Three days after cancer was found in Jim Merrigan's brain, the Scottsbluff, Neb., farmer sat upright in his hospital bed and demanded to talk about six deep-blue lakes in central Afghanistan.
Jim had plans for these lakes — big plans — just as he did for Afghan education and health care and the way a town in the Nebraska Panhandle could help the poorest residents of a war-torn country halfway across the world.
But before he could get to the blue lakes, Jim had to plan his own funeral.
I want a Persian poem read at the service, said the U.S. Army veteran. Hemingway had nothing on the Persian poets, Jim told a visitor to his hospital room.
I want a Muslim imam to read a verse from the Koran, said Jim, a Catholic who as a young man had considered the priesthood. If priests and imams listened to one another, the world would be a better place, he said.
And here's the most important thing: no tombstone.
He was thinking of the deep-blue lakes again, how they could be a refuge for Afghan families wanting to escape the overcrowded cities and the unending war.
He was thinking about how a group of unpaid volunteers from Scottsbluff and Gering, together with federal and state parks officials, could help Afghans maintain and beautify their first national park.
They could do it just as they had already helped hundreds of Afghan teachers learn about American schools. They could do it just as they had already raised money and put two Afghan nurses through college. Jim could do it just as he'd become a trusted adviser to Afghan politicians and an ally to a famed Afghan expert and a surrogate father to a young Afghan woman.
I don't want a tombstone because I want my tombstone to be this project, he told friend Pam Hebbert as the nurses hurried in and out of his room.
I want my tombstone to be Afghanistan, he said. I want it to be success.
* * *
Thomas Gouttierre's office phone at the University of Nebraska at Omaha rang on Oct. 7, 2001, the day the United States invaded Afghanistan.
That was normal. In October 2001, the phone of the nationally known Afghan expert was constantly ringing.
Gouttierre picked up, but it wasn't CNN or the New York Times.
It was two men on speakerphone from Scottsbluff.
One of them, Chuck Hibberd, Gouttierre knew because of Hibberd's long career at the University of Nebraska. (Hibberd is now dean of University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension.)
Hibberd and Gouttierre chatted for several minutes about the future of Afghanistan, and then the other man Gouttierre had never met — a man named Jim Merrigan — started to speak.
I feel sorry for the people of Afghanistan, he said. They are going to go through hell because we need to pursue al-Qaida and the Taliban.
I feel bad for them, he told Gouttierre, and so I was wondering ... what can I do to help?
Gouttierre, the director of UNO's Center for Afghanistan Studies, remembers being floored.
“I told him I didn't know,” he said last week. “But I told him I'd keep that question in mind.”
* * *
First came the teachers.
In 2002, Gouttierre and the Center for Afghanistan Studies won a federal grant to bring Afghan women to the United States for teacher training. As part of that grant, UNO had promised that the teachers would spend a week in rural Nebraska.
Gouttierre decided to take up Jim on his promise.
The women arrived in Scottsbluff in a white van, head scarves pulled tightly over their foreheads, not sure what to expect.
Jim had helped arrange a tour of the city's schools, and within hours, women from Kabul and Jalalabad were wandering through Scottsbluff classrooms, asking questions about American technology and answering questions about what an Afghan school looked like.
They ate cafeteria food. They met the mayor. They learned about American students, and the students learned about them.
Nearly 200 Afghan teachers and school administrators would visit Scottsbluff by the time the grant ended.
Next came the politicians.
Jim decided that Scottsbluff should form a closer tie to one area in Afghanistan, and in 2003 he extended an invitation to the then-governor of Bamiyan province, a beautiful but troubled area once famous for its giant Buddha statues — statues the Taliban blew up in the 1990s.
The governor — arguably Afghanistan's most powerful Hazara, a long-repressed ethnic minority — accepted the invitation and came to Scottsbluff. A year later, Jim and a group of Scottsbluff residents traveled to Bamiyan.
They saw overcrowded schools and primitive farming practices and the utter destruction of three decades of war. Jim vowed to do something about this. Then he did.
He took soil samples back home to Scottsbluff. He raised money to bring Bamiyan University professors to the Panhandle, where they studied modern farming practices.
He convened weekly 6 a.m. meetings at Country Kitchen with a group of volunteers who constantly asked, “What else can we do in Afghanistan?”
He went back to Afghanistan and argued religion and politics and culture with Afghan elders. He started reading the Koran so he could better understand.
Jim didn't make a dime from any of this.
“He lived, breathed, drank and ate Afghanistan,” Gouttierre said. “He poured everything into this.”
Then came Haleema.
She was one of two students that Jim had helped to bring to Scottsbluff, raising money — and putting in a sizable chunk from his own wallet — so that they could get nursing degrees.
Haleema lived with another couple in town, but it was Jim who took her hunting when she expressed interest. He taught her to shoot a gun. He taught her to ride a bike. He taught her to drive a car.
Haleema got her degree, moved back to Afghanistan, helped to establish a preschool and worked for a company helping to improve health in rural Afghanistan.
“He considered Haleema a daughter,” Pam Hebbert said. “And he saw her as a future provincial governor in Afghanistan. He saw her as Afghanistan's first woman president.”
* * *
Jim felt dizzy.
He lost his balance as he descended the steps of St. Agnes Catholic Church on a Sunday morning in July. He decided to go to the hospital.
The next day, doctors confirmed the cancer in the 64-year-old man's brain.
No point in chemo. No point in radiation. It was, they said, just a matter of time.
On that Wednesday, Jim sat upright in a hospital bed, planned his funeral and then ignored the nurses urging him to rest.
There were so many other things he wanted to say.
He wanted to say that Afghanistan's future is directly tied to its women, especially the young ones like Haleema. If they can get an education and join the workforce and succeed, then Afghanistan will succeed. It they cannot, then it will not.
He wanted to say that as a young man in the Army, he spent too much time staring through the scope of an M-16 rifle. It made his view too narrow. When he widened his gaze, the world looked different. We should all widen our gazes, he thinks.
And mostly, he wanted to get his final plan for Afghanistan in order.
The six deep-blue lakes west of Bamiyan — collectively known as Band-e-Amir — officially became Afghanistan's first national park in 2009.
But the park has few roads. Old land mines litter the surrounding area. And a series of environmental errors — overgrazing, rampant littering, the overharvesting of fish — have stolen some of the park's natural beauty.
Who better to help the Afghans improve and conserve Band-e-Amir than the experts at the Scottsbluff National Monument, and the outdoorsmen and game-and-parks types who are as thick as flies in Nebraska's Panhandle?
Who better to make it happen than Jim, in a hospital gown, carefully going over the details of the cultural, political and scientific exchanges that could make this dream a reality?
“Sometimes he was tired, and short of breath, but his thinking was very deliberate,” said Hebbert, one of the people to meet with Jim. “He said I'm very grateful to have this time to be able to reflect on Afghanistan, and to get things done.'”
They buried Jim Merrigan Saturday morning, four weeks after his diagnosis and four days after he died.
Tom Gouttierre read a Persian poem. Raheem Yaseer, Gouttierre's longtime assistant director and a Muslim, recited a verse from the Koran.
They put up a tombstone because his loved ones, including his four children and three grandchildren, want to visit, and because not even Jim Merrigan always gets what he wants.
But sometime soon, the other volunteers of a group called the Panhandle Sower Foundation will meet at Country Kitchen at 6 a.m. Together, these people — many of them recruited to the group by Jim — will continue work on a project they are calling “Sister Parks.”
They will keep meeting until Afghanistan's national park is better than it is now.
And then, if Jim gets his way, they will do another good deed in Afghanistan, then another, and then another.
“If we can gain a greater understanding of one another, if we can help one another, then from his perspective that's how we can all make the difference,” said Hebbert, one of the group's members.
“That's how we keep our children and grandchildren from being on the ground in combat boots. That's what he believed.
“That's what we believe now, too.”
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