Tuesday, April 15, 2014


A year ago, the bombs at the Boston Marathon went off. 

Since then and now, a couple of bombs have gone off in my life, too. My dad's in a nursing home. My mom has had two stent procedures, a lung cancer surgery, and is still waiting to have a cancerous kidney removed. My husband's godmother is watching her husband, a man who has been a fixture in my husband's life for thirty years, die from pancreatic cancer; he was diagnosed a couple of weeks ago and his decline is swift and terrible. 

My husband and his mom used to own a camper in the Poconos. Someone they knew, an old Irish New York guy, died, and David still remembers a bunch of veterans at the wake saying, in heavy New York accents, "My brothers, we are gathered here by the Angel o'Death." 

I think about that New York-inflected Angel of Death a lot these days. 

Every time I see footage from last year's Marathon, and see the familiar route in Wellesley-- where I was raised-- or Brookline-- near Brighton, where I lived in an apartment so small my bedroom was a closet-- and Boylston St-- near my very first apartment on my own, a couple of blocks away on Garrison Street in the Back Bay-- my eyes well up. All those places seem so close I could reach out and feel the pavement under my feet, the sounds of the Green Line running down the middle of the street, or the sight of runners going by the CVS in Wellesley where my brother worked in high school (he was an ACE at that job, by the way. In another life he could have been a manager of CVSes.) . And these places seem impossibly far away at the same time. So much has changed.

When I was a kid, I worried about everything because I was afraid of everything. The farther away I was from my house, the more nervous I got. I didn't get my license until I was 23 because I was terrified of driving. So when I worked summers at a bookstore or the library, I got there by my bike or my mom dropped me off. I would feel weirdly exhilirated as I got off my bike, the relief of getting to my destination in one piece washing over me. 

As a single woman in my 20s, I was still worrying, but this time about whether I'd ever find a job I liked, or ever find someone to love. I was happy that I'd overcome some of my anxieties enough to be able to take the subway with impunity and drive on the Mass Pike, but I still was restless. I ended up going home most weekends; when I didn't, especially the first years when I had my own apartment, I'd walk restlessly all over the neighborhood, spending too much money at Whole Foods near Symphony Hall, looking at the fountains at the Mother Church of the Christian Science Center as I walked back, put my stuff away, and thought, Now what? I logged a lot of time at Avenue Victor Hugo, a used bookstore. It's gone now. 

I'm forty. I did those things I worried about. I got married, had a kid, moved away. But every day I remember that weird adrenaline, of being independent and living in the city. It was a time when I was brave and very lonely. And I guess the Boston Marathon explosions showed me the cracks in those memories. I think one of the bombs went off near the Boston Public Library, where I used to wait for the #39 bus. I thought, hey, that's MY city-- there's blood on MY sidewalk. But it was never really mine; it was a part of me, sure, but it was something I borrowed and then left behind. 

My childhood was anxious, but I always remember my home as being a place of love and security. It was a sanctuary from being bullied and worrying about what other kids thought of me. And of course, that vision, like the notion of Boston belonging to me, had holes and cracks in it, too. No one is perfect, and in a house of high-strung people prone to melancholy, there's going to be dark days. 

Now that the Angel of Death has hovered over me, I see that my sadness about the marathon is a sadness about a past that was probably never there to begin with, but is no less precious. 

I watched on television and on the web with horror as smoke and blood and screams filled the street I walked on every single day, whether it was to the bus stop when I lived in Jamaica Plain, or home when I lived in the Back Bay.  I yelled at my mom for driving to Watertown when the whole area was under lockdown. Her reasoning was, "I was going to buy fish. Terrorists don't eat fish." I wept throughout a memorial service as I watched online, one of my dearest friends singing in the chorus, thinking of my high school friend who couldn't finish the race because the bombs went off before she got to the last mile. 

I spent a week of sleepless nights, waiting for the results of my mom's PET scan, knowing with dread certainty that cancer would have riddled her body. Little malevolent gray masses, springing out of nowhere and evil simply because they could grow so easily and so fast. I imagined, in the dark, the sound  of my mother's voice, deadened with shock, telling me, "Emma, it's everywhere." I wondered about where she wanted to be buried, who would tell my dad. 

But you know what? It's spring.  

Tens of thousands of people are running the Marathon this year, beating back the fear and the sadness of that day in 2013 because they refuse to let this terrible event poison their lives. They will be happy and proud because there are beautiful people and things in this world, as terrible as it can be. 

And the PET scan didn't show additional cancer; it actually showed less than we thought. My mom's cancer surgery in her lung went as well as can be-- the surgeon said it was early-stage, with no lymph node involvement, and they got it. Of course, my mom then promptly caught C. diff. in the hospital and was laid out for almost two weeks at Mass General, but the day she got out, she visited my dad, bought flowers, and took a giant bubble bath.  Damn right she did.  

There is nothing redeeming to be found in someone dying quickly and terribly from pancreatic cancer. All I can think is, if he were able to think about it and speak, that our family friend wouldn't regret a thing about the way he lived his life. He had good times, that one, cooking, listening to music, fishing, and watching really awful bootlegged martial arts movies. The pain and senselessness of his death should not, cannot suck the goodness out of the life he lived. Even with that fucking Angel of Death hovering over us, ready to drop down at any time, life is still there to be lived. 

Every time sorrow watches over me, when I think I can hear the beating of the wings of that cursed Angel, I see my son, who cannot go anywhere, not even to the bathroom, without skipping and humming tunelessly. In a world where even walking to brush your teeth is so great that you have to hum to celebrate, how can I give way to despair?