Thursday, April 18, 2013

Foot Soldiers

Tom, Laurel, and Tom Nealon

For us, the Boston Marathon started on Sunday, April 14th.  As has been the pattern in the last four years, we were invited to a brunch for the ALF’s Run for Research Marathon Team. It’s always a cool event. This year was the 25th anniversary of the formation of the RFR Team. They put together a clever video which consisted of interviewing other team members about their most bizarre chafing areas, how to spell cirrhosis, and to show their “finish line faces”.
Tom and Courtney at the brunch

There was also a wonderful speaker, Laurel, who told the story of her illness, transplant and recovery.

And then the ‘drumroll’ while they announced the current funds raised – which was a wonderful 1.1 (and more) million dollars.

We left the runners with our good wishes, and promises to see everyone after the race back at the Westin Hotel to celebrate.

The next morning we arrived somewhere around 10 or 10:30 at the “Liver Mile” (mile 16.8) in front of the Newton-Wellesley Hospital. We greeted old friends, mostly liver patients and their families, the ALF staff, and of course, the New England Organ Bank who sets up their table next to us.

Elizabeth, Diana, Celinda
The weather was fantastic, the music from the NHW ERG spot was loud and energetic, and the free BBQ lunch was delish. We planned to leave around 1:00 to head to Boston. I was tracking several runners on my phone, and we realized that Courtney, who was one of Tom’s transplant nurses, was going to be coming by our location soon, so we decided to wait for her.

After she went by, we headed to the subway, clutching our VIP finish line passes. The next plan was for us to meet Courtney at the finish. It took a while for us to stow our chairs in the truck, and then hike back down the hill to the MBTA stop. It took even longer for the Green Line train to get to the Hynes stop.

Finally, along with many excited Red Sox fans (the game had ended by now), we made our way to Boylston street and began working our way to the finish. And I had just received a text alert that Courtney crossed the finish line at 2:48.

BANG. Smoke.

“What was that? A bomb?”

“No, maybe not, maybe just a loud musket/canon for the Marathon. Or maybe a restaurant stove exploded.”

Another BANG and more smoke. Now the bomb question seemed more apt.

The crowd was pretty thick where we were, and everyone started asking each other what had happened. We saw a good amount of smoke up the street, and no one really knew what to do. Some started towards the smoke, and some retreated. Very soon there were cops telling us to move back, get off the street, NOW. 

We moved back and got on the sidewalk. Still there was that state of unease and confusion. After a few minutes of questions and wondering, we realized that we should just head for the Westin Hotel. We had to divert our travel a few blocks out of the way to get there, but that was OK. Cell phone service slowed down to non-existent.

So many ambulances
Now, we saw no carnage, no damage. We would never get close enough to see anything, (which is just as well). But what we did see was unsettling just the same. We saw runners with their space blankets wrapped around them. They looked displaced. We kept seeing the confusion on everyone’s faces, but we also started to see tears. Tears and comforting. So now we knew something big and bad had happened. 

As we got a little closer to Huntington Ave, we saw Donna, a woman whose son, Scott was a very active member of the RFR. We asked her to come with us to the Westin, and as we moved along, she told us that she’d heard from family members at home who were watching the news, and that there were reports of fatalities and lost limbs. She had not heard from Scott yet, but was pretty sure he had not reached the finish line, and therefore was safe.

And right before we got to the hotel, we saw another RFR volunteer, Alice. Alice’s significant other Jim (who ran for Tom last year), was still out on the course, somewhere, but she too was pretty confident he was safe.

Finally, we got up to the fourth floor where the ALF had the post-race headquarters set up. Right away we were hugged pretty tight by Lauren and Helen from the ALF. All they knew was that we had left Newton quite a while before, and were supposed to be at the finish line when the bombs went off.

No one had heard from Courtney yet, she had not checked in.

So we waited. We made small talk with a few runners who had already come back, compared notes with them and other family members waiting for their runners. Slowly phones were working OK again. I had voice mails, Facebook messages, and texts waiting. All asked the same thing, “Are you guys OK?? Call as soon as you get this!!”

After a while, only a very small number of RFR runners were coming back. By now, someone found a radio and a group formed around it, listening for whatever news updates were available. MBTA service was down. There was a reported fire or some disturbance at the JFK library, and the airport was closed.

Blurry photo of SWAT officers
And soon we learned that the hotel itself was on lockdown. No one in or out. And then we also realized that the floor below us was being used as a command center for the Boston Fire, Police, FBI, the Governor, and more. The escalators were shut down.

It was waay too much like 9/11. Too many conflicting reports, too much confusion, way too much fear.

We were safe enough, but the uncertainty was not easy to take.

FINALLY, Tom spoke to Courtney on his cell. She was fine. But – the explosion happened right near her. I can’t imagine the chaos she witnessed. She told Tom that she was SO glad he was not there with her. 

I’ve been hearing and reading on Facebook how this act will not deter us Bostonians (either by real estate or by heart) from being strong. Some of my “liver friends” are vowing to run next year. My Tom was already planning on it before this happened, now he is even more inspired. Or folks are planning to go ahead and attend big sporting events in town. And our other son Mike is full speed ahead with his plans to attend Comic-Con on Saturday. 

There was a great interview on WBZ TV yesterday. I’ve had these same thought swirling in my head before I heard Dan Soleau, a manager at Marathon Sports speak.  (Please take a minute to check it out - I'll wait.) I love it. Individual foot soldiers.

We’ve all got to handle this in our own way though. Humans can only handle so much, and then there’s a tipping point of saying, “No. I’m done. I can’t do any more, at least not now.” There are those who will shake and sweat at the thought of being in any large group, especially if they were at the blast site on Monday. That’s OK. We’ve got your back. We’ll go to the events, large and small, and we’ll think of you.

Others will never get on a plane again. We get it. Next time we fly, we’ll think of you too.

If someone else feels they must hang up their running shoes, then that’s OK too. Someone else will run for you in their hearts. Rest easy now. 

Being human is hard. Even if physical ailments don’t strike you, emotional struggles always will. I believe in trying a little harder when you can. I also believe sometimes you just need a break.

There was some kind of email/internet meme that was popular several years ago. It was about being a mom. Something like this:

“God bless the moms who wake up at 5:00am to bake cookies for the 4th grade party. And bless the moms who could not.” I loved that. It’s wonderful to celebrate those who do a little extra. Like marathoners, who ran to give blood. Awesome! But sometimes a person can only run the other way. And that’s OK too. 

We'll be your foot soldiers