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.

Flags and flowers

On Tuesday morning, on my way to a meeting, I stopped outside the Stata Center at MIT to pay my respects at the makeshift memorial to Officer Sean Collier, who was killed this past April by the Boston Marathon bombing suspects. Although most of the mementos left by students, staff, and passersby have been cleared away, the site of Officer Collier’s death is still marked with flags and flowers. I’m not sure I can explain the human desire to create memorial shrines at the sites where people have passed, but I certainly understand it. To anyone not from Boston, the Marathon bombings are old news, replaced in our attention by other breaking stories. But those of us who live here haven’t forgotten what happened at and after this year’s Marathon, and even if we did, the places where these things happened would by their very presence remind us.

Thank you for the items you have left here

When J and I showed visiting relatives around Boston earlier this month, for instance, we insisted on walking them down Boylston Street to the Marathon finish line, showing them an otherwise ordinary patch of sidewalk outside Marathon Sports where the first of two deadly bombs went off. I’m not sure why J and I felt an insistent need to show this spot to relatives who hadn’t asked to see it. There’s technically nothing to see on this particular patch of sidewalk: the teeming memorial of mementos left at Copley Plaza in the immediate aftermath of the Marathon bombings has been removed and carefully archived by the city, and nothing in the way of a permanent memorial has yet been planned.

Marathon bombing site

Because the two Marathon bombs exploded outward rather than upward, there isn’t eye-popping evidence of a massive bomb-blast at either site: the bombs’ legacy was left on human flesh—so many amputated legs—rather than as lasting architectural damage. On the Sunday we visited, the only indication that Something Happened Here was a pair of running shoes discreetly hanging from the shady trunk of a midsized plane tree: a hidden memorial visible only if you stood right under that tree.

Memorial to slain MIT Officer Sean Collier

But just because there’s not much to see these days at sites related to the Marathon bombings doesn’t mean these sites haven’t achieved a kind of sacred power, like other places of pilgrimage. Regardless of whether visiting family wanted to see precisely where the bombings happened, both J and I wanted to show them. I’m not sure we could have explained why this was so, but in retrospect, I think we wanted to show our guests something indicative of what it’s really like to live in Boston, today. Visiting historical sites might help you understand what Boston was like in the distant past, but visiting the finish line on Boylston Street might help you understand why Bostonians were simultaneously heartbroken and outraged in the aftermath of terror.

BPL Strong

As Red Sox designated hitter David “Big Papi” Ortiz so memorably phrased it, “This is our fucking city,” and standing on the sidewalk outside Marathon Sports, you might feel some of that territorial defiance, even if you’re just visiting. These are our streets and sidewalks, the place where one Monday every April, we practice radical hospitality. If you want to know what kind of spirit, swagger, and pride makes a Bostonian, sit in the nosebleeds at a Bruins game, cheer from the bleachers at Fenway, or spend a silent moment contemplating an otherwise ordinary patch of sidewalk outside Marathon Sports.

Memorial cross

These spots on Boylston Street in Boston and on the MIT campus in Cambridge are places where lives were lost, bodies were disfigured, and survivors were forever changed. These are the spots where those of us who live in and around Boston came to realize in our guts what it means to be “from” this city, regardless of where we were born. This IS our fucking city, I find myself thinking whenever I’m walking down Boylston Street, and by showing visitors this now-sacred spot, J and I wanted to share that solemn realization.

MIT Police / Boston Strong

As I stood outside the Stata Center at MIT on Tuesday morning, I felt a similar spirit of solemnity. Here at this spot, someone died simply because he was doing his job, and the very least I can do is stop and pay my respects, remembering someone who had his unfortunate moment in the headlines and is now gone. Folks elsewhere might have moved on to other, more gripping stories, but here in Boston and Cambridge alike, we haven’t forgotten.

The photos of the running shoes in a tree and the “Boston Public Library Strong” sign come from Boylston Street in Boston; the other photos come from the makeshift memorial to Officer Sean Collier outside the Stata Center at MIT. Last night, Officer Collier was posthumously sworn in as a Somerville police officer, a job he was supposed to have taken in June.

Boston Public Library with flags

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.

Paper cranes

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.

Shoes and teddy bears

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.

Pray for Boston

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.

NY [heart] Boston

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?”

These people tried to make life bad for the people of Boston

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.

Flags and rosary

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.

Flip flops and flowers

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.

Flags and flowers

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.

I will run in memory of Krystle, Martin, Lingzi, and all the victims

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.

Four crosses

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.

Spare change

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.

Nashville believes

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.

Paper chain

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.

A sea of hats

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.

One Boston, inscribed

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.

Icons and artwork

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…

We'll take the watch from here

…or the child who drew the “poisonous bomb” the only way he knew how, which was like something out of a Road Runner cartoon.

The poisonous bomb sounded like it hurt many people

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.

May the love of Jesus Christ be with you always

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.

# 8 Martin Richard

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.

Love wins

Click here for a complete photo set of images from the makeshift Boston Marathon memorial in Copley Square, or click here for my earlier post about (and pictures from) this year’s Boston Marathon.