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