Before it would become one of the worst days ever, it was the best. On April 15th, 2013, my husband and I drove two hours into the city to see my niece Lauren run the Boston Marathon. We arrived just after noon, excited about having a runner in the race, and it seemed like everyone else felt the same — the spectators were as full of energy as the runners themselves. Later, when the day turned into a living nightmare, I would remember the mood of the crowd as we had arrived.
We were tracking Lauren, with a cell phone app that allowed us to follow her progress. Somehow we had failed to catch sight of her as she passed by the 40-kilometer marker on Beacon Street, the place where we had positioned ourselves to watch the race. Searching the mob of runners for her familiar face, I could feel the level of adrenaline in the air, the effort of the runners so close to their goal, and the jubilation of the spectators, including my own. But by the time I refreshed my app once again, wondering where she could be, I saw that Lauren had just finished the race.
Let’s go meet her at the finish line, my husband and I decided, and off we went.
It was 2:48pm.
What a perfect day, was the common sentiment between runners and spectators alike — cool but not too cold, and if I remember correctly, the sky was a whitish-gray — not uncommon for an afternoon in New England — a dull haze of a sky that the sun spends most of winter fighting to cut through. The kind of day that seems to highlight the rugged character of a place like Boston, its winding cobblestone streets, historic brick buildings and the black water of the harbor with its fishing boats, gulls and restaurants. It was a great day to be in Boston, and a great day to run a marathon.
Lauren is my sister’s eldest daughter. She runs the marathon in memory of her mother whose death from cancer in 2005, while Lauren was still in college, gave her that extra drive to take on the enormity of the race, to raise money for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, to turn her hurt into someone else’s healing, something positive and beautiful.
We’d never been spectators at this particular event even though it was Lauren’s sixth year. Usually her father flew in from Chicago to watch, or my mother from Florida, or my brother and his family who live in the Boston area. Some family member always came to cheer her on. This particular year, it was my husband and I, and it was a bittersweet honor. I couldn’t have been more proud of my niece for the tremendous commitment she had, but I also knew that my sister would have loved to have been there — and she was in a sense. I’m sure that she was with Lauren as always, every step of the way. And she was with me too, in my heart and mind. Her memory pressed hot against my eyelids, blurring the faces of the runners, it filled my chest, making it hard to breath. I watched that race with the pride of a mother and the love of a sister as well as an aunt.
We never heard the sound of the explosion when it went off at 2:49pm.
We first realized that something had happened a few minutes after we started to make our way to meet Lauren. We were approaching the underpass at Mass Avenue. Runners, the look of frustration and dismay on their faces, found themselves in a bottleneck, police officers forcing them to stop less than a mile from the finish line. What’s going on, we asked to anyone in the crowd. We began to hear the people around us talking about an explosion ahead, then two explosions.
At the finish line, they said.
Lauren was there, at the finish line
I know I must have looked at my husband in disbelief before we both took off through the crowd, like so many others, needing to see for ourselves if our runner was safe. Tears streamed down my face, as my mind screamed, she must be ok, please God, let her be ok!
All around us the world had changed from one of cheering and joy, to a sea of bewildered faces, some crying, some just lost and confused. Like a tidal wave of energy building, at first there was just the sound of one siren, then another, then another. Police cars, military personnel, and helicopters appeared. Within minutes, if not seconds, the first responders swarmed upon the scene as if they had been waiting in the shadows, ready for anything.
A soldier dressed in military fatigues, appeared before us— she stood in the middle of the road and raised her hand — directing us to turn back the way we had come. My mind was whirling. The military is here. Where did they come from? What’s happening? How frightening and yet somehow comforting it was to witness the instant response to …to what?
We still had no idea.
I followed my husband out of the sea of people like a child following her parent. It felt utterly unnatural to be walking away from Lauren, away from answers. I was one of those shocked faces in the crowd, my desperate focus was on my phone as I tried and tried to contact Lauren. Bits and pieces of other people’s conversations reached us. We heard that there was carnage caused by a bomb.
When exactly did those bombs go off?
I kept asking.
Be calm, my husband said.
But with every call that never connected, to Lauren, to her father, to her sister, to my mother— my panic escalated. We finally connected to a daughter in Florida and as she watched the television news coverage of the marathon bombings, she filled us in. Terrorism, she said. Two bombs, people maimed, people dead, horrific, tragic end to a beautiful day.
All I could think of was my sister. If Lauren was in that mess, then her mother was with her. The kind of connection my sister had to her daughters was just that sort of powerful. What I didn’t know was if Lauren was protected or greeted by her mother. I was praying for the former.
Spilling out over the streets of Boston, people began to head away from the event. Spectators and runners alike, zombies, the triumph of the day sucked out of the atmosphere. Our car was parked a few miles away and yet, I was so engrossed in our search for Lauren, I can only remember how I watched my husband’s feet ahead of mine, one step after the other — if he stepped up, I stepped up. He was my eyes along the path as I dialed my phone, time after time.
Everyone seemed to be looking at their phones, desperately searching for news, for answers. Eventually we began to receive texts from family members who told us that Lauren was safe. When we finally heard from Lauren herself, nearly an hour after the bombings, I was able to take my first real, deep breath, a trembling sigh of relief.
By the time we were back in our car it was almost 5:30pm.
Heading out of Boston we were drained yet profoundly grateful. The day had held so much promise of the great accomplishments of athletes from all over the world. But after all, the greatness we witnessed was of a different type all together, the kind that’s tragic to experience, but very good to know exists — the first responders at work — efficiently directing the terrified masses of people, bravely running toward unknown danger to help however they could, and capably caring for the injured. It was nothing less than awe-inspiring amidst the panic of the day. As we drove west along I-90 toward home, lost in silent stupor, we watched as dozens of police cars and ominous looking, dark vans belonging to tactical units from surrounding states, sped toward Boston to help. Impressive, we agreed. Thank God for them, we said.
I started the day with tears of joy and pride and ended it with tears of horror mixed with sadness and exhaustion, and for my family at least, relief. I had been so excited to finally be able to do the cheering that my sister would have wanted to do for our Lauren at the Boston Marathon and, like everyone in that crowd who’s energy had so powerfully filled the atmosphere only hours before, I was left with only shock to fill the void, at least at first.
Because no terrorist attack would stop those die hard athletes.
The race has gone on and Lauren will run for her tenth and final year in the Boston Marathon this year, 2017, and for that we are blessed. But Krystle Campbell, Lu Lingzi, and little Martin Richard, who were killed on April 15, 2013, as well as the police officer, Sean Collier who was shot three days later by the same terrorists, will be in our hearts always — as will all of the people who were injured that day.
The reaction that the citizens of Boston, and for that matter, people all over the world, had to the terror that the evil Tsarnaev brothers caused on that April afternoon, will forever remind me that people come together in moments of crisis. All of the events of that day, from the thrill of friendly competition between runners from around the globe to, in the end, being witness to the unity of humanity in the worst of situations, will remind me that we have the capacity to reach deep within ourselves, like marathon runners, and find there, strength, and courage in the face of adversity — and most of all, that there’s a love we have for each other, that lies gently under the surface — there when we need it most.