Our Kids Forgot Everything…But Still Remember The Bombing

Image licensed by author from Shutterstock. By Jim Madigan.

A friends whose family had endured a dangerous passage from the former Soviet Union to Israel once said to me, “Andrew, the best thing about people is they forget.”

He was telling me that people (fortunately) tend to forget difficult moments. Saying that the horror does go away.

I agree with him. But I fear that some traumas, even if forgotten, become indelibly printed upon people — whether they remember them or not.

The 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing took place on a clear spring day.

We had lost Dad in December, but the kids were still eager to make their Christmas lists for Santa Claus. Our little boy and even littler girl went to sleep late but were excited to get up early.

Grandma passed in March, and the Easter church service was particularly poignant as we remembered those who had recently left us. Before the night fell, we had attended three Easter Egg hunts, and our children’s baskets were full.

Unlike Southern places virtually guaranteed warmth and sun on Easter, Boston winters often drift into the days thought to be spring. Ever the practical ones, most Bostonians try twice each year for a warm celebration.

In addition to Easter, they gather for Boston Marathon Day on a Monday in the second half of April. Most years the celebrations are at least a week apart. In New England that is easily time enough for three radical weather changes.

The Marathon has been run continuously since 1897. The race has persisted despite rain, wind, world wars, and civil unrest. It has been cancelled only once, for Covid-19 in 2020. Technically, the Marathon celebrates Patriots Day, a unique, legal holiday in Massachusetts. It commemorates the battle that initiated the American Revolutionary War.

The British crown declared Massachusetts in an active state of rebellion in 1775. British regulars travelled north to Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1776, hoping to seize a weapons depot. Shots were fired, and a deliberate fight broke out with the Massachusetts militia.

As the British retreated slowly back to their barracks in Boston, over 100 lives were lost, and almost 300 were wounded or missing from both sides. Though a tactical draw, the long day breathed life into the young American rebellion.

Our family journeyed late on the morning of April 15th to Copley Square for the running of the 117th Boston Marathon. We cheered on the third wave of runners as they approached the finish line.

After 1:30 p.m., hearing the complaints of our hungry children, we tediously wheeled our little girl’s carriage through the crowd and into the Boylston Street entrance of the adjacent mall. It had been great fun to enjoy the family and the festivities; this was the first time that Kelly had escaped work to enjoy a family Patriots’ Day.

Waiting for everyone to make their way out of the restroom after our late lunch, I heard what sounded like a sudden rumble of thunder, strange for a sunny day. I looked up at the large glass windows in the roof three stories overhead. There were only a few clouds in the sky. Sunlight poured onto the white tiles of the mall. The shops along either side looked the same as always.

Kelly walked over to me with our three-year-old girl in her arms. “Did you hear that?” she asked.

We heard another thud from the direction of the race. Seconds later we knew it was no typical storm. A mass of people were running away from Boylston Street, past the carts in the middle of the aisle. The expressions on the faces rushing towards us ranged from terror to joy. I most vividly remember teenagers smiling and laughing. They had seen people running so they had simply joined in for the joy of it, like children chasing after pigeons in the park.

I picked up Morgan, and Kelly pushed our little girl in the carriage as quickly as we could. As we stepped out the Huntington Avenue exit of the mall, helicopters circled overhead and the sounds of police sirens wailed. I asked someone standing nearby if they knew what had happened. They started explaining when a woman with disheveled hair and clothes interrupted, “No. It was bombs. Two explosions. It was awful. People on the ground all around.” I asked if she was OK. She said she was. She was looking for a friend.

Kelly and I found an eddy in the river of people and rapidly negotiated a plan. If we were terrorists, we would attack prominent, populated places. We agreed to make our way north from the popular Copley Square as quickly as possible, using secondary streets. We would stay away from large groups of people and avoid any prominent buildings.

Morgan, our son, stoically volunteered to walk but asked, “Are we going to die?”

We assured him, “We will be fine as long as we move quickly. We need to watch carefully for anyone or anything that looks unusual. Please tell us if you see anything.”

Realistically, everything was unusual. Smoke drifted into the sky from Boylston Street. Helicopters made low circles over the city, sometimes crossing through the gray streaks drifting upwards. There were a stunning number of unmarked police cars turning on their lights and revealing their true colors. We asked an officer on foot if he knew what had happened. He shook his head “no” and continued listening to his radio.

As we arrived on Huntington Avenue, we saw a string of ambulances trying to get through. A stream of pedestrians were blocking their way, hardly paying any attention. We stepped to the corner and cut off the flow. People stopped, a little surprised, and the ambulances were able to continue forward.

Spying nothing that looked particularly unusual for this insane moment, we turned west and started walking towards our home. We tried using our phones along the way to access any news. We still didn’t know whether this was an isolated incident or a citywide attack. We had cellular signal, but nothing was getting in or out. We imagined that thousands of people were flooding the networks, just like us.

I called Mom and her new husband repeatedly. She had told us they would drive into Boston in the mid-afternoon and call us when they arrived. Finally, a call got through. There was no answer, but I left a voice mail: “Whatever you do, do not come into Boston! There has been a bombing near the finish line. We are OK and are walking home now.”

I sent them texts but had no faith that they would suddenly adopt the technology. Mom resisted texting even though she was one of the first people in Memphis with a mobile phone. The car phone made good sense for the real estate agent driving clients to tour new houses. Texting never became worthwhile for Mom. She felt people needed to hear a longer story.

Finally, we passed a bar that was open. We walked in to ask for news and to look at their TV. It was as if we were in past centuries. News was distributed best through word of mouth, and you found mouths in pubs. The bartender shared that there had been another bomb at the JFK Library. Smoke was pouring out of that building, too, but no one had been reported hurt.

As the hike became monotonous I alternated between carrying Morgan and asking him to walk on his own. He most appreciated it when Mommy volunteered to carry him while I pushed the carriage. Every twenty minutes, Morgan would repeat his questions: “Was anyone hurt?” followed by “Are we going to die?” We assured him no one would die as long as we kept walking.

Two miles blurred into three and then into four. The kids’ focus had turned away from fear.

“Just a little bit farther!” we implored them.

“You can make it.”

Around five in the afternoon, we arrived at our condominium on the west side of Boston on a quiet street near the calm waters of the Jamaica Pond.

Overhead, helicopters still flew. The screams of sirens sought to awaken the dead lost in the distance.

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The above is a modified excerpt from the novel, American Butterfly. The story is told through the eyes of a man raised in the South, living in the North, and struggling to understand love in the modern world.

It directly engages recent decades. It embraces the events that have shaped today’s world. And it draws upon the past to help us understand the many sides fighting America’s Culture War.

All through a family story, different and similar to yours and to mine. I would be sincerely honored if you read it.

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J. Andrew Shelley

J. Andrew Shelley

People working with people. Sure, it’s business but it’s also personal. About you and me. Book: American Butterfly on Amazon.