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On the afternoon of the Boston marathon, as my five-year-old son, Aidan, watched Scooby Doo and downtown Boston dissolved into mass panic, I was checking email in Cambridge.
“Did you hear there were two explosions at the marathon?” a friend wrote.
I dove into the early stories in the Times and Globe, watched footage on NBC News online, scanned the mottled tapestry of prayers and love for Boston that Facebook had become. My father and sister called and a rush of “Are you okay?” texts appeared from New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, D.C. The whole world was trying to figure out what had happened and, in many cases, I was the one person they knew in Boston.
Their distress wasn’t just about two bombs going off and hundreds of emergency vehicles descending upon the finish line: Our national confidence had been shaken yet again. Even in a post-9/11 world where we have to take off our sneakers and flip-flops at the airport before we can board a plane, we still bring our children—our precious children—to public events and believe they will be safe.
I was living in New York on September 11th, 2001. After a disorienting morning, I made my way to the office where I worked as an editor for the film website indieWIRE. When I arrived on Fifth Avenue, I joined a crowd of strangers silently facing downtown Manhattan.
“What are we looking at?” I asked someone.
“The World Trade Center,” he said.
I stared down the long avenue, trying to make sense of the building I saw in the distance standing in a cloud of smoke. How could I have recognized the towers that had long graced our familiar skyline? There was only one. The South Tower had just collapsed.
Later that day, I hooked up with two friends and together we wandered the streets, visited a church, tried to donate blood. We hugged, cried and eventually settled onto bar stools at an East Village dive full of other aimless, dazed New Yorkers to watch Mayor Rudy Giuliani give a rousing speech on TV.
New York was my home, my family, the center of the universe. When malevolent strangers came in and stabbed my town in the heart, I felt is as if they had stabbed me in the heart, too. On September 11th, I was young and single. When I wept in that bar, I didn’t truly believe anything like that could ever happen to me. Being close to it, observing it, knowing people who had first- or second-hand stories was as close as I ever believed such terror would come to me. Now that I have a child, the idea that something like that could happen to me or, worse, him, is so awful that I can’t bear to think about it. I have no tears for strangers—or for entire cities. It didn’t occur to me to attend a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Boston attack. My only thought on that day was to protect my son. My son. My son. My son.
After talking to my husband, who called to say he was making his way home from his office in downtown Boston three miles from the bombsite, I called a friend who had gone to watch the marathon with her son who is Aidan’s age. We were supposed to go with them, but opted for a local playground instead. Aidan was getting over a cold and I wanted to stay closer to home. Now all I could think was: it could have been us. My friend, who had been a couple of miles from the blasts shortly before they occurred, was shaken. She was relieved to be home, but sad, frazzled. “Everyone was so full of joy out there,” she told me. “It was a day that was just so joyful.”
When I first learned of the attack, I was horrified that someone could do such a thing, horrified at the desecration of a public event that celebrates strength, endurance and personal achievement, horrified that a child just three years older than my own little boy had been killed. And when Tamarlan Tsarnaev, one of the suspects, was killed and his brother Dzhokhar left alone, I also couldn’t help but feel for this sweet-faced 19-year-old who was being hunted by every law enforcement officer in the Boston area, a kid, really, that a friend’s daughter who knew him from school described as, “the nicest guy.”
I thought about his mother and what she must be feeling—I couldn’t imagine, really. I wanted to understand what had made this boy commit such a bloody act. When he was finally found cowering, bloodied and freezing, in a boat, I found it incredibly sad that this young man’s life would be destroyed by this one reckless, unforgivable, act. It wasn’t until later that I thought about his victims, both dead and crippled, not to mention the endless ripple effect of friends and family of those whose lives would never be the same.
While September 11 left me a walking basket case, on Patriot’s Day, it was only when Cambridge went into lockdown that my emotions kicked in. Part of me believed lockdown was an overly extreme measure that was sure to cause unnecessary panic, as everyone remained inside, glued to the manhunt unfolding on TV, as they searched for a criminal who was “armed and dangerous” and out there, somewhere. But at the same time, as the threat moved closer to home, I was relieved that the local government was calling for maximum security.
As unlikely it was that the suspect was anywhere near my home—and my son—my head filled with images of bullets flying, a desperate, solitary figure crouched in my backyard, a hostage situation involving a madman and my beautiful boy, a stranger holding a gun to my child’s head. When my husband and son sneaked out into the warm Friday afternoon to play cards on the back porch, I forced them to come back inside.
“Lockdown means stay inside with the doors locked,” I said, determined to get them back inside, even as they shot each other “Mom’s such a worry-wart” looks.
It was only when the suspect had been apprehended that I was finally able to relax. The tightness in my chest released and I ran into the living room, where my husband was on the phone with his parents, and announced, “They got him! He’s in custody. He’s in custody.” For a moment, I was elated, because I knew my son was safe, at least for now.