About This Marathon Week: Reflections from a Norfolk native on five days of terror in Boston

by | May 3, 2013 | Other News

The word Marathon has been used in many ways. ‘It was a marathon effort.’ Thoughts of ancient Greece. But add the word, ‘Boston,’ in front of it, and a jubilant scene of miles of cheering spectators marveling at the heroic efforts of the most athletic to the most compassionately tragic comes to mind. Tragic? Before 2013? Yes.

Every year, people run in memory of those who have lost their lives to disease, or in honor of those fighting to defeat physical infirmity. And many of those very sufferers are in the race itself, pushed along in wheelchairs by superhuman runners who carry their own weight as well as the emotional and physical weight of loved ones. Always, a mix of emotions pulls at the heartstrings of those watching. We cheer them on, marvel at them, shake our heads at the physical endurance they exhibit, appreciate the funds they raise to help others, laugh with the ones running in costume, like the beer can attached to the hat just out of reach of the hand outstretched…the whole time he runs 26.2 miles, and we feel awe at those who seem too old, too out of shape, too incapacitated, and too much like ourselves to be running all that way.

And so it was this year for my son and me. We met friends at our favorite spot, one with enough spectators to be lively, but not enough to feel like a big crowd. This year we walked around to find lunch. I felt like I was back in college—there were DJs, live bands on the street, burgers grilling, and a real party atmosphere. It added to the already glorious day. Earlier than usual for us, we decided to leave, and home we went.

I sat down at the computer to write a variation on a marathon joke I had heard earlier. And then the calls began. I did what many did. It must be a transformer, I rationalized. Probably an electric overload, my mind conjectured. They’ve had blackouts in that area before. And only a dozen injured, so thank goodness it was contained.

Needless to say, all my early reassurances were attempts at optimism, tinged perhaps with a bit of denial. As the story unfolded, only the raw truth held forth.

Like others, we found it hard to disengage from the news reports. “Why haven’t they closed Boston schools for tomorrow?” I asked, as a core part of Boston was shut down for investigation. “They’re on vacation,” my children reminded me, as indeed public schools, conveniently, were on vacation all week. But not private schools. My son attends a Jewish school.

The next few days were a blur of trying to do normal things, but feeling numb. My lens, and that of everyone around, was colored with the images of the remorseless explosions and the increasing numbers of injured that were being announced. What were their injuries? How long would their healing take? Knowing full well that recovery of body is different than recovery of mind, of heart, of spirit.

On Thursday, we went to bed knowing that a search was on for two suspects. A quick check upon waking to make sure there was no news of note immediately changed that expectation. One suspect was dead and the other on the run. It felt somewhat remote, being in Cambridge and Watertown, a good 20 minutes drive from home. It’s in the hands of law enforcement. Good. Do I work out now or wait to go for a run later, I wondered. I’ll work out now with Rami (my husband), so that I can watch the news at the same time. It was a wise move, as soon we learned we were to be on lockdown. Four days after 27,000 runners cruised the streets of Boston, running outdoors on this unusually warm day of the year would have been nice, but was forbidden. My son’s school was asked by police to close. People as far away as a good 20 minutes drive were told to stay indoors. Businesses stayed closed.

Emails and calls from friends and family poured in. They punctuated the addicting heavy pull of nonstop television coverage. It was a long day, with each personal emotion magnified by the emotions of watching and worrying. At first, it was exciting—the police were all over it, and the bad-guys-getting-caught ending seemed near. Around 10 am, they had surrounded an area, and it seemed clear the suspect was in it. Then the words “Earlier” started appearing as the reporters spoke, making us realize that the finishby- the-top-of-the-hour ending of most crime shows wasn’t happening. When a reference to a 51-day standoff came, it not only awakened me to remember what was happening near Waco, Texas at present, it also made me realize that it was time to turn off the TV. This could go on for a while. Well, 51 days for us became 15 hours. The pull to watch what was happening brought the TV back on, and it was mesmerizing. There was always some development. There was also repetition, but we couldn’t stop watching. It felt like a long bad movie. The phrase that comes to mind? A marathon.

During the lockdown, we felt safe being so far from the unfolding scene. While everything was shutting down, hospitals stayed open. Rami’s hospital had many injured from the marathon, as well as the dead suspect. An email to employees said they were expected at work, so Rami went in. In his building, which is primarily research, he was one of the few there. I felt okay about it—he was getting a lot done, and he was available should the hospital need him. But then he called at around 11 am and said there were police all over at his hospital and at Children’s, across the street; that staff needing to go from one campus to another had to be transported by police; and that no one was allowed to come—or go. That’s when I got a huge pit in my stomach and I wanted him home. For the next few hours, I sunk into a blob on the sofa, trying every once in a while to distract my son with a game, reading, etc. It wasn’t happening. The TV blared endlessly, My daughter came up from being downstairs with the dog to check in from time to time, and I took occasional phone calls and sent messages to Rami urging him to come home.

At home we felt safe. We had marveled so many times at how lucky it was that there were so many medical people on hand near the bombings—not unlike when the streets were empty when Israel was invaded on Yom Kippur. We respected that not having people out and about could keep people safe and help the search. But the warm quiet day teased us, beckoning us outdoors. We have a deck off our kitchen, and we ventured out from time to time to feel the fresh air and take a break.

Rami came home before 2 pm. He spent hours helping someone medically via computer, but he was home.

Around dinnertime, for no apparent reason, the lockdown was discontinued. We were happy to go out, and our local Chinese restaurant was happy as well. It wasn’t as busy as on Christmas, but it felt close. During dinner we learned about a boat, and by the time we came home, we glued ourselves once again to the television, turning it off only after President Obama had spoken.

The weekend before the Marathon, we watched the movie Les Miserables. The songs echoed in our heads all week. Theirs was a Revolution that caused horrible deaths. What was the revolution in this case?

The second suspect was taken to Rami’s hospital. What must it be like for those caring for him, knowing that part of the motivation for helping him recover is to find out what happened to him? Why a seemingly likable and promising young man went so terribly wrong. There was a point when the emotions went from suspense and fear to “Can it really take hundreds of police, FBI, SWAT teams, etc. to find one 19-year-old boy?” And then somehow the thoughts focus on that phrase: a 19-year-old boy. And then you picture a scared kid, no longer in the protective perhaps, “incite-ful” no doubt presence of his older brother. And you feel sad. And disillusioned. And disappointed.

And then you remember the runners. The brave and heroic people who have been working all this long hard week to make things right. The medical personnel, the police and public servants, the hospital personnel, the party atmosphere less than a week ago.

It’s raining heavily right now. And you think how good it is the rain didn’t come earlier, as predicted, when it would have erased evidence and thwarted many of the needed efforts to capture and recover. And when it would have prevented us from getting out and going for a walk to decompress after a day of lockdown and a week of emotion. Emotion that for us seems almost superficial, given that everyone we know is safe. But emotion that we know we share with a world that was watching too, and worrying too, and is also in need of recovery.

by Joni Fink Burstein