It was one of those days when all the good and important things come into focus. My seventeen-year-old daughter, Ariadne, and I were going to spend the day in the city together; she’d been accepted to a handful of Boston colleges, and she had only two weeks to decide where she’d like to be in the fall. Because it was Patriot’s Day, there was no commuter traffic and we made the forty mile trip south with no stops, hip hop blaring on my truck’s stereo, the sun high in a blue sky not unlike another deep blue sky twelve years ago, though I was not even close to thinking of that day, for sitting beside me was my only daughter, her hair long and curly like her mother’s, a dancer like her mother, too. Ariadne and I had been talking about what she might want to study, her interests in fashion design and art history, and then I was accelerating up the rise of the Tobin Bridge, the sun glinting off Boston Harbor down to the east. The city’s skyline always good to see: there was the Bunker Hill Monument, the sweeping white suspension cables of the Zakim Bridge, TD Bank North and the concrete and glass sky scrapers of Government Center and the financial district. Just the day before I’d taken my youngest son to Fenway Park, and we’d sat behind home plate and watched Clay Buchholz pitch a two-hitter against Tampa Bay.
My kids did not grow up in Boston, nor did I, but having it a short drive south was like knowing where your favorite aunt and uncle live, the fun and intriguing ones who make you proud about who you’re related to: in my sons’ cases, this came in the form of the Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, and New England Patriots; for my daughter, it was the fashion boutiques along Newbury Street; for my wife, it was the dance studios and performance spaces and the Museum of Fine Arts; and for me, it was the Italian restaurants of the North End, the Irish pubs of the South End, the university and theater and literary scene throughout. I live in the woods in a small town and prefer it that way, but slowing for the toll booths on the Tobin, Boston stretched out under the sun before Ariadne and me, I felt nothing but love for this city, and I was grateful it had always been so close to me and my family.
When I parked my truck in a garage in Government Center, the Boston Marathon was only minutes from its start. One of my nieces, a middle school teacher, was running it, and I thought if Ariadne and I had time maybe we could make it to the finish line to see her come in. This could work because my daughter had no intention of taking any guided tours. She simply wanted to see each campus, walk through a few buildings, and feel whether or not her future lay here or there.
First came Suffolk on Beacon Hill, then Emerson across from the Boston Common, the sun bright on the bare branches of its hardwoods only a few weeks from leafing out green. On the sidewalks there were vendors selling belts and knit caps, balloons and burritos and iced bottles of water, though the day was cool. Near the Emerson Majestic Theater, Ariadne and I stepped into a Starbucks for cups of hot coffee we sipped for our walk past the Public Garden and the luxury hotels bordering it. We began to see marathon runners in green and blue jerseys, and as we got deeper into Back Bay, there were steel barricades and uniformed Boston Police officers and cheerful groups of marathon volunteers in lime green jackets, all looking eager to do their part.
Ariadne and I cut west and crossed Mass. Ave for Huntington. The sun was in our faces, but there was a cool wind, too, and we talked about the race and how lucky the runners were that it wasn’t hot, that there may be some records broken today. My daughter, knowing I’d been a runner all her life, asked me if I ever thought of running the marathon. I told her I had but not a lot, that training for it would take too much time from family and writing. “Running 3-10 miles is enough for me, honey.”
Two hours later, three more colleges behind us, Ariadne and I found ourselves at a table for two at Eastern Standard in Kenmore Square. Behind us, through open doors to the outdoor tables along the sidewalk, came the joyous cheers of the thousands of men, women, and children lining both sides of Commonwealth Avenue. The first wave of runners were hitting the 25-mile mark, and I kept turning to look over my shoulder to glimpse one through the crowd. The restaurant was crowded too, the TVs above the long, marble bar showing these very runners passing by outside. Sitting across from me eating her salad, Ariadne looked lovely, and I felt a pang for what was coming, her leaving home like her older brother had already done two years earlier. But this day was too festive to be blue, and soon she and I were outside again, making our way through the crowd for the finish line to hopefully see my niece, the school teacher, come in.
My daughter and I began to walk faster. Every few blocks, we stepped deeper into the crowd to watch a runner go by: a tanned woman in her fifties, striding into her 26th mile as if it were her third; a wheelchair athlete zipping past her, his headband drenched; a soldier running in full desert camos and boots, a full pack on his back. Ariadne and I kept moving. My niece was a competitive runner, and it wouldn’t be too long before we saw her. But as my daughter and I rounded the corner for Boylston Street, the crowd was so thick we could move only a foot or two a minute. Men and women leaned out the open windows of office buildings and restaurants. Some took pictures with their cell phones. Others clapped. Thirty or forty college kids sat balanced along the top of an iron fence, sipping surreptitiously from cans of beer, and every time a new runner or wheelchair athlete came into view, the crowd would swell and burst with cheers. But it was all just a bit too much. I looked back at Ariadne. She was wedged between the shoulders of an old woman and a man, both of whom, like most of those among us, had given up trying to move and had just planted their feet to watch the race. But my daughter’s face was pale, and up ahead, over the heads of a dozen or more people, was a clearing, and I took her hand and made our way to it. I began to feel hemmed in and flashed to those human stampedes at soccer matches in Europe. But this felt so incongruous, this budding fear—not on a day like this, not on this day of joyful human striving that, for us witnesses, renewed our own resolve to strive in whatever ways we could.
Then, finally, Ariadne and I were in the clearing, the sun on our faces, more air, it seemed, in our lungs. From where I stood, I could see the finish line just two blocks north, that tall row of colorful flags from all the nations represented by their runners now coming in. I looked for a way to get down Boylston to the finish line to see my niece, but the crowd was too thick, and Ariadne looked too relieved for me to pull her back in to it, so we turned and headed away from the race and all of its perseverance and cumulative pride and well-earned reward.
The blasts happened as my daughter and I were in the parking garage in Government Center. We would not learn about them until we turned on the radio thirty minutes later. As soon as we got home, I called my nephew and learned his wife had crossed the finish line unharmed, that she was shaken but all right. But we know there are more than two-hundred who are not all right, and there are three families who are decimated, each one having lost a child, one an eight year old boy, the other two young women not much older than my daughter.
That night I held her close. I held her younger brother, too. I talked to my oldest son in Ohio, and I wept and prayed for the families who weren’t so fortunate. But I felt that old rage from that day twelve years ago rise up again, even though I know I must fight it, for rage only brings more rage in return. So then what must we do?
We must run again. And if we cannot run, we should walk or wheel ourselves, but we must go out in the street and begin training, each in our own way, for that Monday in April next year when one of the finest cities on earth opens her arms to all those who strive. And if my daughter decides to come to Boston in the fall, I will stand behind her completely, for she must continue to live her life with joy and gratitude and resolve. We all must. For this is a city that demands and deserves it, one I have always loved, but now, well, I love it more than ever before.