In the days after the Marathon bombing, I followed the news to the point of exhaustion. I created e-mail alerts and set my browser on sites with live news tickers.
Those first three days were both frenzied and tedious. I rushed away from the city, away from my office in Newton, calling family and friends, desperately trying to reach those who might have taken advantage of our Patriots Day holiday, the iconic event Bostonians look forward to each April.
Then, in my North Shore home, time slowed and I stood still, waiting for information, for the names of victims — for their faces — to appear on my television screen.
On Thursday night — three long and strange days after the backpacks exploded — the images of the Tsarnaev brothers flooded the media. Like many, I studied their faces and racked my mind for recognition but found none. I was weary and could not resist the persistent thought of sleep. As I moved to turn off my television, a beautiful female news anchor told me very little about a developing story at MIT: An officer had been involved in a shooting.
At the time, the news was not related to the Marathon bombings or the ensuing manhunt, and perhaps the week’s events had left me desensitized, for without a pause I switched off the TV. I let sleep soothe me. It pushed away the news, the stories, the terror, and the trauma, and I drifted off unaware that Sean Collier was gone.
Before sunlight, a call came. A person called a person, who called a person, who called me. My person was Samantha. Sam lives in the apartment below me and we have been friends since college at Salem State. We met in an English class and then both worked at Bertucci’s restaurant in Swampscott.
Sean Collier worked there, too. It was Sam who called to say that Sean had been shot and killed in his cruiser that Thursday night. Word of his death burned through the night. Calls and messages flooded my phone before sunrise.
The Sean Collier I knew was not much different from the man so many described in the weeks and months after his violent death. Sean was all of those things they said he was: honorable, courageous, and kind. There was only one discrepancy: The Sean I knew was much more handsome than the pictures.
I knew him for three years while we worked, went to school together, and ran within the same circle of friends. I knew him for three years and then I suddenly did not, as sometimes happens when college comes crashing to a halt and the regular people in your life begin to scatter.
In my experience, you never bid a formal farewell to these sorts of people because you assume you will see them again, somewhere along the way. They will reappear, and you will beep and wave at them in traffic, you will sneak up behind them at some bar and buy them a drink.
When we worked at the restaurant, Sean was a police officer in the making. He told Sam and me that if he could swing it, he wanted to work in the Somerville Police Department.
Sam was horrified.
“Won’t you be scared?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “No way.”
He did not take our job slinging pizza too seriously, but just enough to do the job well and to make some friends along the way. He was a good waiter and bartender. He was personable and attentive. There were regular customers who requested to sit in his section, a pair of little old ladies who came in at lunch time. They drank waters with lemon, split an individual-sized pizza, and took advantage of the free salad. The ladies usually handed over expired coupons, and Sean honored them every time.
When the restaurant was slow, Sean told thrilling stories of his police internships. He would lean forward on the bar, hunched over, with both arms extended in front of him, telling his stories and fielding my foolish questions about handcuffs, sirens, and even guns.
The Sean I knew had a warm charm. He was quick-witted and sincere. He smiled first with his eyes and then it grew bigger, favoring one side of his mouth. He was not the tallest, or the burliest. He walked with a distinct stride: His feet pulled out a bit to the sides and his head and shoulders fell into the motion of tottering slightly from right to left. It was a friendly gait that matched his grin.
Sean had no enemies at work. Even the “bad guys” liked him.
I was happy to be stuck at my menial job with Sean, who like me, was not in it for the long haul. I was happy to stand beside him for an hour at the end of a long night, folding pizza boxes, rehashing the drama of the dinner rush, and anticipating the cold beer in sight.
After Sam’s call woke me on Friday morning, I set my e-mail alerts, opened the live news tickers, and turned on my television. For five hours, I waited for the news I already knew. I was vigilant. I listened to the same stories circle in order: “. . . the latest details of Watertown shoot-out that left a transit police officer critically wounded” . . . “Next, victim status updates from Mass General” . . . Crystal Campbell’s mother’s wrenching statement. . . . and finally, “. . . an unidentified MIT police officer was shot and killed in his cruiser overnight.”
As it neared 11 a.m., the same beautiful anchor I had come to know came on the screen. She looked weary and I could not fault her. Her voice was not as smooth or as strong as it had been in the days before. She looked the world in the face and brought the breaking news — the slain MIT officer had been identified — and up until the very moment that his name fell from her lips and his face appeared on the screen, part of me had argued that it would not be true, that another name and face might materialize.
But it was Sean who appeared in that strange, stern picture. It was his name and his face, and I let that beautiful woman break it to me.
Priscilla Swain lives in Salem. She can be reached at email@example.com.