The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
– William Shakespeare
Mercy may be a strange way to begin a reflection on a week of carnage in my steely and wonderful hometown. Certainly, no mercy was shown for the young and promising lives stripped, first on Boston’s most glorious festival, its annual day of days, and then in the flurry of violence carried out by two brothers in the days to come. In any other year, and every year of my remembering, the mercy of Patriot’s Day was primarily of a city emerging from winter’s fierce and unrelenting grasp, turning its face to the sun, and, if we are honest, doing what it does all too rarely, acting downright midwesternly in its neighborliness. Indeed, one of the worst affronts of this attack was the widespread recognition that Marathon Monday has always been rooted in, but bigger than, Boston, a day when we host one another in a different kind of fellowship, a day to see in the runners – from Kenya, or Nigeria, or Spain, or North Carolina, or California, or Dorchester – the same courage and fortitude that set young men onto an open field in Concord, to take on an empire, on the day for which this day was named.
There was no mercy for a small boy who had just hugged his father at the moment of triumph, or for two young women with their lives laid out ahead of them, one of whom came from China to continue her education. There was certainly no mercy for Sean Collier, the MIT policeman whose baby-faced visage looked so instantly familiar, because if you are from this place, and happen to descend from one of its larger and best-stereotyped ethnic groups, the phrase “like the map of Ireland” has long been assigned to your face, as it has been to mine, as it could only be to his. He was in his patrol car, guarding a place that itself welcomes the minds and talent of all the world. He was from Boston, and of Boston, and he was playing his part in making it the beacon to the world that it is and always will be.
I started this week sketching out a post about my own Marathon memories: the annual family trips to the starting line in Hopkinton, which was just a few miles from our home; the law school “skip days” to catch the Sox game, drink some beer, feel the sun, and exit onto a street scene of pure jubilation, as the lazy but proud lifted the weary but determined runners through their last few miles.
In the years my brother ran, we spread out along Heartbreak Hill with our “Go Judga” signs. In his first year, my dear friend Sylvia – content to sit out her 30th or so marathon – jumped in at Newton to run the last 8 miles with David, tearing from one side of the street to the other to get the crowd to yell his name, grabbing the water cups so he could just keep a straight and steady course. That same year, my dear college friend Greg ran his first Marathon too. He fell prey to one too many Freeze Pops being handed out by the grade school kids on Comm Ave. His final miles were not pretty; they involved puke and a healthy dose of regret. We met them all, though, in their victory. At the finish line.
Like everyone else touched by Boston’s best day, I have my memories. And so, like everyone else, I have shell shock from this week. There are some kinds of displacement that never let you reopen yourself to the same sense of permanence, some moments in which you know that as many times as you will return, you will never inhabit a place as you did before. Indeed, it can only be the version of myself that came to be after 9/11 that instantly understood the text message from my cousin, which buzzed my phone to life last Monday as I sat at my desk:
we R ok. With yr brother in Newton. Horrible.
That was my first news that someone had decided to try to turn this day toward darkness, to kill and maim at random on our day dedicated to triumph, perseverance, love.
Their failure, of course, is that the gentle rain of mercy never faltered, and only graced. As strangers fell on one another with unimaginable pain at the blast, just as many appeared to peel them apart and press their own clothes onto wounds that would otherwise have been fatal. It was a mercy that this very event draws hundreds of medical personnel and volunteers ready to give aid. It was a mercy that this city is home to so many hospitals that to hear the roster of places to which the wounded were taken was like an embarrassment of riches. MGH. The Brigham. Beth Israel, where six years ago my own father was brought back to life after weeks in the ICU. Boston Medical Center, which will always live by its old name, Boston City. New England Medical Center. And on and on and on. This week, here in Washington, there was a radio piece about how poorly we could respond to a similar attack, measured only by the sheer number of beds at elite hospital trauma centers. In Boston, we watched as one brilliant surgeon after another appeared before the news cameras to say, yes, this was a horrific tragedy, but no, they were not overwhelmed or overtaken by it. They were prepared, they did their job, and now their patients were awakening, so many without limbs and forever changed, but overwhelming these doctors with their gratitude to be alive.
On Thursday, there was an abrupt pivot. I was waiting for a bus at the bottom of Porter Street when I first saw the suspects’ photos on my IPhone, making that V with my thumb and index finger on the screen to try to enlarge them. From that moment on, a weary, healing but enraged city had a mission, though no one could have known what would play out in the 24 hours to come. Amit and I went to bed that night after a grim but seemingly random piece on the evening news recounted the shooting of an MIT police officer. When I woke up, Amit had already absorbed the nearly inconceivable turn of events, and knew enough to steel me for the fact that the danger now apparently focused on a small city called Watertown.
My sister and her husband live just on the border of Watertown and Waltham. In complete bewilderment I flipped on the television – any station would do – to see images of the Arsenal Street neighborhood, now the center of a massive manhunt for the surviving brother. From 500 miles south, it was impossible to grasp. From just a mile or so away, Christine agreed that it was impossible to grasp, seeing these storefronts that are the landscape of her every day, the assembly of police and military force unseen in our lifetimes for such an event. She was calm. We both agreed that it was highly unlikely that this guy could walk up her street and – what, knock on her door? – at this point. But who the hell knew? She assured us she was fine and said she just hoped there would be no more bloodshed. I told her that, if she had to, she should send her cat Doc out into the street to draw the fire. That cat would send nearly anyone in the other direction. It helped us both to laugh a little.
We waited all day Friday. We met the brothers’ high school classmates. We met their uncles. We met an aunt who refused to believe a word of it. We saw prom pictures, yearbook photographs. We met the younger brother’s classmates at UMass, the ones who played soccer with him just last week. Meanwhile in Watertown, the SWAT teams knocked on doors, covering a 20 block radius that just barely missed a certain block and a certain yard with a boat stored in the back.
That night, we had several relatives with us, including my parents, two aunts, and two uncles. We celebrated Devan’s 6th birthday for probably the third time that week. She was born on the day of the Virginia Tech Massacre. I will never forget taking it in and just as quickly turning it off, so I could turn to the business of bringing my baby daughter into such a world.
At around 8, as I put my 2 year old son to bed, my mother came in to hug both of us. At that point, there was a stand-off, and it was unclear whether the 19 year old boy in the boat would be coming out alive, or whether he would join his brother in death.
I said, Mom, I know this is going to sound strange. But all I can think about right now is their mother. It can’t be that she wanted this for them. It can’t be that on the day she gave birth to them she could ever have ascribed hate to their tiny beings or believe that in the space of an instant they would both be gone, that she would be the mother of two mass murderers. I’m not saying he deserves to live, and he must face what is coming. But all I can think of is being the mother, and maybe the only person on the planet pleading for mercy for that kid.
My mom responded, well, all I can think about is the mother of that 8 year old boy. Yes, I said, I know. Believe me, I know. But right now I am thinking about them both.
The end came with yet another mercy. No more bloodshed. In the trauma centers of Boston, the perpetrator lays alongside his victims at the Beth Israel. The very best nurses and doctors tend to him, change the dressings on his wounds, administer his medicine. In hospital room upon hospital room across the city, there is grief and bewilderment and hope and reunion and above all, the certainty of struggle to come. In the churches and funeral homes of the dead, there is only the mercy of remembrance, of faith, of community, but it all feels dwarfed by what is gone.
I come back to their mother, though I don’t know why.
I attended a dinner a few years ago, and one of the speakers was the father of a young woman killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. He was a plain-spoken man who owned a gas station. He told us about the daughter he had lost, a gentle and bright and giving soul. Among her beliefs was a firm and resolute opposition to the death penalty. Though he held a different view, this man honored his daughter’s memory and did not advocate for Tim McVeigh’s execution. Instead, he found it inside him to go visit McVeigh’s parents at their home, while their son was awaiting his fate on death row. I will never forget his description of the meeting, which started awkwardly and with understandable tension. But then he sat at their dining table, looked up, and saw the framed high school photograph of their son, his daughter’s murderer. He said that at that moment he realized that there were two sets of parents grieving that night. At the end of the evening, he and McVeigh’s father embraced. And describing that moment, in words that have lived with me since, he said he had never felt closer to God. I wonder if anyone will live that moment of grace in all this. I wonder if anyone has even thought about it.
Given that we are still getting some catharsis from things like this, I sort of doubt it:
By the time I returned to the television, the people of Watertown were pouring out of their homes to thank the hundreds of police officers who had charged forward toward this guy, relentlessly, though they had good reason to believe he wouldn’t hesitate to take as many lives with him as he could.
I called Christine, who isn’t a big Sox fan, and doesn’t have the accent, and probably hasn’t been to a Dunkin in the last ten years. While she wouldn’t be joining the masses that night, she put it simply, and with pride: “This is just so Boston.” And it was. A place that all who love it will now inhabit a little differently. A place whose day of days will roar back, in triumph, and whose skin has been made thicker by the scar tissue beginning to form.
To my beloved Boston, to all who are suffering, may mercy continue to fall like gentle rain. It is, indeed, twice blessed.
April 30, 3013, Post Script: News begins to emerge that, in fact, their mother may have encouraged their radicalism. What a distortion of faith that could corrupt a parent’s love. Awful.