My international-life inspiration, ten years gone

Ten years ago, I had just moved to Accra, Ghana’s coastal capital in West Africa, when I learned from a Yahoo news story that Glen was dead. A headline about an attack in Afghanistan caught my eye. I clicked. And my life has never been the same.

Glen was my cousin, and – after an epic three-month, 5,000-mile bike ride across the U.S. that he led me into in late 2002 – my best friend. He was a gentle, quietly confident soul who learned languages quickly, made friends easily, excelled at any sport he could get someone to try with him, and loved to travel.

He trekked extensively in the US, Chile and Nepal; lived for awhile in Havasupai at the bottom of the Grand Canyon; climbed Mt. Rainier. After a long career as a nurse in different cities around the U.S. and a short career as a realtor in his native Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he volunteered with a Christian medical organization in Afghanistan. He wanted to see even more of the world and, true to the ethic of service to God and community instilled in him by his Amish-Mennonite upbringing, be of use to others.

Glen and I both grew up with a family heritage that emphasized service, pacifism, and cross-cultural outreach. Because of this, we shared a belief that the wrongs of the world would be made better not through coercion, force, or military might, but by personal bridges built between people and cultures over time. He died putting that belief into action.

This was the life that was cut short on August 5, 2010, along with nine other companions as they returned from a medical mission to one of Afghanistan’s remotest valleys. Though the news article I opened that day in Ghana didn’t name Glen or any of the others killed, from the description of the trek I knew there was no way he would have stayed home in Kabul with such an adventure on offer.

My brain stopped. The words on my screen turned to gibberish. My wife and I scoured the web for updates. I called Glen’s brother, Jerry, who confirmed the news story as he rocketed home toward his parents and his older brother, Ernie, in Pennsylvania – a summer trip with the kids cut short.

Though we had just flown to Ghana from the United States, my wife and I flew back. I said some words at the funeral. As the son of an Amish-Mennonite preacher who grew up religiously wearing dress pants and long sleeve button-downs to church, it felt a little scandalous to stand behind that church pulpit sporting sandals and a pair of shorts. But this, we all agreed, was the way Glen would have wanted it. He was never big on ceremony and was famous for wearing shorts even in the dead of Northeast winters.

There was no body at the funeral. It arrived days later, transported home – somewhat ironically, I thought – by the U.S. military. Glen’s body was grey, shriveled by death, by the bullets that killed him, by days of lying in the open. His mom noted the unique crook of a finger, a birthmark she recognized.

Afterward, my wife drove down Route 23, a two-lane road dotted by semi-rural towns and sub developments that used to be farms. I hung my head out the window like a dog and pulled in the sweet, living air. I was so happy to be alive, I felt guilty, and sick to my stomach that Glen wasn’t.

Ten years later, and my wife and I are moving to yet another new country. I wrote the beginning of this essay on a UN-chartered airplane as it carried us to Timor Leste, a small island nation between Indonesia and Australia. My wife works in international humanitarian development, and tends to get jobs in places that many would consider off the beaten track.

As the best man at my wedding in 2008, Glen’s toast talked about his admiration at how quickly I had adapted to life in Pakistan, where I had moved a couple years before to join the woman I was marrying as she expanded her international career. Before meeting my wife, I had left North America only once, to explore the relative comforts and cultural familiarity of Europe.

But it was in large part because of Glen’s world-traveling example and open-minded input that I had been able to find the courage to date and marry a woman who likes to change countries every few years, the flexibility to adapt to international life. I still remember him schooling me on what it was like to travel in areas of the world where I probably wouldn’t want to drink water from the water fountain, if there even was one – an implausibility that shocked me then.

When I said goodbye to Glen at the end my wedding days, I said goodbye to him forever. He left for Afghanistan shortly after. We ended up living not that far apart – he in Kabul and I in western Pakistan. I dreamed sometimes of riding my bike to Kabul to visit him, but such a journey through Taliban-held country was of course impossible. Improbably, the instability of the region caught up with him in a way no one wanted to imagine.

Ten years later, and the world is a different place than when Glen left us. I wish he were here for this moment. His skills to care for others would be put to good use during a pandemic. His quiet, gentle encouragement would lift us all. And I’m pretty sure he would have found a way to make positive change in the Black Lives Matter era – he once told me about a long back and forth he had on social media nudging a less progressive friend forward, a patient exchange few others try.

Ten years later, I still miss him.

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Here’s Glen in 2002, pleased as punch to be packing his bike trailer for an epic ride across the United States.

3 thoughts on “My international-life inspiration, ten years gone

  1. I remember the day sitting with Glen, Lydia, and Tim at Dennys I think in Indiana. We were moving Lydia from AZ to PA and Glen was there so we arranged to have breakfast together. He was going cross country with Carl but it wasn’t working out. I said “come back with us and wait for Joe (you were coming back from California i think.) and make the trip with him.” Everyone gasped. I thought I said something terrible. Turns out it was brilliant. He loaded his stuff and came back to PA to wait for you. I loved your writing from that trip. I’m so glad you were able to share that experience with him. ❤

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  2. Beautiful tribute, Joe. You were not yet a full fledged world-traveler when we met, but even then you felt like one of the more wise, experienced persons I had encountered. I find when connecting with someone who is so open to participating in the world, it inspires you to try it too, and I hold in my heart a collection of people that bolstered me in my adventures. I’m grateful for you, and for your words.

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