“His last hours were as perfect as an 8-year-old boy could hope for — with his family, eating ice cream at a sporting event.”
These words, spoken by President Obama about Martin Richard, the third-grader who was killed in the Boston Marathon bombings two weeks ago, are what I have been clinging to. A perfect spring day. A child with his family. A boy who knew how much he was loved. A child who lived a good, happy, and beautiful life.
Sometimes, the way a person dies depletes the joy of living, tarnishes all the years in between birth and death. Sometimes, especially if a death is sudden and violent, the way a person dies eclipses his life and becomes what you dwell on and remember.
Because “What ifs” and “If onlys” fill our heads. If only he hadn’t been right where he was. If only he’d been across the street, down the street, watching from home. If only he’d been sick or it had rained. If only the bombs hadn’t gone off. If only the police had caught the bombers before. If only, if only, if only are boomerangs that return again and again to a single moment we can change in our heads, but cannot change in real life, no matter how hard we pray and we try.
I know this game the mind plays. When my mother was in her 40s, she suffered a brain injury and her doctor said we should pray for her to die. But all I could pray for was to change what had happened. And in my head I did. I made the accident disappear. I was with her. She didn’t fall. She wasn’t unattended for hours. She was fine. Just as she had always been.
But only in my head.
I lost the memory of all the good years doing this. All the befores, full of everyday living and joy and laughter, because I was stuck in a place that was fantasy, that was what I wanted but not what I had. I couldn’t go forward. I couldn’t go back because I was trapped in the unfixable, unfathomable now.
Martin Richard was having a perfect day. He was just 8. He had had many perfect days. I hope his parents dwell on this and take comfort in his joy and all the love that they gave him, all that they did for him and with him. I hope they will remember all the ice cream cones and outings and ball games and family times and helping with homework and reading bedtime stories and not just the terrible, unforeseeable now and this tragic time of sorrow and loss and pain.
My newest grandson was born one day after Martin Richard was murdered. I looked at this new baby and thought as I always do when a child is born, that it’s God way of giving the world one more chance.
I held him for the first time in a New York hospital and tried not to think about what happened in that city 12 years ago, what happened in Boston the day before, and what happens daily somewhere in the world.
I thought about the new bumper pads my daughter-in-law ordered and the car seat she borrowed and the crib with its slats staggered so the baby won’t get his head stuck. And the new sterilizer and the bottles free of PET. And the immunizations he’s already had and all the “be carefuls” and “don’ts” and “hold my hands” that are in his future and how all this safeguarding is good and necessary.
But the fact is you can’t protect people from everything. A car can come barreling out of nowhere, backing down a one-way street, and that’s it. A virus that most people survive, some people don’t. A road race, in a blink, can turn into a war zone.
At the end of the day, all we can do is love people. And be good to them. Smile. Pay attention. Eat ice cream. And enjoy the time we have together.