After the Marathon: We Contain Multitudes

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This past Monday, I watched the Boston Marathon. I live in Newton, so I went over and watched it about a mile from my house. I was standing a little before mile 19, from about eleven that morning, until about one. So nothing had happened yet except the marathon itself.

Patriots’ Day is always this particular Monday, closest to April 19th, which is also always the first Monday of school vacation. I haven’t seen a marathon for years, because we’ve usually been away. But this year I was here, and I felt pretty silly that we have been living so close by for so long and I hadn’t gone to watch. I knew there would be a festival sort of atmosphere. I knew it would be one of those heart-warming community events that make you feel good about humanity, although I didn’t know exactly how it would work. On Monday, I woke up feeling a little fizz of excitement, to be honest.

One child was away on his school vacation, with my husband; one child was asleep, because she’s a teenager; one was going to come with me but reneged at the last minute. So I biked over alone. I was feeling sad about that, but then lo and behold when I got there and parked my bike, I realized that across Comm Ave.—on the other side of the course—were my brother- and sister-in-law, who don’t even live in Newton and could have been spectating from anywhere along the 26.2 miles, but were instead precisely where I was. I crossed over. “God didn’t want me to be alone at the marathon,” I said.

It was early; I didn’t realize how early, marathon-wise, it was. There were a few wheelchairs, and a few of the elite women. Most of them had already gone by. We were now waiting for the elite male runners. Before long there was a phalanx of motorcycles, and photographer trucks, and then, finally, a small pack of slender men. “Oh,” breathed Teresa. “Oh. They glide.” We marveled at the efficiency of their strides. Their faces didn’t show strain but, rather, authority. Then they were gone.

Following the leader pack was the rest of the elites, more spread out. A kid near us had a vuvuzela, which nicely punctuated things. We could see each individual runner; clap and cheer; and then chat some more. We talked about how my husband—one of four brothers—ran the marathon in high school, and how a couple of years later no one in the family was running it and so another brother, Sam, called John, the brother I was standing with now, on March first and said, “You training yet?” That was back before you had to qualify. They both ran it, that year, in four hours.

John—no longer a runner, but a dedicated walker—said he started wearing Rockports after he saw a guy running in them one year. We saw a barefoot guy go by. A few Vibram sock-shoe guys.  On the edge of the other side, Marines, in full gear, were walking the route. My nephew is a Marine; Teresa said his pack, in basic, had been seventy pounds. We hollered, “Thank you!” to them. They waved back.

There was still an anticipation I couldn’t identify; all the elites had passed. Whoever was going to win had come and gone.

Then I noticed my bike, which I’d left on the other side, was about to tip over. So during a lull I dashed across to fix it. There was a lemonade stand there, and I bought a chocolate chip cookie. I took a bite and then felt sort of ridiculous, being surrounded by these low-BMI types, so I stuck it in my pocket. Then I waited for a chance to cross back. But it didn’t come. The flow of runners was steadily increasing.

I waited five, ten minutes. I was stuck. I shrugged theatrically, across the four lanes, at my brother- and sister-in-law.  I was alone again, but the woman I was standing next to, who had her two kids with her, was very nice. She was one of those people you just start talking to—and marathon day is one of those times you just start talking to people. But we didn’t talk much, because our business now was cheering. The runners were constant now. At first they stayed, decorously, in the right lane, next to us. I thought of calling to John and Teresa to come over to me, because I was closer. I could see the runners’ faces, their shirts.

The shirts were the thing. You began to want connection. You began to read the shirts. “Go Children’s Hospital!” “Go Brazil!” “Go Denmark!” “Go Chile!” “Go Friends of Griffin!”

Some smart ones—repeats, probably—had their names magic-markered on their fronts. “Go Kelly!” “Go Doug!” “Go Manuel!” “Go Chris!”

Some people were in costume. “Go hamburger!” “Go bee!” “Go Wonder Woman!”

There’s a guy from my church who’s run two dozen Bostons, always in costume. This year he was going as Prince William. I kept watching, but never saw him. I thought it would be impossible to miss him; but I hadn’t realized, really realized, how many people there would be. They had now spread across Comm Ave to all four lanes. We had been standing in the street since the lemonade stand was behind us, but now we had to get up on the curb, to make room. They filled the whole road edge to edge.

I was reading shirts as fast as I could. I had started clapping, and now I couldn’t stop. How could you stop? It wasn’t like a play with a standing ovation and eventually your hands are killing you and even though the thing was brilliant you have to stop. This was slow, steady clapping, for the steady stream of runners. My hands went numb. I kept clapping, and the runners kept coming.

A guy with a huge head of blue hair. “Go hair!”

Three shirtless guys. “Go shirtless guys!”

More friends of Griffin. “Go friends of Griffin!”

There were all the people raising money—“Go Dana Farber!” “Go Mass General!” You couldn’t really yell, “Go brain cancer!” so you hoped those people had names on their shirts, or instead you yelled “Great job!”

There were municipal running clubs and ballerinas and the Easter Bunny and Anchorage and Kansas City. There was Duke and Trinity and Wayne State and lots of Michigans, for some reason. There was Army and Navy and the Air Force Academy, and there were still the Marines trudging by.

Maybe because—as I now realize—it was still on the early side, meaning these were the qualifiers with better times, I didn’t see a lot of agony. There were a few who would start walking, head down. We said “You can do it,” and “You’re amazing,” which I meant, because I would sooner eat cement than run a marathon. One woman panted, “How many more hills?” but then she was gone. One guy handed us an empty plastic water bottle as he passed and said, “Do you mind throwing this away?” One guy slowed down to shake the hand of one of the walking Marines and said, “Thank you for your service.” The Marine said, “It’s an honor.” I was in the presence of people who could run a marathon and, at mile 19, still talk.

John and Teresa waved across at me and left. An old guy came by selling cowbells and I bought one. I let the kids near me use it for a while and then they gave it back and I could use it instead of clapping, and the feeling gradually returned to my palms.

But I had to keep making noise. Because they kept coming. We were standing at the top of a hill and you could look down Comm Ave. and see a river of people with no end. The excitement and the good cheer were so high and I realized I kept standing there because I was waiting for the climax, the resolution; but of course there wouldn’t be one. Not here at mile 19. I could feel, in the muted exhilaration of the runners, two-thirds of the way there, Heartbreak Hill still to come, how the marathon would be its own self-contained narrative, its own drama, for each of them. It would have its own plot, its own rise and fall of action, and I would be a tiny, tiny part of it, some crazy-lady voice yelling, “Go Cedar Rapids!” somewhere along mile 19, along with all the screaming Wellesley women, all the Boston College kids, all the hands holding out cups of water, all the clapping, all the cowbells; the despair, the nausea, the temptation to stop, the pushing through; the journey up, and then down Heartbreak Hill, and down Beacon Street, and then Boylston, and under the clock, and over the finish line.

I stayed for more than two hours but I finally left, although it felt like leaving in the middle of a movie, because I had errands to run on that day off. Two hours later, I would call my kids, to see whether they liked the crunchy or the puffy cheese doodles from Trader Joe’s, and they would tell me what they were seeing on T.V., and I would hurry home.

What I experienced Monday was an ordinary marathon. The awe at the human effort, the thousands of stories running by, the endurance, the athleticism, the will—it was all run-of-the-mill extraordinary. If there is such a thing. People wiser than I have loved the marathon for years. I just discovered it, really, and next year, without question, it will be different.

As I write this they haven’t yet found who did it. It’s looking more and more like domestic terrorism, and I suspect it’s only a few people, or even just one, someone pathetic who has slid over the line into evil, looking up bombmaking directions online. But even if it’s a larger conspiracy—even if it was some vast international network—it is dwarfed by what I saw on Monday, on Commonwealth Avenue, at the top of just one of the many hills (there are always more, there is always one more): the runners coming, coming, not stopping. Thousands. Thousands. Thousands.

Image: Stewart Dawson

Severe Clear

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By 8:47 AM on September 11, 2001, a lot had already happened at our house. We had walked our daughter to school for her third day of kindergarten. The baby had awoken, been fed and changed, and was back in the crib for his morning nap. And the middle, the three-year-old, was on the way to the grocery store with my husband, who was going into work at the Boston Globe a little later than usual. My sanity hinged on having an hour or two to write, every now and then; finding an hour or two was my main, my constant, goal. My husband knew this.

So when he called, I didn’t answer. Then I thought maybe he had a question about groceries. I sighed and listened to the message. I could hear the radio on in the background, the prickling of the AM news station. He said I might want to turn on the TV. He said terrorists had flown planes into the World Trade Center. “It might be something to watch. And remember,” he said. He was a journalist, not easily surprised.

My first thought was, there goes my goddamn morning. And I almost didn’t leave my study. But I did, and went downstairs and turned on the TV, and sat there in my bathrobe and began to understand. When he came in a few minutes later I said, tonelessly, “They hit the Pentagon too.”

“I have to go in.”

“I know.” He put down the groceries and was gone.

I don’t remember now how I distracted my son so I could watch a little longer. The TV was rarely on in our house, and never in the morning. I couldn’t cry or even look very upset, or at least I thought I couldn’t. A flat rationality substituted for grief. When they kept talking about how complicated a plan this had been, I thought instead how obvious it was. It was the sort of thing a nine-year-old boy would think up. Fly planes into towers, soaring and unguarded. They had been targets this whole time.

In 2001 it was already the twilight of TV news, and people now, used to anchors who are volatile personalities just like the celebrities they cover, might not realize how terrifying it is when a professional breaks down. That morning, I was listening to Peter Jennings. I remembered how openly jubilant he had been when the Berlin Wall had fallen, but that seemed like a conscious choice next to the horror he could not keep out of his voice now.

I don’t remember the people jumping, or the man high, high up, waving the white flag. I only remember the wide shot of the towers and how blue the sky was and how beautifully billowing the smoke. How from far away it seemed not to be moving.

When the towers began to fall, Peter Jennings was again disbelieving, but all I could think was of course they’re falling. Just as I had thought, of course they flew planes into them. I suppose it was a defense mechanism. We should have seen it coming. And if it was visible, then it was preventable. So all the fault, and thus, the control, was still ours.

Since it was a Tuesday it was a regular early-release day, at twelve-thirty, for schools in our town. The sun was golden and perfect. The air was so clear it seemed not to exist. There was an enormous parade of people walking to school, including lots of dads still in their suits: the downtown skyscrapers had been evacuated. Others had just left work anyway. We all thought more attacks were coming. They did not feel over. The disbelief and uncertainty made us giddy.

We could not decide what to say to our children but we had to say something, for we knew we could not tear ourselves away from our TVs, and also because the working parents were home, in the middle of the day.

And also because the skies were so quiet. By then, U.S. airspace was empty. I would not have thought that airplanes made such a noticeable and constant background noise, but once it was gone the sky was eerily larger. The feeling of waiting increased.

We didn’t know yet how many fathers had said goodbye that morning and not returned. How many mothers had left notes and gone to airports for business trips, and disappeared.

The narrative turned out to be pretty simple. Men had flown planes into buildings. Because the men were evil.

At the playground later that week, or maybe even the beginning of the next, I saw a friend whose husband was also a journalist, a photographer for a national magazine. “That morning, he just got in the car and drove to Washington,” she said. “And I haven’t seen him since.” Her two kids were the same ages, almost to the day, as our younger two. I could see her trying not to feel the situation personally, trying not to resent a national tragedy, but she had deep circles under her eyes.

That same day, I also heard someone say, for the first time, nine-eleven. I didn’t like it. I thought it was too jaunty and disrespectful. I still needed the drawn-out syllables, the vision of the calendar page, the more old-fashioned sense of history in September eleventh.

In those first days and weeks it was so obvious to me that not a single additional person needed to die violently, ever again, that I allowed myself to believe that our country, the wise, the mature, the grieving, would not answer the attacks with anything like the same. These had been attacks on decency, on the very idea of humanity, on the possibility of love. I felt to my core that one more innocent civilian dying would be blasphemy.

It took almost a month. When our bombs began to rain down on Afghanistan, I felt more hopeless than I did the day the towers fell.

At some point my husband said that soon, now, they’d invade Iraq.

“Why? What does Iraq have to do with anything?” I said.

He said, “They’ve been waiting for an excuse.”

I had gone off antidepressants before getting pregnant with our third child, and staved off postpartum depression with therapy. The week of the attacks, I cancelled my regular appointment. I went the next week purely out of a sense of obligation and said I was sorry, but I thought that right now my own problems, whatever they might be, were irrelevant.

My shrink said maybe we should talk about why I thought I was irrelevant.

I said maybe we shouldn’t, and that no, I did not feel the need to explain. We sat in silence, and I left early, and that was the beginning of the end for therapy for me.

That summer, we had joined a pool in a neighboring town. It cost too much, and, as my husband said, was “the apotheosis of suburbia,” but I wasn’t sure how I would get through the summer without water available. Sometimes I had a sitter with me, but often not. I would hold the baby in one arm and the three-year-old in the other, which was possible in the buoyancy of the water, and stay where the five-year-old could still stand. None of them could swim. It was a little nerve-wracking — once the three-year-old nearly drowned in front of my eyes, because we were right where the water was just above his nose, and he didn’t know he only had to step backwards. But I realized just in time, and grabbed him. His enormous eyes imploring me.

That incident notwithstanding, I felt a goopy sentimentality about the pool, even before the attacks. I knew this baby would be our last. I knew our daughter beginning school was the beginning also of a long, long change, that nothing would stay the same. Summer had seemed one long suspended moment, but in fact time hurtled forward. As if to confirm this, I began to realize that the main pool, with the waterslide, was situated in such a way that the large gym building next to it — which, conveniently, also featured an enormous outdoor clock — made the sun’s progress obvious. In July, at seven o’clock, almost bedtime, part of the pool would be shadowed by the peak of the gym’s roof. But by early August, it was six o’clock. Then five.

That week of September, September eleventh, was the last week the pool was open. All week, it was nearly empty. But there were dads around. You saw a lot of dads.

All week, the weather was heartbreaking, perfect.

When our son began preschool, a week after the attacks, we attended a parents’ orientation night. We spent a good deal of time talking about evacuation procedures. We talked about what would happen if communications were knocked out. We talked about backup locations and backup-backups. No one thought this was odd.

The holiday card we sent out that year was a family picture that had been taken at a friend’s wedding at a house on Cape Cod. My husband is in a seersucker suit; I am wearing a hat. The children’s outfits match, and are smocked. Behind us is the faraway glimmer of the Atlantic.

Our three-year-old was obsessed with tools then, and in fact had to have a toy hammer in his hand at all times. That day he must have misplaced his usual one and, being an accommodating child, had found a substitute. In the picture, he is holding a croquet mallet. Possibly he was in need of extra security, in the middle of all those strangers. He looks very serious, but the rest of us are smiling.

No one believes that the croquet mallet was not a plant. This picture is now known in our house as The Ralph Lauren Shot, but privately I think of it as The Last Innocence. It was taken on September eighth. The sky is already severe clear, but I didn’t know that term yet.

That Thanksgiving, we flew to see my parents. It was the first time we’d flown since the attacks. At the airport, my son’s Bob the Builder backpack was flagged; in the front pocket, with the rest of the tools I’d flung in at the last minute — a realistic-looking silver plastic set — was a toy box cutter, with a rubber blade. “Oh my God,” I said. “I didn’t think.” The TSA guy looked at me incredulously. “I’m so sorry. Please take it. Oh my God.”

But now we looked suspicious and he decided he also wanted to confiscate my son’s hammer of the day, a small wooden mallet designed to bang colored wooden pegs. “It’s his security object,” I said. “I know that sounds crazy. But look. It couldn’t hurt anyone. It couldn’t even fool anyone.” The guy persisted. My son’s eyes were filling. My remorse about the box cutter evaporated and I demanded to see a supervisor, who relented and said my son could keep the mallet if it stayed in his backpack for the entire flight. I said okay.

Once we were past security, I took the mallet out and handed it to him. “This is called civil disobedience,” I said. “This is why America is great.”

About a year later, I tried to write a story with the attacks as a backdrop. It was about a mother whose young son, who loved only tools, things to build with, was being encouraged to play with toy guns at a birthday party. At the party, the mother felt lonely and hopeless; she didn’t know why they had been invited, and she worried about her child and disliked the birthday child, and was ashamed. The story was set in October of 2001. Only the date gave anything away. Even so, I couldn’t make it work.

I have no doubt that the story’s failure was due to my own deficiencies, but I have yet to read any fiction inspired by September eleventh that works. It is still too monolithic an event to be refracted. It yanks us out of the dream. It was brutal, and specific, and brutally specific, and perhaps is not surrounded by enough other cultural markers and changes: we went back, almost overnight, to our patriotic shopping. The attacks did not mark the dawn of a new era, and certainly not an era with much poetry about it.

We went to the pool one last time. The large pool, the one with the waterslide, was empty, except for a father and his little daughter. All summer the waterslide, too scary for my children, had been a background roar amid the shrieks of older and braver kids. But now its splashing was almost tranquil.

Suddenly there was different roar, overhead, and the adults’ heads jerked up. All commercial flights were still grounded, and we had become accustomed to quiet skies. But these were military jets, three, in formation. Across the pool, the dad and I looked at each other.

“Going to Hanscom I guess,” he said. The air force base. I nodded.

The expression on my face, I am sure, mirrored his: terror, relief, sheepishness, and a recognition of this momentary alliance between strangers. Awareness of how large the pool was, how empty, and how small we were in this wide-open space. Of how the pointed shadow was beginning to fall over the water. Of how, unimportant, undefended, we nevertheless were targets, and always had been.


Image credit: Horia Varlan/Flickr