I was lost in the beauty of the Caribbean sea, allowing the boat to bounce my body across the turquoise surface, when his mobile phone rang. I glanced at the sunburned man on the padded bench across from me. In his Red Sox cap and swimming trunks, he wasn’t so memorable. He was just another Boston tourist, like me, escaping to paradise with his young family for spring break. In that moment, I couldn’t have known that I would remember this man forever.
“Hello?” He was using his “outside voice” – the only one that would allow him to be heard over the sound of the boat engine racing us back to shore.
“What? We’re fine. Why? … oh. Really? No, no we aren’t in Boston right now. We’re away on vacation. I SAID I’M ON A BOAT … IN ST. JOHN … RIGHT … NO (he chuckled)… NOT IN BOSTON… OK then, thanks for checking in.” I couldn’t help but eavesdrop. To be honest, I would have strained to hear him, even if he hadn’t been shouting. It seemed that every third person we met in or around St. John that week was vacationing from Boston. It’s ironic that when we travel away from home to “get away from it all,” encountering someone from home feels like such a comfort, or even a thrill.
I glanced away. I did not want him to catch me watching him and listening in as he explained the call to his wife. I recall thinking that even out here, on a boat, after a swim, headed back to our various hotels, villas and resorts for an afternoon snooze in a hammock, he (and probably everyone else who had booked this day trip) had his mobile phone so close at hand that it rang only once before he answered. We are all so connected. He answered his wife’s quizzical look with a casual shrug. “Something about an explosion at the finish line.”
“Finish line?” I thought. Then: “oh my God. The Marathon. Today’s the Boston Marathon. That’s kind of a big deal.” I stared at the man, and was surprised to see that he had returned his gaze toward the sea. He clearly didn’t get it yet. He would.
“Excuse me,” I interrupted his bliss. “Did I just hear you mention an explosion in Boston?” He blinked at me. “I’m from Boston too,” I explained. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed our exchange attract attention from others.
“Oh, yeah,” he replied. “There was some sort of explosion at the Marathon today. I don’t know anything more about it.” I elbowed my husband, who was sitting to my left, with his back to me as he chatted and laughed with our 13 year old daughter on his other side. I nodded toward the Red Sox fan. “That guy just said there was an explosion at the Marathon finish line!” All around us, smartphones were emerging and families were conferring. My newsfeed confirmed that something had exploded on Boylston Street, but the source and whether there were any injuries were still unclear. “No one I know was in the race,” I thought. “And my family around the country all know that we are away on vacation.” I couldn’t yet broaden my thinking enough to grasp the true reach of the events. Sometimes you have to allow the reverberations to settle before taking stock. Eventually, the “Marathon Bombing” would become a rallying call for people to connect with one another, and to take care of each other. Those stories would emerge over the ensuing weeks, months, and even a year later, when four runners in the 2014 Marathon halted their own progress to carry a collapsed marathoner to the finish line so he could cross it. They were resolute that this year, everyone would finish the race.
For the rest of that April day in 2013, we went about the “business” of our vacation, but I found it hard to gaze at much other than my iPhone screen. To be honest (though this should surprise no one), I wasn’t looking at any news site. I was watching Facebook. That’s where I was getting updates on not only the news, but news of my friends, and their families. Everyone was shaken, but everyone was safe. Some friends had children at the Red Sox game nearby at Fenway, who had begun to wander over toward the race just before the explosions (by then it was clear there had been two bombs, not just one). They heard the explosions and experienced the commotion, but were thankfully spared any direct impact. Still, they were upset, and insecure, souvenirs of the day that would be hard to surrender. Another friend lived downtown near the finish line, on a gorgeous brownstone-lined street. She was forced to “shelter in place” for days while the crime scene area was blocked from foot or other traffic, and investigations pursued. Later I would hear more about the isolation of being alone in an apartment that you cannot leave, having heard and felt the world blow up at your feet, trying to process and cope with the aftermath of that trauma, and the continuing fear, as the hunt for the bombers took hold of the city.
However, in the days following the Marathon Bombings, we were far away from home. Our hotel room had no television, and picture perfect beaches tend to have poor wi-fi connection for a reason. We’d gather updates from the open air bars where we’d eat our meals, and where the televisions were always on. We’d dine on conch fritters or plantains while gazing at footage of destroyed limbs and lives, of horror, and of heroes. We’d sip from our rum drinks and stare at the coverage of helicopters and swat teams spreading across the city, in search of evil. One of the victims, Krystle Campbell, was from our town of Medford. She would be buried in the cemetery at the end of our road. It was all so surreal, and “vacationing” seemed so wrong, but what else were we to do? Waiters and bartenders and beachgoers would ask where we were visiting from. I hated the question, because I knew what was coming as soon as I said “Boston.” Heads would shake, and we’d get that look of sympathy and comments about how terrible it all was, and questions about whether our family and friends were fine. “Yes,” I’d always answer. “No one we know was affected.” I clearly didn’t get it yet.
On the Friday of that week, it was time to fly home, and I was relieved. All week, I had felt remorseful about sunning in St. John while the city of Boston was in pain, in turmoil and in lockdown. We talked a lot about whether the “no fly zone” would lift in time for our return, and what kind of situation we would find when we landed. It was impossible to imagine. I was, at this time, getting updates by text from a friend in Minnesota, who was glued to her television, worried about her daughter, a freshman at Harvard. I hadn’t even thought about this 19-year-old until I heard from my friend in Minnesota — It was that phone call that pushed me out of my own narrow world and helped me to begin considering the real reach of this trauma. There were people who were devastatingly injured or dead because of the bombs. Of course we had considered them. But, there were others too. There were those who were stopped short of the finish line, unable to finish the race. There were those in the city who couldn’t move, stuck in their homes not knowing when the nightmare might end, and afraid of what might happen next. Then there were others farther away, worrying about family or friends in Boston. And there was everyone else – whether they had connection to Boston, or to the Marathon, or not: everyone who was watching and waiting, holding their collective breath and praying for the first responders, for the injured, and for the city. We were all connected. How could I have thought and told anyone who asked that “no one we knew was affected?” After all, who wasn’t affected?
When we were wheels up and headed home, Sean Collier, an MIT campus police officer had been killed after an exchange with the bombers. One of the terrorists was dead. The other terrorist was missing. He had run over his dead brother’s body with a truck as he escaped. There were SWAT teams searching door to door in a small suburb of Boston called Watertown, and the entire city was paralyzed. When we landed in Boston, after three hours of no access to the constant stream of updates, you could have heard a pin drop as the pilot came on the loudspeaker to tell us… the weather in Boston. He TOTALLY didn’t get it! We all waited anxiously for our iPhones to fill us in. The second brother was located in a boat, bleeding, and surrounded. The tension would be over soon and the process of trying to understand the “why” and of working to heal the city and its people would begin. I had been away throughout the ordeal, and had returned to a broken, but still standing, town with a new motto: Boston Strong.
It wasn’t until a year later, when the “anniversary” of the Marathon Bombings was approaching, and the city returned its attention fully to the events and their victims, that some of the details I had missed began to emerge. The Globe published the story of the Richard family who, until then, had worked to stay very private about the agonizing details of the day when they lost their son and brother Martin, and their daughter Jane lost her leg. The article offered a glimpse into the Martin family’s lingering pain and suffering and sadness, even in times of achievement and triumph, even in the face of staying “Boston Strong”. There were more details about soon-to-be father Jeff Bauman, who lost both of his legs but declared himself “Even Stronger” as he released his personal account of the attack, his rescue, and his recovery. I read and heard a lot of Celeste Corcoran, who lost both of her legs, and her daughter Sydney, critically injured and scarred, who supported one another through their recovery and rehabs, and who are Still Standing. It wasn’t until a year after the bombings that I fully understood how very many stories emerged about courage, fear, strength and resilience, and began to know that everyone – everyone, has a story to tell, because in the end, each one of us is connected to the events of that day, and to one another. As we celebrate the successful running of the 2014 Boston Marathon, representing the “taking back” of our city and of a tradition of perseverance , I pray that we not only stay Boston Strong, but that we stay Boston connected.