- Constellation of Grace
It is the nature of grace always to fill the places that have been empty.—Goethe
On Wednesday, March 4, 2015, the trial of Dzhokhar Anzorovich Tsarnaev, the surviving perpetrator of the Boston Marathon bombings, began with a quiet opening statement. "On Marathon Monday," the assistant U.S. attorney said, tilting his head toward the jury box, "the defendant rounded the corner onto Boylston Street and began walking towards the finish line. But the defendant wasn't there to watch the race. He had a backpack over his shoulder and inside that backpack was a homemade bomb. It was the type of bomb favored by terrorists because it's designed to tear people apart, to shred flesh, shatter bone, set people on fire, and cause victims to die painful, bloody deaths." The attorney, William Weinreb, a professorial man with bags under his eyes and a receding, graying hairline, paused to compose himself.
In the third row of the victims' section, teetering on the edge of the wooden bench, I shredded a tissue in my hands. Cameras lingered just outside the courthouse doors, and inside the courtroom, separated from me by a single, narrow aisle, reporters gawked, pens in hand, jotting down every reaction. I did not want to be written as a distraught victim.
This is the reel that my head plays at night after the streets go quiet and the ringing in my ears amplifies: The mother, a brown-haired woman, kneels [End Page 1] over the fragments of her son and rocks back and forth. She brushes her son's hair, puts her palm against her forehead, grips her son's hand, and doesn't let go. Though I can't hear her, her lips form a familiar word, scream it over and over: help. The child succumbs to agonal breaths. He bleeds to death on the sidewalk. I do nothing.
Over the years, I have been told that I don't understand what happened on Boylston Street, that I don't grasp the gravity of Dzhokhar's actions, that I am too young to comprehend. I understood then and I understand now.
I will not tell you what I saw. This is a choice. I hold these memories, squeeze them, wring the blood from them, as if they will provide comfort or answers or an intangible something, and these memories are all I have. I cannot give them to you.
I will tell you what the jury heard: three people died in the Boston Marathon bombings.
The bombings occurred during my sophomore year at Suffolk University. I was walking from my job at a hotdog stand back to my dormitory on Beacon Hill, using the race route as a shortcut. I smelled like spoiled meat, my feet ached, and a grease burn on the inside of my wrist stung in the crispness of the air. I had no desire to watch the Marathon. In fact, I had forgotten about Marathon Monday until bottlenecked crowds derailed my usual subway routine. I chose to walk home. I thought it would be faster.
When I turned onto Boylston Street, that final half-mile of the race, I pulled my Red Sox cap low and pushed my way through throngs of spectators. I had no time for noisemakers and homemade signs. A paper for a sociology class waited on my desk. The class was called "Men and Violence." I should have taken that as an omen. That paper never made it to the gradebook. I took a medical leave of absence after James McCarthy, then-president of Suffolk University, issued a campus-wide memo that no students or employees had been injured in the attack. He never issued a retraction.
I moved to Boston from landlocked Downers Grove, a village west of Chicago [End Page 2] that has neglected an apostrophe (Pierce Downer, a dairy farmer, is the village's eponym). When I was seven, my grandfather, a widower with crotchety mannerisms and an art gallery in his sunroom, lifted a watercolor painting of the Atlantic Ocean off the wall and set it on the coffee table. The faded blue...