Marathon bombing memorial

This morning on my way to meet friends in Harvard Square, I stopped at Copley Square to visit the Boston Marathon finish line. Yesterday was One Boston Day–the anniversary of the 2013 Marathon bombing–and on Monday, I’ll watch this year’s race here in Newton, cheering the runners before they face Heartbreak Hill. Today, I wanted to visit the two spots on Boylston Street where three people died and hundreds were injured: a chance to pay my respects at a place simultaneously festive and somber.

Four crosses

There is no permanent memorial commemorating the Marathon bombing; instead, impromptu offerings of flowers, handwritten notes, and homemade crosses mark the two spots where pressure cooker bombs turned a festive event into a scene of mayhem. If you didn’t know that lives and limbs were lost in front of Marathon Sports and the former Forum Restaurant, you’d notice nothing remarkable about these two stretches of sidewalk. But if you know the hidden history of these sites, you recognize them as invisible portals between the Here and the Hereafter: two otherwise ordinary places where souls prematurely crossed to the other side.

Remember Martin Richard

Today when I arrived on Boylston Street, a 5K race had just finished, and throngs of people were watching an awards ceremony for the winners. Boylston Street was closed to vehicular traffic, and tourists posed for pictures at the finish line: a festive scene. This is the disconnect that will forever mark the Boston Marathon finish line: a site of both triumph and tragedy, the sidewalk here holds a hidden history of heartbreak.

Johnny Kelley - Young at Heart

The statue of Boston Marathon legend Johnny Kelley at the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Walnut Street here in Newton serves as a kind of shrine for long-distance runners, many of whom leave medals or race bibs from the races they’ve completed: an offering left to honor a man who still inspires.

Shoe offerings

I always wonder about the people who leave these mementos. Why not keep the keepsakes they trained so hard to earn, and why give them to a statue rather than a flesh-and-blood person?

But in asking these questions, I reveal how little I understand of a marathoner’s mind. In the the course of training and then running a marathon, there must be many times when runners hearken to their inner pantheon of heroes, reminding themselves that if Johnny Kelley could run the Boston Marathon 61 times, win it twice, and complete his final race at the age of 84, they can finish their own marathon, too.

Johnny Kelley - Young at Heart

The title of Johnny Kelley’s statue is “Young at Heart,” and it shows a youthful Kelley running his first marathon hand-in-hand with his older self. I can only assume that the runners who leave well-worn shoes at Johnny Kelley’s feet do so because they feel he somehow ran alongside them during their marathons, too.

Remembered

Yesterday when I heard that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had received the death penalty for his role in the Boston Marathon bombing, I knew I’d have to visit the newly dedicated memorial to slain MIT police officer Sean Collier. Whenever I’m at MIT, I stop by the spot outside the Stata Center where Collier was killed by the Tsarnaev brothers while sitting in his police cruiser, and since I had plans to be at MIT today, paying my respects at the newly dedicated memorial seemed fitting.

Ellipses

When I heard yesterday afternoon that the jury in the Tsarnaev case had reached a decision on his sentence, I stopped what I was doing and turned on the TV to watch. Just as I’d wanted to hear the verdict in the case as soon as it came in, I wanted to hear the sentence as it was announced. But as soon as CNN reported that Tsarnaev had been given the death penalty for placing the bomb that killed Martin Richard and Lingzi Lu, I turned off the news coverage. Although I wanted to hear the sentence that would determine Tsarnaev’s fate, I didn’t want to hear endless editorializing about that sentence.

Big heart; big smile; big service; all love.

Instead of listening to opinions and arguments about the wisdom or appropriateness of the sentence—what do you, I, or anyone else think should be done with Dzhokhar—I wanted simply to sit with the solemnity of the decision. What is it like to kill anonymous strangers—innocent bystanders you somehow think have wronged you—and what is it like to hear a sentence of death in return: an official legal pronouncement that he who lives by the sword shall die by it?

Ovoid

Tsarnaev will have ample opportunity to contemplate his own death as his lawyers file appeal after appeal, but neither Collier nor the other Marathon dead had that luxury. Two years ago on a beautiful April day, the Tsarnaev brothers irrevocably changed their own and countless others’ lives with the flip of a switch. Neither the death penalty nor life in prison can change that fact: the dead are still dead, severed limbs are still lost, and the grief-stricken still grieve. “Closure” is a word uttered by optimistic and well-intentioned folks who dare open their mouths in the face of irredeemable heartache. It doesn’t matter whether you, I, or anyone else supports the death penalty: before the jury decided anything, Tsarnaev and his brother made their own irrevocable choice.

Arching

The memorial erected to Sean Collier is a graceful and expansive thing, constructed of slabs of smooth gray granite that arch elegantly overhead. The five upright slabs, I read, radiate outwards like the fingers of a hand, but the point where they intersect is empty and ovoid, evoking the empty-handedness that is the human condition. The monument draws you in and invites you to circumnavigate it, and as I walked around taking pictures from this angle and that, several passersby stopped to look at and walk through the monument, touching the stone and reading its inscriptions.

In the line of duty

Nobody seemed to be talking about Tsarnaev and his sentence; nobody seemed to be talking at all. When you stand on the spot where a promising life was cut short, it’s difficult to find anything at all to say.

2015 Boston Marathon

After the winter we weathered here in Boston, it would have taken a lot more than rain to keep us from watching this year’s Boston Marathon. Today was cold, rainy, and windy–as miserable as this past weekend was lovely–so the crowds were smaller than usual but as enthusiastic as ever: diehard fans undaunted by a little damp.

2015 Boston Marathon

Today’s weather was the kind that looks wretched from inside but isn’t that bad when you’re actually out in it. Somehow being in and among other cheering fans distracts you from your own discomfort. There weren’t as many families with pets and children as there have been in fair-weather years, but there were still some hearty souls who weren’t scared away by the forecast.

2015 Boston Marathon

The families with children and bundled babies between Miles 18 and 19 in Newton all looked like old pros when it comes to New England weather. Both their rain gear and general nonchalance suggested they’d been to other soggy Marathons, or had sat through rain delays at Fenway Park, or had weathered rain, sleet, and snow at Gillette Stadium.

2015 Boston Marathon

J and I have been to more than our share of foul-weather sporting events, including New England Revolution games that continued despite pouring rain and one infamous Patriots’ game where we had to dig out our seats from a half-foot of snow. From these events, I’ve learned that cheering vociferously really does keep you warm, as does hand-clapping, foot-stomping, and other kinds of movement.

2015 Boston Marathon

At the Marathon, at least, you aren’t tethered to a single assigned seat, so when you get cold, you can pull up stakes and walk, cheering the nonstop stream of runners from a new and moving vantage point.

2015 Boston Marathon

In past years, J and I have established a routine where we initially watch the race from the corner of Chestnut Street and Commonwealth Avenue, then we walk toward the massive block party at Newton City Hall, walking alongside the runners as they pass large houses on one side of the road and the backside of Newton Cemetery on the other.

2015 Boston Marathon

This is my favorite segment of the Marathon route, as the crowds thin and the sidewalk peters out into a dirt path. As you walk alongside the runners, you can hear the hypnotic rhythm of their footfalls along with the sotto voce conversations between running partners as they prepare to face Heartbreak Hill. “This is where the race gets interesting, isn’t it,” I overhear one runner ask another. “Yes, it is,” the second responds.

2015 Boston Marathon

Today there was a lone man standing along this segment of the route quietly uttering encouragements: “Great Job!” “You’re looking good!” “That’s a good, steady stride!” His observations were the kind a running coach might tell his charges, but none of them were shouted, merely spoken as if the man were addressing a person right beside him, or himself.

2015 Boston Marathon

After the noisy hoopla of drums, cowbells, and clapping spectators the runners had just passed through, and given the festive music and upbeat DJ they’d hear over a loudspeaker at City Hall, this man’s encouragements seemed as subtle and subliminal as one’s own heartbeat pulsing a litany of encouragement from within.

2015 Boston Marathon

Click here to see more photos from today’s soggy Boston Marathon. Enjoy!

Works by Clara Lieu

I don’t normally listen to the radio on my way to and from campus: I prefer the company of my own thoughts. But on my drive home from Curry College today, I turned on the news to fend off sleepiness, and that’s when I heard it: a verdict had been reached in the trial of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Works by Clara Lieu

The verdict was announced as I pulled into my driveway, and I sat in my car to listen to the first few counts: guilty, guilty, guilty. And just like that April day two years ago, I found myself weeping for the victims, the violence, and the sense of violation. Here in Boston, we take the Marathon bombings personally. A crime was committed in our own neighborhood, and we embrace the victims of that crime as our own.

Works by Clara Lieu

Throughout Tsarnaev’s trial, I’ve followed media reports of testimony that gave additional details of a story that hits too close to home. I repeatedly watched surveillance footage of carjack victim Dun Meng escaping from the Tsarnaev brothers at a gas station I pass every time I drive to the Zen Center, for instance, and I was stunned to learn that one of the bystanders who tended to BU graduate student Lingzi Lu as she bled to death was Dr. James Bath: J’s primary care physician, and the doctor who gave me nebulizer treatments when I had a respiratory infection last fall. I’m both sobered and saddened to realize the doctor who literally pumped breath back into my body was also there with Lingzi Lu when she breathed her last.

Works by Clara Lieu

After sitting in my car to hear the verdicts on the first few counts against Tsarnaev, I came inside, turned on the radio, and dried dishes through the rest: guilty on all thirty counts. The verdict doesn’t bring back any of the victims, nor does it restore severed limbs or bring solace to traumatized souls. Neither a verdict nor a sentence can bring closure, as some wounds are too wide to heal. But hearing a jury officially pronounce Tsarnaev guilty on all counts brought a sense that justice had been served. Whether the jury sentences Tsarnaev to death or to life in prison, the decision that matters was announced today. Having seen the destruction the Tsarnaev brothers wrought, a jury decided there is no ideology that can excuse such cruelty.

The photos illustrating today’s post come from a November exhibition of works by Clara Lieu at Framingham State University’s Mazmanian Gallery.

2014 Boston Marathon

This year was the sixth straight year J and I watched the Boston Marathon from a vantage point between Miles 18 and 19, and this year was the third time in those six years we saw the same sign encouraging a runner named Rhonda to reach “Boston or bust.”

Go Rhonda

I have no idea who Rhonda is, but it’s encouraging to know she’s still running and she still has at least one loyal fan rooting her on, recycling the same sign with different balloons year after year.

Go Rhonda!

Shalane Flanagan takes an early lead

Today J and I joined more than a million other spectators in taking the final step of purification after last year’s Boston Marathon bombings: we took back the Marathon. Last year I wrote about the sense of outrage I felt after Marathon Monday—Massachusetts’ high holy day of hospitality—was hijacked by cowards with pressure cookers. Today, one of those cowards is dead and the other is behind bars, awaiting trial. In the meantime, a record number of spectators showed up along the 26.2 mile route between Hopkinton and Boston today to make one simple statement: we won’t be bombed into hiding.

Eventual winner Meb Keflezighi far ahead of the pack

Cowards with pressure cookers can kill and maim, but nearly a year and a week later, surging crowds of enthusiastic spectators came outside on a gorgeous spring day to clap, cheer, ring cowbells, wave signs, and remember. To paraphrase David “Big Papi” Ortiz, this is our fucking marathon, and nobody’s going to dictate our freedom.

'cause you're kicking ass

Today’s act of reclamation was a long time coming. Last April, less than a week after bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, J and I went to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park: a way of reassuring ourselves that it still was safe to congregate with strangers in a crowd. A week after that, A (not her real initial) and I went for a walk and dinner in Watertown: a conscious attempt to reclaim the sleepy little town that became the site of Breaking News during the manhunt for the bombing suspects. And a few weeks after that, J and I visited the massive makeshift memorial at Copley Square: an act of purification in which we visited the very spot where people were killed and maimed, taking back Boylston Street as a peaceful place where remembrance happens.

This princess loves Boston

There was an increased and very visible police presence at today’s Marathon, which J and I watched from our usual vantage point between miles 18 and 19 in Newton. But this presence felt more reassuring than oppressive: the more eyes watching, the better. Given changes in official policies about what spectators could bring to the race route, I wondered whether families with small children would stay away from the race, uncertain whether strollers, wagons, picnic baskets, and coolers were allowed. I needn’t have worried, however, since families showed up with the normal accoutrements of a day at the Marathon, willing to submit those items to random searches but otherwise behaving no differently than they would any other year.

Three divas

If anything, there were more people lining the race route in Newton this year, not less. I think that others felt as J and I did: that showing up to the race today more than any other year represented a kind of civic duty. If we stop going to the Marathon—if we stop celebrating Patriots’ Day by holding a huge 26.2-long block party that happens to have a race running through it—then the terrorists will have won. Today wasn’t a day to cede victory to terror; today was a day to assert the fact that love, inclusion, and good neighborliness is stronger than any bomb.

2014 Boston Marathon

After spending a couple hours clapping and cheering ourselves hoarse between Miles 18 and 19, J and I headed home while even more spectators streamed toward the Marathon route, many of them wearing Boston Strong shirts and carrying an assortment of signs and noisemakers. J summed up my sentiments exactly as he watched the surge of happy, enthusiastic people and remarked, “I guess you lost, bomber guys.” On a beautifully sunny spring day in New England, how could the bad guys ever prevail?

Thank you for running

Click here for more photos of this year’s bright and sunny Boston Marathon. Enjoy!