On Sunday when J and I took the T into Boston to see the samurai at the Museum of Fine Arts, we stopped at Copley Square to visit the makeshift memorial that has arisen near the site of the Boston Marathon bombings. I wanted to see where it all happened—I wanted to stand on the very spot—even though the bombings happened in a place where I’ve stood many times before. Somehow, I hoped that being there, now, would help me understand what it must have been like to be there, then.
The Marathon bombings happened in a place where I’ve frequently been. Years ago, during the first year of my Master’s program at Boston College, I lived in a depressing, ant-infested apartment in Malden—a lifetime away from campus, it seemed—and the Boston Public Library at Copley Square was like a second home to me.
During the second year of my Master’s program, I lived in a garden flat in Beacon Hill, a stone’s throw from Boston’s Back Bay, so I’d regularly watch the marathon near the finish line on Boylston Street, right across from the library. In those days, I’d typically show up in the afternoon, after the elite front runners and fleet-of-foot had already finished, when the injured, the underdogs, and the unlikely—the folks, in other words, who really needed an audience to cheer them on—were gamely limping their way to the finish line.
Revisiting Boylston Street cemented the realization that the only thing separating me and countless other Marathon spectators from being at the Right Place at the Wrong Time was simply time and chance. If tragedy struck at 2:50 pm on April 15, 2013, it could have easily struck minutes, hours, or even years earlier: then rather than now, that year rather than this.
Why did tragedy strike here and now, with these particular people and passersby present? That is the great unanswerable question in the aftermath of tragedy, a version of the scandal of particularity, as theologians call it. If either grace or grief (take your pick) can happen anywhere and at any time, why did one or the other happen Now and Here? It’s not morbid curiosity that has been driving Bostonians to visit the bombing site in droves: it is the abiding, unanswerable question every survivor at some point asks: “Why not me?”
In the aftermath of tragedy, there is also a curious desire—one that might seem counter-intuitive, if you’re observing it secondhand—to immerse oneself in a large, anonymous crowd, or to simply be outside with others. Since the Boston Marathon happens on a state holiday, many of us watched coverage of the bombings in the relative isolation of our homes, with only our closest loved ones present. “Stay away from crowds” was one of the warnings issued in the immediate aftermath of the attack, as Boylston Street was blocked, the Marathon was cancelled, and confused runners were re-routed to safety.
This isolationist message was underscored on Lockdown Friday, when venturing outside and gathering in crowds were officially verboten. After the second bombing suspect was captured and the city-wide lockdown was rescinded, the collective psyche gravitated irresistibly in the opposite direction. Now, there is something hugely soothing about being outside and with others, whether at a memorial service, candlelight vigil, or bustling baseball game. The impulse is insistent: we will get through this together, and we will do it by coming together.
Sunday was a positively gorgeous spring day, a perfect day to take the T into town and walk around with throngs of placid pedestrians. Our trolley was packed with Red Sox fans and a woman who was proudly taking her grand-daughter to the Big Apple Circus, just as she had taken the girl’s mother years before. On Sunday there was a home Celtics game in the afternoon, a home Bruins game in the evening, and “Art in Bloom” all day at the MFA: a little something for everyone on a mild and sunny day when it felt like all of Boston was finally blooming.
It was, in other words, a bustling day in the city, with the entire world (it seemed) showing up stroll down Boylston Street and pay their respects at a makeshift, open-air memorial.
After arriving in Copley Square, J and I had to wait in line to view the piles of offerings left along a quadrangle of metal barricades set up in Copley Plaza to contain a teeming outpouring of flowers, running shoes, stuffed animals, handwritten notes, signs, paintings, T-shirts, rosaries, ball-caps, and origami cranes adorning every available surface.
In one corner of the memorial area, there was a heap of bracelets and meditation beads; atop another pile of flowers, someone had left a waterlogged copy of a favorite children’s book. Elsewhere, someone had left an unopened box of spaghetti and a tin of cookies—a nod, perhaps, to a marathoner’s pre-race stint of carbo-loading—and I saw several separate piles of coins, as if the impulse to leave a memento led onlookers to empty their pockets, offering anything at hand.
At the memorial, there were rubber ducks and stone angels, a plaster Pieta and candles. One tree was draped with rosaries and faded prayer flags, and another had seemingly sprouted a bouquet of American flags from its base.
The sheer volume of stuff was both amazing and overwhelming: such an outpouring of love for the dead, the injured, and for Boston on the whole.
As large as it was, the memorial mound continued to grow as we wended our way through the piles, pointing and reading notes and snapping photos.
One father helped his little girl add her contribution to the pile—it was shiny and sparkly, decorated with ribbons and glitter—while a loose cluster of twenty-somethings wrote messages on blue and yellow strips of paper that they added to an ever-growing chain, every link a prayer.
It was incredibly moving to see such an abundant, seemingly worldwide outpouring of love: a tidal surge of well-wishes from everywhere, as if a wave had overwhelmed us with a great teeming detritus of remembrance.
When we witness tragedy from afar, whether from across town or across the country, we want to do something in response, even if all we can do is sign a banner or leave a handwritten note.
Examining the neatly arranged assortment of offerings felt like browsing a giant yard sale or flea market where every item carried words of encouragement rather than a price tag: priceless.
But out of the many came the occasional one, individual messages that stopped me short with their poignancy: the note, for instance, from police officers in Colorado promising to take over the watch for slain MIT police officer Sean Collier…
…or the child who drew the “poisonous bomb” the only way he knew how, which was like something out of a Road Runner cartoon.
But the individual item that hit me hardest—a surprise surge of sentiment that threatened to turn my Boston Strong into Boston Sobs—was a still-packaged plaque showing a young boy with hands folded in prayer: the kind of thing you’d give a little boy for his First Communion.
I don’t know if eight-year-old Martin Richard was Catholic, but this much I know: he won’t be taking Communion with his classmates this year, having achieved a premature oneness with eternity instead.
I’m not sure I found any answers by visiting the Boston Marathon bombing site, but what I found was an upsurge of hope. Whether they acted alone or with accomplices, the Boston bombing suspects can’t possibly outnumber the people who came out to walk on Sunday or the people who continue to heap their blessings on a city it’s easy to fall in love with all over again.