When her son Peter was killed on a hijacked plane on 9/11, Sally Goodrich concluded that life as she knew it was over. But then she found a new mission—building schools in, of all places, the harsh, violence-ridden land of Afghanistan.
In April 2006, Sarah Goodrich, a 61-year-old school administrator from Bennington, Vermont, paid a visit to a newly constructed girls' middle school in Logar, Afghanistan. Logar lies an hour and a half from Kabul, in a broad, fertile valley encircled by the arms of the Hindu Kush. When Goodrich, whom everybody calls Sally, had come here the year before, children were attending classes in tents set up in an open courtyard. Now, it was a two-story building with 26 rooms that could hold some 500 Kindergarten through eighth graders. It looked, Sally thought, like a Comfort Inn, and it had no heat or plumbing. Still, she was proud of it. This school for girls is one of the first in a region where they were once illegal and where girls who pursue an education still take their lives in their hands. And it was built largely with funds—some $236,000—that Sally raised herself.
On this visit, she'd come with several boxes of backpacks for the schoolchildren. She'd also brought a gift for the principal: an English-Arabic Quran. The village elder, a ferociously bearded, grandly turbaned man named Haji Malik, was astonished by it. He'd never heard of the holy book being printed in any language besides Arabic, the language in which the angel Gabriel is said to have dictated it to the prophet Muhammad. Sally told her hosts that she'd brought the bilingual Quran because that was the edition her son Peter used to read. He'd read the Quran the same way he'd read the Bible, avidly and with attention, marking passages that interested him with brass book darts. Peter Goodrich was killed on September 11, 2001, when the plane on which he was traveling for business, United Airlines 175, was hijacked by al-Qaida terrorists who, 20 minutes later, flew it into the south tower of the World Trade Center.
Before then, Sally says, "I was pretty all-American. I was a grandmother, I was a wife, I was a dutiful daughter. I was a teacher, I was an administrator, and I was not a world citizen in any respect." On September 11, however, Sally Goodrich's life, and that of her husband, Don, was changed as catastrophically as a life can be. In a sense, their lives ended. For more than a year afterward, she couldn't drive her car on the winding roads near her home without wanting to swerve into the oncoming traffic. But over time, the Goodriches found a new life. This new life—or afterlife—is centered on Afghanistan, the country that once sheltered Osama bin Laden, the man who planned Peter's murder and is now under renewed threat from his old allies in the Taliban. Over the past two years, Sally has traveled there five times for the charity she and Don founded, the Peter M. Goodrich Memorial Foundation, which raises money to build schools and fund development projects. Although the trips are arduous and increasingly dangerous, she says Afghanistan is the place where she feels most at home. "When I'm in Afghanistan, I feel like I'm in Peter mode. I feel connected to him. I'm fortunate to be there, I'm fortunate to be where people are good to me. They're so warm. What a great place to be heartbroken. Anyone who's in pain should have the experience of being plunked down in a place where everyone is heartbroken."
A small, energetic woman with a dazzling smile and watchful blue-gray eyes, Sally grew up in Bennington. She met Don when she was 18 and fell in love with him because he could do a handstand on the back of a horse and acted as if he wanted nothing to do with her. They married in 1964. After law school, Don went into practice. Peter was the first of two sons (his younger brother, Foster, is now 35, and his adoptive sister, Kim, 40). He was a fragile, dreamy boy who suffered from dyslexia; bigger kids picked on him. As he grew older, though, he discovered talents for chess and math. He began running cross-country. By the time he graduated with high honors in math from Bates College in 1989, he was a strapping 6'1" track star who'd made all-American six times. With his girlfriend, Rachel, whom he married in 1992, he moved to Cambridge and got a job as a programmer.
What struck everyone who knew him was not just his brilliance but his generosity and warmth. His hugs were enveloping. He couldn't pass a homeless person on the street without giving him money. When Peter's bosses told him that he had to cut $200,000 from his departmental budget, he eliminated his own job rather than breaking up his team. A while after that, another company bought out his firm and promptly rehired him. He was still a dreamer, someone who could get lost watching insects or thinking about quantum theory or poring over the sacred books whose pages he marked with those brass darts. Increasingly, he was the person who held his family together. "Peter was the caretaker," Sally says. "He'd tell you he was going to be the rich uncle. I was going to live near him. There was a little house near his. He'd say, 'That's where I'm gonna put you, Ma.' And truthfully, he would have."
He was afraid of flying and even more afraid of terrorists. "He'd been that way for three or four years," Sally remembers. "He just had it in his head. I used to make fun of him." She pauses. "He died the worst death I could imagine for my child. I imagine him as being so anxious and impaired by fear that he couldn't understand what was happening; what was happening had no place in his consciousness. He would've tried to protect the other passengers, but it would've been another instance in which he was helpless before other people's brutality. When he used to get bullied in school, he'd tell me, 'My arms won't work.' It would have been like that all over again."
The last time she saw Peter was on the weekend of September 7, when he helped her and Don move from their old home in Massachusetts back to Vermont so that they could care for her elderly father, who was ill with Alzheimer's. She still remembers the way he hugged her goodbye. On the morning of the 11th, the phone rang as she was leaving the old house. She didn't answer it and for months afterward was tormented by the thought that it might have been Peter trying to call her from the plane. Sometime later she recalls sitting with her father and watching footage of airliners slamming into the Twin Towers. She felt a quick thrill of anger pass through her. Still, it wasn't until the afternoon, when Don showed up along with her brother and their minister, that Sally realized she'd been watching her son's death. The rest of that day and night she passed in a trance. They drove to Peter and Rachel's home in Massachusetts, half expecting him to be there. The next morning, the Goodrich family found themselves at Boston's Logan airport, Peter's point of departure, along with dozens of stunned men and women whose loved ones had gotten onboard a routine flight from Boston to Los Angeles only to disappear in a ball of flame.
Sally says, "Of course, the first question you ask yourself after you absorb the shock is, 'Why? Why did they hate us so much? And why did my good kid have to die such a horrible death.' And just, 'Why?'"
No answers were forthcoming. Between the secrecy of the FBI, which didn't want to compromise its investigation, and that of the airline, it was a year and a half before Don and Sally could even find out Peter's seat assignment. A month after the attacks, some of the shattered men and women who'd gathered at Logan met in the Boston suburb of Newton. They called themselves Families of September 11, and Don and Sally were elected to the board. Today, Don, a scholarly, soft-spoken man who resembles a New England Atticus Finch, is the chairman. Sally, however, had to step down from the board. She was still going to work every day and taking care of her father as his Alzheimer's worsened. She was also drinking too much. "I could not feel anything," she recalls. "I would just try to get through a day and then a night and then another day. I remember going home and drinking a bottle of wine at night and then going to work. I had a very tight path. It would be work, church, home, work, church, home. I would tell myself to just breathe, and we divided the days into the light and the dark.
"The one certainty, the one comfort—the only comfort—was that I knew our son loved us without any reservations. And he knew that we loved him in the same fashion.
"And the other certainty was that I wanted to kill myself. There's a part of you that just dies, and it doesn't come back."
In November, her father entered a nursing home, where he died three months later. A month after that, Sally stopped drinking. She's been sober ever since. In August 2002, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and began chemotherapy. A year later, her cancer in remission, she went back to school to do graduate work in language and learning disabilities. She was starting to engage with the world again. But both she and Don still felt lost, like expatriates in a country whose language they will never speak fluently. Everything reminded them of Peter. Simple interactions became ordeals of awkwardness or incomprehension. Sally was afraid to go to the supermarket because she might run into a neighbor who might ask her how she was. "I was afraid that if I answered, I would fall apart. You think, 'If I cry, I will never stop crying, I will not exist. I will try to kill myself.' How can I answer that question, 'How are you?' And that's not what they're really asking. They're really saying, 'I'm sorry. I'm concerned about you.' But just to go into a grocery store feels like an assault."
Don was once introduced to a new colleague who knew nothing about his connection to September 11. Somehow the subject came up, and the stranger told a melodramatic story about having been in New York that day and almost meeting his wife at the World Trade Center. In the telling, it was about a brush with death. Don listened silently, torn between his own pain and his embarrassment for the young man, who would eventually find out whom he had been telling his story to. "As a country, we have been so spoiled in our isolation from suffering and injustice that we have no cultural norms for them," Don says. "Those around us see us as a curiosity. And no one wants to be a curiosity."
Then, in 2004, Sally got an e-mail from the parents of Rush Filson, a childhood friend of Peter's who was now a Marine major serving in Afghanistan. In Logar, he'd been introduced to a village schoolmaster, a man of great probity and courage, who was trying to round up supplies for his pupils; the Filsons wondered whether Sally might be able to help. She started out collecting supplies and shipping them via Kathleen Rafiq, an American TV producer in Kabul. Then Kathleen suggested that Sally build a school. The idea seemed crazy, the money beyond anything she could hope to raise. But at some point, Sally realized that for the first time since Peter's death, she felt she was doing what her son would have wanted her to do. "It was a door opening. We just followed Pete's lead." She raised funds in dribs and drabs. The Berkshire School, Peter's alma mater, donated the proceeds from its bake sale. The 200 backpacks Sally would bring to Logar were gifts from an Eagle Scout troop. Speaking before small audiences, she told her family's story. She often had to remind her listeners that none of the 9/11 hijackers had been Afghan.
She came to the country for the first time in spring 2005. It was, she says, like traveling into the biblical past. The land was harsh and jagged, with unexpected green places that reminded her of Vermont. Baked-mud houses seemed to rise out of the earth and tumble down the sides of the valleys. Five times a day, the call to prayer echoed through the still air. Women rarely appeared outside or did so only shrouded in chadors or burqas, the enveloping head-to-toe garments—like a body bag for the living—that were obligatory under the Taliban and are still widely worn. The people were desperately poor, but their hospitality was overwhelming. Wherever Sally went, she was feasted. With the help of David Edwards, a professor at Williams College, and his former research assistant Shahmahmood Miakhel, then Afghanistan's deputy minister of interior, now an adviser to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, she chose a site for the school. The Goodrich Foundation has since helped support additional schools and an orphanage in nearby Wardak Province and construct a well and water distribution system in Kunar.
This part of Afghanistan is mostly Pashtun, the country's dominant ethnic group and its most conservative one. The Taliban first came to power in the Pashtun lands and have been gathering strength there, abetted by the local populace's disillusionment with the government of Hamid Karzai and its suspicion of foreign soldiers. A Western woman must be circumspect. When she leaves Kabul, Sally travels under guard, her chador pulled over her light brown hair. She once created a stir in Wardak when her host, a rakish tribal khan named Seraj, tossed her a cigarette in front of onlookers. On another occasion, though, she scandalized Seraj: Negotiating one of the steep village footpaths, half hobbled by her chador, Sally fell flat on her face. The headman was horrified and extremely angry. Under the code of honor known as Pashtunwali, Seraj was completely responsible for his guest's safety. Any injury to her—even one caused by her own clumsiness—meant that he had failed his responsibility. "'Sarrah, Sarrah, this is wery, wery bad,'" she imitates him. "'You cannot come back here. All you ever do is fall.' He'd had a little interpreter right at my elbow watching over me, and this poor kid ended up getting chewed out because I was unsteady. My knees were weak that very first voyage. I remember telling myself after that, 'Sally, whatever you do, do not fall.'"
She made amends a year later, when she and Don brought Seraj an American saddle and bridle, precious gifts in a country that prizes horsemanship. After an awkward interval in which Afghans who had never seen a saddle tried to put one on a horse that had never worn one, Seraj leaped onto his mount, did a triumphant dance around the visitors, then took off down the hill.
Ironically, one of the last wars of the 20th century and the first of the 21st have been waged in what is essentially a premodern nation. Some Afghans would dispute that Afghanistan is even a nation, identifying themselves by their ethnic group, tribe, or clan. Many cannot speak their neighbors' language; many more can't read or write. In this kind of society, gestures count for a great deal. When a woman whom Sally is visiting, the mother of her teenage interpreter, starts rummaging through the family's treasures for gifts to give her—prayer beads, bolts of cloth—her generosity brings tears to Sally's eyes. On one occasion, her party stopped in the apple orchard of a nearby village. Rugs were spread in the shade of the trees; the foods served included a coarse, locally grown corn, roasted on the cob. Sally was feeling ill that day and set down her corn after only a few bites. An older man sitting nearby picked it up and began to eat. She understood that it was a gesture of respect. Then she learned that her companion had seen his young son murdered by gunmen. They might have been Taliban or mujahideen; so many young men in Afghanistan belong to militias and will use guns on any pretext. The gunmen pulled up at the family's gas station, the boy filled their tank, and when he asked them for money, they shot him. He was 22.
From the Soviet invasion in 1979 until the present, as many as 2 million Afghans are believed to have died by violence. Millions more have been displaced. Afghanistan has one of the world's highest rates of infant and maternal mortality. It's one of the most heavily land-mined countries on earth. "Virtually everyone I met in Afghanistan has a story of dislocation, suffering, or loss," Sally says. "People there know about 9/11. I don't usually tell the story; usually the Afghan with me tells the story. And I always get this phenomenally sympathetic reaction. They've suffered so much themselves that they understand."
Last year the Goodriches arranged for two Afghan boys named Matiullah and Javid and a girl named Soraya to receive educations at schools in New England and Pennsylvania. The young people, whose last names are withheld to protect their families in Afghanistan, live with them during breaks, and their presence is a joy to the Goodriches. Acutely conscious of the lives led by most of their countrymen, the kids work hard. After two semesters as an A student at Peter's alma mater, 18-year-old Matiullah was named a Berkshire scholar. Thin, serious, and just starting to transfer his allegiance from cricket to baseball, he ran for president of his school. Soraya, who has arresting dark eyes and an irrepressible laugh, came to the United States with the goal of quickly finishing high school and heading on to college, but after being offered a scholarship at the prestigious Emma Willard School, she's decided to spend an extra year sharpening her academic skills. Last April she accompanied Sally to a speaking engagement at the University of Maine at Farmington, where after a few minutes of talking with her, the school's president announced, "I want this girl." Soraya wants to be a doctor, but like Javid and Matiullah, she's intent on returning to Afghanistan. In the end, these children—or the educations they get here—may turn out to be the Goodriches' greatest gift to that country. For now, they are Afghanistan's gift to them. On a recent visit to the house in Bennington, I was served some naan, the fluffy Afghan flatbread, that Don had baked. It was delicious. Mati had taught him how to make it, he said.
It was late March, and Vermont was in the middle of sugaring season. Don, Foster, and Mati kept tromping out through the mud to the nearby sugar shack. Sally was about to leave for another trip to Afghanistan. But she had just learned that she had cancer again; it was too early to say whether she ought to put off her trip. One of her doctors called, and she spoke about her numbers and treatment options with surprising lightness, as if she were talking about allergies, not cancer. Abruptly, she became serious. "I don't have time to be sick," she said. "I don't have time to die. I need another year at least. I don't care what I need to take in the way of treatment, I just need to be around. I need to get as many Afghan kids into the country and support as many Afghans in Afghanistan as I can."
She left two weeks later, having gotten a green light from her doctors. It was a short trip, and the news she brought back wasn't good. Security had deteriorated throughout the Pashtun provinces. In Logar, many students' families had received "night letters" threatening them with death. The Taliban and al-Qaida were said to be offering $10,000 for videotapes showing foreigners being killed and $20,000 for every one captured alive. No one traveled at night anymore.
Yet when Sally came to her school, she found it fully attended. A high wall was built in deference to the girls' modesty, and a debate was in progress as to whether a van could be purchased for the same purpose to ferry them to and from their homes. This being Afghanistan, the van was voted down. It wouldn't do for the girls to get one before the boys at the neighboring school. A year after its construction, the building is already a little run-down. Many of the classroom chairs are covered with graffiti. To Sally, that's a good sign. It means the children are writing. During a break, a mischievous older girl grabbed Sally's hand and pulled her into a classroom, where she was made to sit at a desk surrounded by a gaggle of laughing girls as one beautiful child dressed in black began painting her hand with henna, a custom at Afghan weddings. As Sally was leaving, the girl who had first waylaid her playfully whipped out a burqa and placed it on her head.
Sally Goodrich isn't an optimistic person, or at least not conventionally optimistic. Given all that she's lost, it would be hard for her to be otherwise. "I don't believe in happiness," she once told an interviewer. "I believe in hope." The hope she has for Afghanistan is tempered by what she has learned of its history and by the warning she once got from an Afghan expert: Anyone who has a relationship with the country, he said, will sooner or later be heartbroken. On hearing this, she thought, "This is interesting: I went into Afghanistan because I'm brokenhearted, and I'm going to come out brokenhearted." Still, she hopes that if Afghanistan succumbs once more to its darker forces, the people she loves "can do what the terrorists do and hide in good countries until such time as the terrorists fail." She believes that eventually they will.
When you ask Sally how she survived those first bleak years after her son's death, she says, "I borrowed other people's emotions. I'd lost everything. My family, my faith, my hope. And when that happens, you have to borrow from people who have intact emotions till yours begin to return. My life was a void, so I moved into the void and acted the way Peter would have wanted. Afghanistan is as close as I can get to Peter. It's this beautiful ancient culture with these long-lasting tribal customs. And my being there comes as close to answering 'Why?' as I can get. But it's answering that 'Why?' in a very Peter way."
We think of a legacy as something that passes from parents to children. It's what we leave them, by design or unavoidably. But sometimes a legacy may operate the other way, and a lost child may pass something to his parents. Such a legacy is exceedingly precious. A while ago, Don Goodrich sent me a poem by Rumi:
Who gets up early to discover the moment light begins?
No explanation was necessary.
Who finds us here circling, bewildered, like atoms?
Who comes to a spring thirsty
and sees the moon reflected in it?
Who, like Jacob blind with grief and age, / smells the shirt of his lost son
and can see again?
Printed from Oprah.com on Sunday, March 9, 2014
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