities that could enable him to become a great athlete, but I came to understand that, by choosing Thai boxing, there was definitely something else : an asceticism, a philosophy of life, a relationship with others that was marked by respect, so many things that he went to experience first-hand in Thailand on several occasions. I also came to understand that choosing the army—the air force, he insisted—even before joining his elite commandos, could not only be explained by the prospect of combining a professional activity with high-level sporting activity, but that other considerations also came into play : “to be of use to my country” he said during an interview, not to mention this attraction for the strength of the bonds formed between soldiers, bonds of brotherhood and solidarity whose solidity I have been able to measure… But I also know that he was committed to values, those written on the pediments of our schools, values that are mine, ours, for which we each fight in our own way. His way, which risked his life to the point of envisaging death, engaged him infinitely more than mine, far exceeded it even. For Thomas was realistic about the risk involved. We often spoke about it together : he told me he feared being wounded, and the disability that could result from it, far more than death. He spoke of death with a kind of detachment, flippancy (or that was what I took it for) that, to say the least, made me wonder and dismayed me. At times I took it as a form of nonchalance, at others for an evasive reply faced with the gravity of what was at stake as if, speaking about it this way, “flippantly”, without solemnity, was the only way to keep it at a distance. I think I have since understood that it was not the case, that he had to see it as a possibility, not through fatality, not because it would be the risk involved (especially since everything is done to limit it through tireless training), but as “the price to pay” for this choice of “profession” in which it is also necessary to accept “taking” a life. This is only humanly (morally ? ethically ?) possible if, beforehand, one “consents” to one’s own death. This is what he tried to make me understand one evening, when I was pushing him into a corner. However no doubt that day I did not understand what he wanted to say to me.
21This way—his way—of having put his life at stake to fight for values we shared, of peace, freedom, social justice, equality between men and women, makes me infinitely humble with regard to my way of carrying them, so much more comfortable, so much lighter. It also brings me to another question that has remained unanswered : others also die for their convictions. Thomas died a few days after Rémi Fraisse, a young environmental activist who died in the Tarn after having been hit by a grenade thrown by a policeman whilst he was demonstrating against the construction of the Sivens dam. This death aroused emotion and indignation, sparked a strong mobilisation across the whole of France and provoked comments and analysis. Many men and women, young and old, were shaken by what they considered to be an unjust death, and expressed both their disapproval and solidarity.
22Without organising their deaths and their battles into a hierarchical order, without comparing them or pitting them against each other, the difference in the treatment and the difference in the reactions before these two deaths—that took place within a few days of each other—has not ceased to bother me, all the more so since the death of my son in November 2014 was seized upon by opinions that were the opposite to what he was and deeply hurt me at the time. The answer I receive : the death of Rémi Fraisse was not justifiable, that of Thomas was. The former was defending his ideas, the latter was doing his job, aware of the price… But Thomas also died “for ideas, ideals” in an arduous fight against an ideology that wants to impose, through force, its moral, social and political order ! How can we not recognise that these soldiers—men and women “in their prime”, who are neither suicidal nor masochistic, no more than they are “warmongers” who, like other human beings, aspire to happiness—can make this choice, in the name of such an engagement ? It cannot be justified solely by their taste for adventure, no more than by the brotherly link that unites them, however strong it may be… A fortiori when it cannot be explained by the claim to a tradition (enrolment in a long line of soldiers) and when it is based on values that are generally to the left, as was the case with Thomas, as though this choice was no longer really in keeping with the times, as though it could not come from a form of engagement, in the noble sense of the word.
23Thomas’ death has changed me. It is not something that you need to get over in order for life to carry on as before. It is something that has profoundly changed me, that has led me towards more “humanity”. More fundamentally no doubt, I sense that it “compels” me.
24I went through (endured would be a more exact word, for I did not choose it) an ordeal that thousands of mothers before me have been through, those who lost their sons, or several sons, during the Great War and who bluntly learned the news via a simple letter. Their pain was no less great than mine, and this shared experience makes me part of this long line of mothers who have been “orphaned” of their sons. However, different times, different morals : a soldier’s life has now, manifestly, become—in the eyes of the army—more precious or more respected. Soldiers are no longer “cannon fodder”. When Thomas died, I saw a “humane” army at work, be it among the senior ranks or Thomas’ closest superiors. On this matter, it will be conceded that I cannot really be accused of sycophancy or dishonest compromise : coming from the generation that fought against the setting-up of the military on the Larzac plateau I did not, by personal conviction, have a naturally benevolent fondness with regard to the army. It took my son joining them to lead me to review my judgement and abandon my prejudices.
25Faced with the ordeal inflicted by Thomas’ death and the questions it brought to the surface, the army, or “grande muette” neither kept its distance nor kept quiet : I am fully aware that I perhaps do not know everything, aware that the missions in which Thomas was involved require a certain discretion, even afterwards, but I received answers to my questions that were enough to enable me to understand and to move forward. And, most of all, this “humane” army has been “personified” by men and women who have been present each time it was necessary, who have supported us a stretch of the way, with some of whom I have formed lasting links. I would like to take this opportunity to thank them. They know who they are.
David Grossman, Tombé hors du temps [Falling out of Time], Paris, Le Seuil, 2012
Others have also done this : the army, by inscribing his name on the memorial in the United States for members of the special forces from the world over who have fallen ; his comrades-in-arms and sport by having a crossfit training exercise officially named the “Denzel wod (workout of the day)”.
David Grossman, op.cit.