Today, I turn 26, but I barely remember that it’s my birthday.
There is no wine and cheese party this year. There is no birthday cake. There is hardly any anxiety that I am officially in my late 20s. And there is barely any happiness today.
On Thursday morning, I received tragic news that my friend, Stephanie, had passed away. Stephanie is a member of my stag and of Team Zinder. We had been installed in our posts a little more than a week when the news came.
I was one of the last to receive the news because I do not get very good cell phone reception. After numerous attempts to contact me, Peace Corps called my supervisor, who I happened to be with, and he handed the news.
Immediately, I knew something was wrong, but I assumed it was related to security, but when the words came through the phone, I didn’t believe them. I still don’t.
Nigeriens don’t cry very much and aren’t used to people doing so, especially not white girls, but I couldn’t help buckling over. My whole body hurt. I told my supervisor that I had to get Niamey as soon as possible and I ran home to pack. My host mother and sister started hauling things into my house as I threw random clothes into my backpack while bawling.
By the miracle of God, I was able to get a car to Zinder so late in the day and made it to my hostel to spend the evening with my team. We all hugged each other with intensity and refusal to let go. Maybe we could handle this, I thought, now we are all together.
The next day, we took a 15-hour bus ride to Niamey. It was the worst the travel experience I’ve ever had. Every time I tried to sleep, I saw Stephanie’s face and heard voice. All memories of her played in mind as if a horror movie I couldn’t shut off.
At about 8:30 p.m., we arrived in Niamey and were taken to the bureau where other volunteers were waiting for a team meeting about the events of the next few days. When we got out of the car, I couldn’t go inside the bureau. Everyone was waiting there and I thought if I refused to be in the room of mourning, it wouldn’t be real. I wanted to fake the situation for at least another minute.
Seeing all these faces again was surreal. I wasn’t supposed to see my teammate until the end of October and my stagmates until January. But, here we all were, less than two weeks after we left for installation together again. Hugs and well wishes flowed from person to person as we tried to process the reason we were all there.
Today, we are having a memorial ceremony for Stephanie. After, we will follow her body to the airport which our country director is taking back to the U.S. to deliver to her parents. Then, she’ll be gone. She’ll be home.
Stephanie was one of the first people I met from my stag when she commented on my blog and we emailed back and forth before staging. She became a good friend as talked about food and joked. “Heather, I make fun of you because I love you,” she would say. We decided that I would write her biography, her being the comic and me the writer. It would be my big break, she told me.
Right now, if just feels like Stephanie has left Peace Corps and is back America with the others who ended their service. I picture hanging out at the pool and eating at her favorite restaurant, Chili’s. (I teased her numerously that she lived in a major U.S. city and that is where she chose to eat.)
But this vibrant life is now a bright soul in the afterlife. I want to hug her family, and tell them there is a hole in our family too.
As we are all together, I imagine Stephanie here and what she would say. “Vida, just wear the dress. Seriously, no one cares.” “You are not going to play that song at my memorial.” “You guys, I love you.”
After the memorial, we have decided to go out for dinner to celebrate my birthday. If there is a silver lining any of this, for me, it’s that I get to spend my day with my friends instead of alone in my village. Yet, the whole day is commemoration of her life. We’ll eat good food and drink wine, and it’ll feel like Stephanie is there. She will be, she’ll always be with us, in body or spirit.
Stephanie, this post and this service is service for you. Please join us for breakfast burritos and dance parties from heaven. I love you.