The Afterlife: Coping With the Loss of a Son Through Giving
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.'"