Father’s day is normally considered a celebratory occasion filled with the requisite grilled dinner, gifts, and so on. But this year, it evokes a life lesson my late father passed on, and how it sustained me on Marathon Monday.
For me, the best part of the Boston Marathon is the spirit of fellowship and togetherness that lines the length of the course. The synergy between exhausted but exhilarated runners and the roar of support from family, friends and strangers on the sidelines has always been intoxicating. These intangibles must be felt in person, which is exactly why I brought my daughter down to the finish line, meeting up with friends. It was a beautiful, brisk afternoon and after ample time cheering runners by the row of international flags, my young daughter and her friends begin to lobby for hot cocoa. Us Mom’s were always happy to grab some caffeine, so down we ambled into the Starbucks at 755 Boylston enjoying our cozy drinks while staring straight out through the front window at the colorful sea of runners. Determination and joy were etched on their faces as the finish line was finally in their sight.
And, then, in the blink of an eye, there was a deafening blast, and a seismic shift in the ground. Almost reflexively, a stampede of bodies rushed to the back of the long cavern like store. I remember dropping my latte, pivoting to see my daughter running, and frantically trying to catch hold of her. We reunited in the bathroom, with the bulk of the mob, a sensible reaction considering this was the furthest spot from the street. By the time we reached the bathroom, the second explosion shattered the glass storefront. My daughter was pressed up against me as we huddled in the bathroom with other families and my trembling hand went to dial my husband who was writing code in his office. I had full faith that one call to him and this would all be sorted out, his mensa-like mind could solve near any problem. On my cell, I tried in vain to calmly explain our position while sirens, alarms and screams made my voice barely audible. Communicating in real time, he found nothing on the web, but did uncover info on twitter about possible bombs at the finish line. His soothing words of support were cut short by a new directive from the Starbucks team to move into the basement for safety.
Tucked into the Starbucks basement, myself and other parents tried to help our children remain calm. All cell phones were out of service, and we had no more information save my husbands’ feedback. I had not seen the smoke or devastation on Boylston Street, as the first bombs detonated a few blocks up. We only experienced the auditory and physical sensation of the blasts. As we tried to catch our breath, the questions started swirling in my mind. Were there more bombs? Were they at street level or underground? Were planes headed into the city, this building? And was this basement shelter now our coffin? I swallowed back the acid in my throat as waves of fear swept through me. And, with no real understanding of the scope of the situation and no connection to the outside world, the atmosphere in that dim basement began to feel suffocating. My friend and fellow Mom was in shock, fighting back a panic attack while her three girls wailed. Of course, I was in the same camp, but because I knew my daughter was hanging on my lead, I made a concerted effort to mask all my fears. Looking at my daughter and her friends’ tear-streaked faces, my own sense of dread was forcibly eclipsed by the mother bear instinct to protect her young. And in that moment, I felt the echo of my late Dad’s mantra to ‘stay together’. This directive was barked at us as young children, throughout adulthood and even into married life with our own kids. Dad, a former marine, could best be described as strict and demanding. As the eldest of 3 boys reared in a rough and tumble section of Everett, MA, he learned from a young age what it meant to defend and provide for a family. He witnessed his mother pass away in front of him at age 12, and saw his father work 2 jobs to sustain the family. His boyhood energy was spent playing football, running track and skirting trouble. Enlistment in the Marines out of Everett High gave him purpose, a ticket to college, and another family. His gruff exterior belied a deep and impenetrable bond for his team, his platoon, and his family. His message to ‘stay together’ was one of the last gifts he left us when he passed away. So, with full confidence I looked at our group and explained we would all be fine but we’d have to work as a team. We formed a huddle and started with deep breathing followed by prayer. Although it felt like hours, it was likely 20 minutes before we decided enough time had elapsed since we last heard any explosions and our group would exit out through the back alley. We formed a human chain, trekking the 3 miles to Cambridge with hundreds of other shell shocked souls while helicopters circled above. We were reunited with family and save a minor cut on my daughters’ leg, were spared any injury. We were incredibly lucky, and grateful.
It was not till later that evening, camped in front of the TV, that I began to comprehend the extent of the tragedy. I think of the victims daily; the loss of life, limb and the many families facing unimaginable loss. Yet every time I witness the replay of the destruction on Boylston Street with strangers and first responders running directly into the smoke and mayhem to provide rescue and relief, I am overcome with a sense of hope, and reminded that the spirit of unity that is the Boston Marathon was not lost on April 15, 2013. My daughter will develop her own narrative on this event some day, but my wish is for her to recall her grandfather’s wise words, understanding that there will always be strength, safety and goodness when you ‘stay together’.