The resilience of optimism
For the last few weeks, as this terrible anniversary approached, I was alternately haunted and comforted by two strikingly different images, and they played like videos in my brain, just before sleep, complete with deafening sound and visceral smell.
In one of them, the bombs go off and a pair of firefighters from Engine 33 and Ladder 15, Frankie Flynn and Mike Kennedy, bolt from the firehouse, like sprinters out of the starting blocks, and they are running, chugging, side by side, down Boylston Street.
They come upon people lying on the sidewalk outside the Forum.
Lingzi Lu, a student from China who loved everything about Boston, is lying there, dead. Eight-year-old Martin Richard from Dorchester is lying there, dead. His little sister Jane is sitting on the sidewalk, stunned, her hair singed, looking down at where her left leg used to be. Their mother Denise has blood seeping from her eye, their father Bill’s legs are shredded by shrapnel, their brother Henry’s soul is shredded by loss. Severed limbs lay scattered. Rivulets of blood meander into the cracks on the sidewalk.
As smoke lifts and eerie silence gives way to moans of pain and cries of anguish, Frankie Flynn and Mike Kennedy and a score of other firefighters, police officers, EMTs, and passersby go to work, tying off gushing legs, reassuring the wounded, saving lives.
Today, as we mark an anniversary neither of them looked forward to, Frankie Flynn and Mike Kennedy are dead. Frankie, lost to cancer, dead 30 days after his diagnosis. Mike, lost to duty with his lieutenant, Eddie Walsh, dead in a fire on Beacon Street last month, just a few blocks from where two bombs exploded on Patriots Day and changed everything.
And just when that image begins to consume me, when my eyes burn in the dark, the other image appears. It is Jane Richard. She is smiling, leaning on her crutches. She is wearing a purple Under Armour shirt and shorts, and she has just been fitted with her Cheetah leg, her prosthesis, and then Jane Richard is step dancing to an Irish reel again, and in that moment the dark gives way to the light.
We have been in commemoration mode for weeks now, and there’s still another week to go until the Marathon, and I still can’t figure out if this is good, bad, or just plain necessary.
Is it too much? Too little? Is there a right way to recognize a terrible wound, a wound that is as psychic as physical?
To get some perspective, I asked an outsider, someone trained in trauma, about what happened to us over the last 365 days. His name is Dr. Michael Barnes, and he is the clinical program director at the Center for Dependency, Addiction, and Rehabilitation (CeDAR) at the Anschutz Medical Campus at the University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora, Colo.
After a former student opened fire in a crowded movie theater in Aurora two years ago, killing 12 people, it was Barnes who went to explain what had happened to students at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, some of whom knew the shooter.
Barnes said that, like the cinema shooting, the Marathon bombings produced several different kinds of trauma. Those wounded suffered primary trauma. The loved ones of those killed and wounded suffered secondary trauma, as did the first responders. The wider community, the rest of us, experienced a trauma called compassion fatigue, overwhelmed by the images and stories we have all seen and heard.
“When we’re being traumatized, the part of our brain that truly remembers goes to sleep,” Barnes explained. “It’s sensory information that triggers memory — smell, taste.”
Barnes said Boston is experiencing cyclical trauma this week.
“I call it CNN syndrome,” he said. “There’s a repetition of video, of images.”
Many first responders were willing to seek help. Dan Linskey, superintendent in chief of the Boston Police Department when the bombings took place, went around the city, hugging his officers and, in some cases, ordering them to see a counselor.
But there was a different kind of therapy taking place, and we weren’t even aware. The compassion with which the wider community responded — from ordinary civilians like Rob Wheeler, a college kid who peeled the shirt off his back to save the life of a man bleeding out on the sidewalk, to the massive fund-raising to take care of survivors — is why the dark images are giving way to light. Reading or hearing about selfless acts by kids who raised money with lemonade stands or those running to help the bombing survivors and other charities is literally making us better.
“Optimism,” Barnes said, “is at the center of resilience.”
And so we feed off the survivors, witnessing their inexorable path toward normalcy. We rejoice when Adrianne Haslet-Davis dances on stage, when Paul Norden gets engaged, when Jane Richard gets her Cheetah leg.
“Resilience is about connectedness,” Barnes said.
Whether we realize it or not, we are connected to those so badly hurt last year, to those who helped and are helping them, and it is seeing them get back to what they love and who they love that has healed so many.
And so, to answer the question, all these stories about survivors and people running to honor Martin Richard and Lingzi Lu and Krystle Campbell and Sean Collier, it isn’t too much. It is part of the healing process. It is part of the normalization process.
It’s normal. We’re getting back to normal.
Last week, two priests named Sean Connor and John Unni stood on a back porch in West Quincy, talking to a pair of young Marines.
Father Sean is the priest who comforted the Richard family after the bombings. Father John is the priest who comforted the families of Mike Kennedy and Eddie Walsh at their funerals.
On this day, the two priests blessed Sean Finn and Dan Keeler Jr., who are shipping out to Afghanistan, to do a job not enough people in this country appreciate.
It is just coincidence, or maybe it isn’t, that those young Marines are the sons of men who keep the city safe every day. Keeler’s father, a Boston police sergeant detective, saved untold lives last year on Patriots Day, keeping the ring road open so the ambulances could ferry the wounded to the hospitals. Finn’s father is a deputy fire chief, one of the best firefighters in the city. He saved untold lives a few weeks ago when he ordered everyone out of that burning building on Beacon Street.
After Father Sean and Father John blessed the two young Marines, praying that they will be safe in the year they spend in one of the most dangerous corners of the world, they said their goodbyes to the Finn and Keeler families.
Sue Finn, the young Marine’s mother, has a tradition that any guest invited into her house must dance in her kitchen before he or she leaves. It is a reminder that life is too short, too priceless, to not dance, to not express joy, and with Sue Finn there are no exceptions. Not even for priests. So Father Sean and Father John dutifully obeyed, dancing a jig that would have made an Irish step dancer named Jane Richard smile.
And so on this day, when we pause to remember the boom and the smoke and the screams on Boylston Street, we also should, like Sue Finn, like Jane Richard, like Father Sean and Father John, remember that life is too precious and too short not to dance.