Marathon Monday: Tragedy and T-Shirts One Year Later

A fan wears a Boston Bruins jersey bearing the Boston area code and "Boston Strong," remembering the city's solidarity after
A fan wears a Boston Bruins jersey bearing the Boston area code and "Boston Strong," remembering the city's solidarity after the Boston Marathon bombing in April, before Game 4 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Finals between the Bruins and the Chicago Blackhawks, Wednesday, June 19, 2013, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

I was on the treadmill when I saw the first segment last Sunday. ESPN was on in my apartment gym and I distracted myself from the clock with the weekend's Premier League highlights. 363 days later with eight more to go, the anchor introduced the first of an onslaught of Boston Marathon tributes that surfaced this week. The coverage was deferential, albeit typical -- panoramic shots of face-painted students cheering on the sidelines, spandex-decked runners crossing the finish line, and, then, of course, the two bombs exploding amongst the spectators. Those shots, the ones seared into the American psyche over the past 12 months, were followed by a year's worth of footage of the shoes at roadside memorials, the steps of the injured on prosthetics, and the blue and yellow of "Boston Strong."

I have spent the year avoiding such coverage for many disjointed reasons. Perhaps most obviously, it brings me back to the panic of Marathon Monday, and the moments of panic that would follow -- the frantic calls from friends when my name was on the missing persons list; the dozens of sirens in the car chase outside my Memorial Drive bedroom; and the fist closing in my throat in the crowds of my college graduation. More insidiously, it stirs up jaded feelings towards retailers' capitalization on a nation's fear and suffering, something I fear is becoming an American specialty. Most intractably, it allows to surface the guilt that I feel knowing that such acts of terror are a daily event in many places in the world, not wholly disentangled from American engagement abroad. For Boston and for runners, the bombings were painful precisely because of our shared incredulity.

But as the video tribute continued, I started to feel my eyes get wet. A few minutes in, I was crying. By the five-minute mark, I was running and sobbing. The tears continued for another seven miles or so. Any person who walked past might have assumed I was watching a Lifetime drama, not an afternoon ESPN special. I left the gym dehydrated and bewildered by my own response.

I have a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some of that is self-inflicted. I have spent the past few years in places where the sting of violence has been beaten down by its regular occurrence. I like to think I've built up a healthy resilience to stories and experiences of trauma. At Boston, I was not hurt and neither were my close friends or family. If the bombings had occurred in any other city at any other time, casualties would have been exponentially higher. This is not to say that the number of lives and limbs not lost distills the tragedy of those that were. However, in my ever rationalizing mind, all of the above should have tempered the emotional timbre of my own reaction. Not so.

The Boston Marathon bombings were earth-shattering to many because the unspeakable happened to people and in places where the unspeakable does not happen. It happened to people about whom the media regularly speaks at all. Many abroad asked why the New Orleans Mother's Day Parade shooting a month later, which injured 20 people, was not a national tragedy. The American anti-terror bent aside, such a mass shooting in a community predominantly of color would never have raised 70 million dollars. This is, in itself, a national tragedy.

But as next Monday grows closer, the question of last year's emotional potency remains on my mind. Something about the 2014 Boston Marathon will draw 36,000 runners, 10,000 volunteers, and hundreds of thousands of spectators to the course on Patriot's Day. Many have argued that it is the doggedly stubborn spirit of Boston that has garnered such support, which is certainly true. Surely the fervor of an adrenaline-steeped running community couldn't hurt either. More than our own individual experiences, this collective compassion stems from an underlying understanding that our perspectives, our senses of security, and our lives can be radically changed by a single moment. We have an ability to, in moments of tragedy and grief, unite and take part in something that is larger than any single individual's experience. There is a commonality that transcends individual backgrounds, identities, and perspectives -- life, despite being fragile and fleeting, is beautiful and something to be celebrated.

I expect to cry a lot this Monday. I expect to buy a lot of t-shirts. But I also hope to do some thinking about how we can channel the strong feelings of fear, pride, and resilience into actionable empathy in the worlds off of the screen. And as for this Monday, I have a finish line to cross.