How I Hope to Remember My First Boston Marathon

I don’t swear very often.  As I used to tell my students, I think the use of vulgarity is the sign of a poor vocabulary.  I still believe that, but there is also certainly something to be said for Mark Twain’s observation that sometimes “profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.”  Yesterday was one such day where it did, and today isn’t much better.  In the course of the last 24 hours I’ve dropped more f-bombs than I have in probably the last 24 months.

Growing up in Boston, it has always been a goal of mine to run the Boston Marathon.  It’s always a special day here, and when the world turns its eyes towards the Hub of the Universe we get to not only show off the best our city has to offer, but the best of the human spirit as well.  After years of saying “next year, next year,” like a pre-2004 Sox fan, this was finally my year to run.

I’d been looking forward to running the race for weeks.  As I passed the 10 kilometer mark and saw my family for the first time, I remembered thinking how glad I was to be running.  I was even more pleased to learn that nearly every girl in the scream tunnel at Wellesley College had a sign giving a reason why you should kiss them and, lest I disappoint, I planted a couple on.

When I passed my family at the top of Heartbreak Hill I even put on a smile, lied, and told my mother I felt great.  After reaching Boston College the crowds became so loud that I took my headphones out and decided to just ride the cheers all the way to Boylston Street.

I was tired, I was sore, and I was less than a mile from the finish line when the runners in front of me all stopped.  I didn’t know what was going on, and it was here that I let out my first expletive.  After all I had been through, after literally decades of wanting it, I was being denied the chance to cross the finish line.

I soon learned that there had been an explosion at the finish and that people were injured.  To be perfectly honest, at that moment I was more concerned about the incredible pain I had developed almost as soon as I stopped running.  After waddling my way back to my parents’ car, and once safely back in the comfort of their living room surrounded by our oldest friends, I began to realize just how lucky I was.

My fundraising efforts were sponsored by a local restaurant, and in return I had agreed to run all 26 miles with a large foam hamburger around my waist.  If I hadn’t been wearing that I would have likely been a few minutes faster.  I can’t say for certain, but there’s a very real possibility that I would have been crossing the finish line just as the bombs were going off.

When I realized that my family would have been standing right there waiting for me, possibly in the blast zone, then I really got pissed off and let off another string of words not repeatable here.  I was already upset that a terrorist had marred one of the city I love’s proudest days, but he may also have injured my family.  Thank God I was so slow.

As we watched the news yesterday afternoon and tried to make sense of what happened, I said more than once that I hoped God would have mercy on the person responsible if I ever got my hands on him, because I wouldn’t.  It was helpful for me then  to read the telegram Pope Francis sent to Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the Archbishop of Boston.

Deeply grieved by news of the loss of life and grave injuries caused by the act of violence perpetrated last evening in Boston, His Holiness Pope Francis wishes me to assure you of his sympathy and closeness in prayer. In the aftermath of this senseless tragedy, His Holiness invokes God’s peace upon the dead, his consolation upon the suffering and his strength upon all those engaged in the continuing work of relief and response. At this time of mourning the Holy Father prays that all Bostonians will be united in a resolve not to be overcome by evil, but to combat evil with good (cf. Rom 12:21), working together to build an ever more just, free and secure society for generations yet to come.

Almost immediately after getting home we heard that among the dead was an 8 year old boy.  While naturally a tragedy no matter who he was, just before I sat down to write this I learned that he was a participant in several of the programs offered by the organization with which I volunteer.  I’m even more heartbroken now, and both the pain in my legs and the anguish of not getting across that finish line don’t seem so important anymore.

It also helps me to reflect back to the attacks of September 1th, when I was a college student in Washington, D.C.  After watching the news for a short while, I walked to the hospital down the road and volunteered in the blood donors’ room.  As I wrote on the 10th anniversary of that day,

Of course I’ve seen the footage countless times since then, but ten years ago today I wasn’t focused on evil.  I was too busy trying to make sense of hundreds of people from all walks of life who were gladly waiting hours to give, to serve, to save a life.  I didn’t have time for those who wanted to take, to destroy, or to kill.  I saw those from Capital Hill sitting next to those from Shaw.  The uber-conservative Catholic from my own university chatting with the ultra-liberal lesbian from the campus down the street.  The rabbi leading the gentiles – and likely some atheists – in prayer.

On September 11, 2001, I saw the best of humanity.  Never Forget can be and was used, a trite slogan used to justify actions taken that I disagree with strongly.  But as someone who read the numbers on the bottom of the low flying fighter jets’ wings as they flew overhead in the days that followed, I don’t want to remember what happened in the morning.  I will never forget what I saw in the afternoon.

I hope that in time I am able to look back on this day and not think of how upset I was at everything the happened, but instead of how proud I was of my sister.  When she saw the crowds running away from the finish line and learned why, she ran towards them.  When a cop wouldn’t let her past, despite the fact that she is an emergency room nurse, she jumped in a cab and went straight to her hospital where she took care of victims.

Ten years from now I don’t want to remember the bombs.  I want to remember my sister, even if she does have a mouth like a sailor.