Bridging Life and Death

By Chris Bergeron
Tuesday, March 19, 2002

 

Working late one night, I got a call from my oldest sister who said our nephew Jeremiah, a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, had been killed in an accident.

I felt stunned as if kicked in the stomach. My eyes watered. Breath wouldn't come.

How could this tall, smart, funny guy, still in his 20s, have died in a God-forsaken land called Niger, where he'd lived two years amid grinding poverty helping the locals build with man-made bricks to save precious timber.

My mind reeled trying to imagine the unspeakable grief and pain his mother must have been feeling.

My middle sister, Donna, had raised Jeremiah by herself, along with one daughter, for most of his life since her divorce.

She was immensely proud of the caring, intelligent young man he'd grown into. All through high school, she'd driven him every day from their Raynham home to Boston College High School and later sent him, on a teacher's salary, to TulaneUniversity.

Details remained foggy, my oldest sister said, but she'd heard he'd been thrown from a Peace Corp truck after an accident on a deserted stretch of road, 30 miles outside the capital, Niamey.

Just the day before, Jeremiah had called my sister long-distance on Mother's Day.

He said he loved her and would be home for a short vacation in two months after finishing his two-year service and planned to return for another year in Niger.

Calling from Virginia, my oldest sister said funeral arrangements were still uncertain.

The next week seemed a fog as the competing demands of family and job left me harried and frazzled.

My family – three boys and three girls – are Catholics of varied faith of Irish and French descent, an uneasy amalgam of our mother's boundless generosity and our father's flinty reserve.

We are not comfortable grievers. When our mother died seven years before, I realized something in our natures inhibited us from sharing comforting words.

After 15 years abroad, including the day my mother died, my feelings – more exactly my ability to express them – seemed buried in a permafrost of stoicism and intellectual distance.

The first time I spoke to my sister, I felt the reserve in my embrace, and I reproached myself for lacking the courage to express the same love and understanding she'd given him.

At the wake, I marveled at her capacity to rejoice in the happy wonder of Jeremiah's life even as she bore the raw pain of his loss.

She smiled and embraced visitors, sharing funny memories of a gentle-hearted kid who'd amused everyone who knew him with his wit, impressions and unpredictable antics.

Mourners filed up to the closed casket to pay their respects. An envelope with a goodbye note from his sister Chelsea addressed "To My Big Brother" sat astride the coffin.

I had last seen him two summers ago at my wedding just before he left for Peace Corps training.

When he'd been casting about for a future, I'd suggested the Peace Corps but urged him to avoid impoverished Muslim West Africa. But that's where he was assigned, after I suggested including his experience as a bricklayer on his application.

We'd joked about Niger's austerity, and I teased him that the local diet of millet and goat stew would get him in shape. I gave him a shoulder bag and promised to write.

Lapsed from my family's religion, I approached Jeremiah's casket without the promises of theology, unable to repress my anger at the unfairness, the cosmic injustice of his loss.

Denied faith's comfort, I crossed myself from habit and cursed the God I didn't believe in for this colossal unfairness. I told Jeremiah I was sorry I'd been too busy to write.

Some of his Peace Corps friends had taken leaves and flown halfway around the world to attend the funeral. The immediacy of their sorrow shone in their eyes, making me all the more aware he was gone forever.

In the days before the funeral, memories of Jeremiah came to me at work.

I remembered teasing him about the time he'd started a fire in the woods and then run to the house for a glass of water to put it out.

And he'd joke back about the time I'd taken him to see "Rocky" and got so worked up I'd picked a fight with the guy in front of us for talking too loud.

But mostly, I retreated to a convenient numbness that allowed me to function while insulating me from the sadness of dealing with the loss of so much promise.

At the funeral, his rugby buddies came all the way from New Orleans. And I'd heard some Peace Corps girls, borrowing a local custom, had shaved their heads.

Entering the church, I summoned memories of a skinny, tousled-haired baby who loved to run around naked.

When the coffin rolled by, I touched the polished wood. My heart broke and I arched my head back in a soundless cry of unutterable sadness.

Just before the interment, my sister stood alone beside her only son's casket and spoke of the joy and pride he'd brought her, smiling through her tears at the memory of this lost boy who'd touched so many people.

In the month that followed, she flew to Nigerby herself to attend a Peace Corps ceremony, naming a building in his honor and visiting his room.

A volunteer videotaped the ceremony and accompanied her to the remote countryside spot where the truck had gone off the road.

In grainy black-and-white, I watched my sister walk to that barren but unremarkable place, kneel on the stony ground, dig her hands into the dirt and then lie down on the spot where Jeremiah died.

My heart ached, my head swam. I had never witnessed an act of such naked and honest emotion. I felt awe and humility and the presence of something I just couldn't name.

Years later, I still think of it but never really understood it until recently discussing it with Rabbi Earl Grollman.

He quoted author Thornton Wilder who once wrote, "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead. And the only bridge is love."

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