My sleep last night was utterly untroubled. Today, I have been overwhelmed several times by a wash of immense gratitude. I did not see any of the horror at the finish line yesterday from where I stood, stranded with my two boys around mile marker 22 of the Boston Marathon. Their father, a charity runner, was suffering cramps and hobbling somewhere between us and Copley, first heading toward it, and then, mercifully heeding my plea, turning back and plodding for us where we waited at a roadblock enforced by B.A.A. volunteers.
That something was wrong at all unfurled slowly for those of us lining the course. We watched Christophe come down the hill at Boston College, hugged and high fived him, and then watched his back recede toward the city as droves of other middling sloggers doggedly trudged along behind him. The boys and I got on the T and were reading a book when we were summarily ordered off. No more trains to Boston. No indication of any buses coming for us either. I hoisted Simon onto my shoulders and took Malcolm’s hand and we trudged off for Boston too. We got a few hundred yards along when I heard an agitated college student pleading with a cop for information. “How bad was the explosion? Did people die?” “Possibly several,” he answered her curtly and told us all to go home if we could. I set Simon onto a high stone wall and stood against it with Malcolm beside me. I didn’t know where this explosion had happened, and I didn’t know where Christophe was on the route. I robotically handed Simon an apple, and, unable to look my sons in the eye, I stared hard at a little twig lying on the mulch. I stared at it, this little gray forked twig, and recalibrated my future as it would be if I never saw him again. If we three weren’t just on our own for this one day.
When we reached the medical aid tent near the 35 kilometer mark, B.A.A. volunteers gently told me I could go no farther. The sky had clouded over and the wind had shifted, coming in off the ocean. A few dejected runners sat on cots wrapped in mylar blankets. The volunteers offered blankets to us, and we donned the metallic capes that usually mark triumphant finishers alone. I had reached Christophe by phone, and knew he was making his way back to us along the deserted race route. Volunteers piled sweatshirts, more blankets, and their own jackets onto me and my kids, hunched on the curb. One volunteer offered his warm car, and I set the boys in the backseat with water, and pretzels and music. I stood outside fixedly watching the little hill where Christophe would eventually appear, pacing a small ellipse on my makeshift widow’s walk, flanked by the folding cots and porta-potties of a partially dismantled medical aid station. All the other runners had been shuttled elsewhere, and these volunteers kept the station open solely for me and my boys, waiting, I insisted, on their father who was certainly coming, but slowly. They would come and stand next to me, asking if I needed anything. I could usually not manage much more than a grateful shake of the head, and I kept my face averted from the car window where I knew the boys would be trying to watch me. Like typical New Englanders, no one tried to hug me, or get too sentimental. I’m grateful for that too. They just stood next to me, and spoke kindly to my sons, and watched with me. A woman from across the street came out and offered extra jackets to my boys.
When Christophe crested the hill and made his wincing way down to me, and I pulled his salt-encrusted body into an embrace, I heard a small burst of applause and turned to see all the volunteers lined up, clapping. They drove us all to another aid station, and then to a staging area where runners lay on the floor or sprawled in chairs with none of their belongings and no way to get home. Volunteers brought them pizza, and sandwiches, and coordinated rides.
I didn’t see any news or any footage of what happened until we were home last night. But even after I had, I felt no anger, no defiance, not even any curiosity about who did this, or why. Unlike those of you who saw the events unfold in the familiar modern news way–a repeating reel of wide angle footage of smoke clouds, bloodied bodies in wheelchairs and stretchers–I saw it all like the blind men of the proverb who all describe a different part of the elephant. Our day began watching all the starts at home on tv. Limited mobility racers, wheelchair, elite women, and then elite men just as we left for the train. Changing to the green line, we listened to a man playing Mexican folk songs down in the subway. I understood only a few words of his song, “beautiful” and “children,” but we left him a dollar for the tune that would stay in my head all day. We watched the race from B.C. where beer-fueled throngs of students cheered with seemingly inexhaustible enthusiasm. Runners cramped up and grimacing, runners in tutus or top hats, a guys named Charles dressed as a fairy, runners dressed as the full cast of Star Wars, runners wearing hamburger costumes. Regular people doing something enormously hard and regular people cheering them unceasingly. I saw Team Hoyt go by, and the woman pushing her disabled daughter too. The Tufts charity running team, the Children’s Hospital team, all the people who gave money to these causes and who weren’t there but whom these runners carried on their backs too. The names of children, mothers, fathers lost, emblazoned on the shirts and arms and bibs of these runners.
I know how you all feel, watching it all. I understand the shock, the disbelief, the anger and the demands to know why. But from where I stood, my whole day was suffused with the pure good of humanity. And that’s not unique to Boston, or to America. It was a comfort to me to be in a place I know rather than some far distant city, and among strangers who, if nothing else, talk in accents like my family’s. I don’t claim any special privilege for being from here, or for being there yesterday. What I saw was the good. And I see it still. It’s all I see. The lights in New York, Hawaii, Japan. The outpouring from people who desperately want to help somehow, to ease the pain. Gestures small and large, shirts worn in solidarity, hand-made signs, facebook and twitter messages. To everyone who feels helpless to aid us: I’m from here, and I was there. And you are helping. You are the good. And there was so much good.