If someone were to take only a cursory glance at that photo album they would have no idea just how much I loved Jeremiah.
The collection of pictures, featuring my nephew and me, spans twenty-two years. The shots were gathered, bound in a leather album, and given to me about a year after Jeremiah died while serving in the Peace Corps in West Africa. He was killed when his truck rolled over in the Niger desert.
The book was compiled by his mother–my sister.
It begins with a photo taken after his first day of kindergarten.
It shows a young boy, wearing new school clothing, being held upside-down by his ankles by a man sporting long hair and a leather jacket. What I found particularly amusing about the photo was the child still clutched what looked to be art work from his first day of school.
The last picture features a muscular, handsome, twenty-something-Jeremiah in a rugby shirt being crowded out of the camera’s eye by a man who looks to be an older version of that guy in the leather coat. This time the nephew is much larger than his elder uncle yet he good naturedly makes no effort to push back.
Between those two snapshots are near a dozen pictures of Jeremiah being placed in headlocks, gentle choke holds, full nelsons, and a few with a scared boy wearing boxing gloves standing across from a older, bigger boy, wearing gloves and an evil grin.
I thought I’d have a lifetime to show my fondness for my nephew. I hoped he realized how much I loved him even when I had him in a head lock.
Jeremiah was born to a shy, brilliant, mother and an unstable Vietnam Veteran Dad.
The marriage lasted less than a decade leaving my nephew and his sister with a mother who worked two jobs and raised her children with much love but very little money. When I was around I’d spent more time with Jeremiah than his father.
Even when I was a child myself, I wasn’t that fond of children. For that reason I always assumed I’d not reproduce. Since the day he was born I thought of Jeremiah as the son I’d never have. I knew his father was at best cold and distant and at worse abusive, so I tried to be just the opposite. It wasn’t until after he died and I saw all those pictures did I wish my love been more affectionate and less martial.
Jeremiah graduated from a Catholic high school where he excelled at both sports and scholastics. He won a scholarship to Tulane, graduated, and then moved to Colorado. He was big, handsome, and affable lad; he had his mother’s sweetness, his uncle’s sense of humor and a kindness born of a first hand knowledge of life’s cruelties.
Everyone liked Jeremiah.
When he told me he wanted to join the Peace Corps I told him he was crazy. I thought he should remain in the mountains and live the life of a self indulgent ski bum. It seems though I could teach him to box, my sister’s son had a difficult time learning the art of selfishness.
We all grieved for Jeremiah, but his death nearly killed his mother.
Though I can honestly say it was one of the most difficult periods in my life, any grief I felt was a fraction of that felt by his the woman who bore him. She lost not only her first born but the only man in her life. Ten years later, my sister still has not come close to recovering–she never will.
I thought of Jeremiah this past Memorial Day when I heard stories on the radio of those who died in America’s many wars, and the families they left behind.
Though Jeremiah did not perish in battle, my nephew died while serving his country. He traveled to a poor nation to demonstrate America’s compassion and greatness in the deserts of Africa.
His death reminded me of the residual misery that is left behind long after a warrior is buried. Thinking of his passing on a day that honors those who have died for causes, good and bad, further cements my resolve to always question the reasons and validity of each instance our nation sends troops in harm’s way. Though all who serve are heroes, they are sent to serve by those who sit safely behind the protective walls of bureaucracy.
Those leaders need to be reminded that they are not only sending troops they are sending sons and daughters, fathers and mothers. The causes need be just and as a last resort.
Just as we must hold fast to the truth that all who make that ultimate sacrifice are worthy of our respect and gratitude, we must hold rock solid to the principal that we will not endanger the life of even one of our most young and innocent to a cause not creditable.
Not only for the sake of those in harms way but for the mothers, fathers, sisters, children and uncles left behind…………
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of “Biff America” can be seen on RSN television, heard on KOA radio, and read in several mountain publications.This article was originally published in the Summit Daily News, and is now part of a collection in the book Steep, Deep, and Dyslexic.