We heard about the Boston marathon when we checked into our resort in St. Thomas. We’d had a long travel day with a series of small unfortunate events that had left me exhausted, starving, and irritable, the triviality of which was immediately put into perspective when we finally got to our room and turned on the TV.
As I write, I am sitting in an airport waiting for the first of two flights that will, if all goes well, bring us back home via Boston. I just received a text from a college boyfriend who usually checks in once a year to wish me a happy birthday. I didn’t expect to hear from him again so soon, but that’s what you get when something crazy like this happens. People call everyone they know who is in or near the place where it happened to make sure they’re ok. I’ve made and received my own calls, and while I wish the manhunt currently in process weren’t happening in the town that neighbors Free’s other home, I find relief knowing that she is safe with her grandmother and that her dad will surely keep her out of the known danger zone.
Known danger zone. What a weird thing it is to write that about the town that neighbors my daughter’s. Yet there it is. In the TV images that have been on a CNN loop all day, you can see the Arsenal mall in Watertown in the background; in my earlier years as a graduate student, this was my mall. Up until last year, when its Filene’s Basement closed down, I used to make regular trips there on my way to pick Free up from her dad’s. My old gym is around the corner. The RMV is up the street. I know that 7-11 that was robbed. It’s a weird thing to be in this airport and see so many people, vacationing from all over the world, caught up in a drama that’s taking place so close to home. But it seems to be getting less weird, these days, to be watching something like this unfold.
When these crazy-fucking-things-that-make-no-sense-and-never-will-no-matter-how-we-dissect-them happen, we do what we can to respond and recover the best we know how, and there seems to be a sort of protocol that develops that I wish I hadn’t gone through enough times to recognize it. We are shocked; we are saddened; we are made childlike in our sudden inner reeling. We run through possible associations we have to the people and places affected, replaying old lives in our minds or reaching out to reassure ourselves and others that everyone we know is OK. If we are lucky, we hear that they are, and we release one knot in the tangle of fresh fear that has erupted like a sour fire in our bellies.
After making sure that we and ours are OK, we can move to the place where we are empathetic yet relieved, able to retreat or reach out to support those who remain in the frontlines of the fear sphere. As we internally rehearse what we might do or not be capable of doing if it were us, we may mourn or moan or move our empathy outward in gentle waves in attempts to calm ourselves and soothe those others.
We know they could be us. Next time, they might be. We are not naive enough to pretend otherwise. We “hug our children tighter,” our way of smothering the fear that threatens to infect our most sacred spaces, our way of dismissing what we know might break us if we think about it too long. The metaphorical hugging–and our need to announce it–acts as balm in much the same way as when we wake our partners in the middle of the night after a nightmare. “It was so real,” we sob, wanting to tell it so that, in the telling, we can remember that it isn’t–real that is.
What is happening in Boston is real.
It is so real. It is so close. We can feel it.
I checked in to media as the nightmare in Boston unfolded and checked out when it became too much, like when I found out that Martin Richard, an eight year old, was among the victims. When I heard that, all I felt was the rush of a scream inside–the crazy-fucking-things-are-happening scream.
When I heard that, all I could see was an image of myself and Free sitting in the outer rim of the Big Apple Circus tent set up in Government Center in Boston one week ago. She had agreed to come only because Newman had assured her there were only cool and no scary things on display at this circus–and also because she guessed, in my (disappointed) reaction to her (fearful) reaction to the surprise, that it meant a lot to me and had probably cost me “like a hundred dollars, right mom?” While she weighed the cost to me, I had tried to distract and intrigue and settle her, hoping the risk and the hassle of navigating Boston on my own would pay off without feeding any of her many fears. As the circus started up, Free let go of my hand for the first time in an hour to cover her face, but she peeked through her fingers and slowly, slowly came alive as she watched gymnasts and trapeze artists and contortionists do the most amazing things she (and I) had ever seen a human body do. “This is so intense!” she exclaimed repeatedly with shining eyes before stopping to ask, “wait, what does that even mean?”
And while Free was winning her battle with fear and checking to make sure she had found the right language to communicate what she was feeling, I slowly, slowly worked on my own battle: trying to squash the fear I felt that someone, anyone–maybe even that guy right next to us or that woman over there–could pull out a gun or a bomb or something and do some-crazy-fucking-thing to all these kids in this tent in the middle of Boston with not a speck of security or even one single person even considering asking me or any other fool what we were carrying in our backpacks.
I thought of this when I heard about little Martin, and then I re-shared on Facebook the only thing that had comforted me a tiny bit after Sandy Hook and helped me navigate my conversations with Free about it: Mr. Rogers’ oft-cited quote to look to the helpers. The helpers are always there, and as Newman reminded me, they have always been there, because even though it feels new in its crazy-fucking-things quality each time, tragedy is not new for our human race.
Newman and I used our much needed vacation to find quiet, connected time, checking in occasionally to trace the developing arc of response and recovery in Boston. Friends posted on Facebook as they ran to honor victims or vowed to run the marathon next year. These are small comforts for us, but not, or at least not yet, for those who were not lucky enough to be able to wake up from this nightmare and know that they and their loved ones are OK.
I just finished reading Cheryl Strayed’s book, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, and I recommend it to anyone who can breathe. Strayed writes,
“when it comes to our children, we do not have the luxury of despair. If we rise, they will rise with us every time, no matter how many times we’ve fallen before. I hope you will remember that the next time you fail. I hope I will too. Remembering that is the most important work as parents we can possibly do.”
I often want to give in to despair but cannot because of Free. Her pseudonym on this blog is not accidental; it is my deepest wish for her and for myself through the mothering of her. To give her freedom, to give her flight, is to walk a tightrope in life, knowing I may, at any given moment, fail or fall, but I must continue to hold my head up and move forward, step by tiny beautiful step, because I may just make it to the other side. To give my little girl the freedom to let go of my hand when she is ready and to find the intensity all around her, I have to somehow keep rising, as must we all. And we must do it not only for our own children, but for everyone else’s too, for they are “ours” too as citizens of this world.
As parents and citizens, we are tasked with holding the imperatives of our children next to (as well as inside and against) our own. In trying to raise healthy, trusting children, we must help them find ways of their own to find their balance on tightropes, contort themselves in strange and beautiful ways, flex their muscles and soar to freedom in the air, held sometimes by a thin harness connecting them to us, and sometimes held by nothing at all except their own grace and power.
Now I am home, and when I got here at two this morning, I felt secure in the knowledge that this time, the bad guys had been caught and Free was safe at home with her daddy. Before going there, she had made me this card to welcome me home:
It’s a simple message, but there couldn’t be a truer, clearer reminder of our purpose here on this earth. Martin calls us to attend to the same message. In Boston and beyond, let us heed it together.
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