‘Jacob! Jacob!’ cried Bonamy, standing by the window. The leaves sank down again.
‘Such confusion everywhere!’ exclaimed Betty Flanders, bursting open the bedroom door.
Bonamy turned away from the window.
‘What am I to do with these, Mr. Bonamy?’
She held out a pair of Jacob’s old shoes.
“To that question,” Winifred Holtby notes in her book on Virginia Woolf, “there is, indeed, no satisfactory answer.” The novel’s final image “leaves an impression of apprehension, of the solicitude of women and of the indifference of fate . . . Its melancholy, its extraordinary desolation, are indefinable.”
The famous six word story (attributed, apocryphally, it seems, to Hemingway) “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” is often cited as one of the saddest stories imaginable. I know that grief is not a competition, that there is no hierarchy of loss, and yet I have sometimes thought, since Owen died, that items often worn—like picture books often read—tell a tale every bit as heartbreaking, if not more, because they represent a love and a loss encompassing years. How well Woolf understood: I see myself in Jacob’s bereft mother, baffled, as I have so often been baffled, by the puzzle that completely ordinary things like shoes and clothes remain, even though the person who gave them meaning is gone. For nearly a year now, I have avoided them, but I have not been able to ignore them. Just by being present, by being what is left of him, they have relentlessly demanded my solicitude. But what am I to do with them?
There is, indeed, no satisfactory answer, but in the last few days, with loving help and support, I have at least (at last) done something. His clothes are cleaned, folded, and sorted, some ready to go to others who need them, some saved for our remembrance. I have never done laundry with so much love before: sad as it was, it also felt right, as if I was taking care of him again, as I did for so long. There is desolation in that, but also some comfort.
As always, a poet has shown the way, with words in the shape of my wound.
When someone dies, the clothes are so sad. They have outlived
their usefulness and cannot get warm and full.
You talk to the clothes and explain that he is not coming back
as when he showed up immaculately dressed in slacks and plaid jacket
and had that beautiful smile on and you’d talk.
You’d go to get something and come back and he’d be gone.
You explain death to the clothes like that dream.
You tell them how much you miss the spouse
and how much you miss the pet with its little winter sweater.
You tell the worn raincoat that if you talk about it,
you will finally let grief out. The ancients etched the words
for battle and victory onto their shields and then they went out
and fought to the last breath. Words have that kind of power
you remind the clothes that remain in the drawer, arms stubbornly
folded across the chest, or slung across the backs of chairs,
or hanging inside the dark closet. Do with us what you will,
they faintly sigh, as you close the door on them.
He is gone and no one can tell us where.