Runners compete in the 2013 Boston Marathon. (Photo courtesy of Sonia Su, Wikimedia, CC 2.0.)
In a few weeks' time, my friend Anthony is having a party. It's not his birthday, but he is celebrating the fact that he's alive. He and his friends will get together to mark the one-year anniversary of the day he almost died, but didn't: an Alive Day party. Among wounded vets, such celebrations aren't uncommon ("It sounds like pretty much every Jewish holiday," I joked to Anthony when he told me about his plan. "They tried to kill us, they failed, let's eat").
Almost a year ago, Anthony stepped on an IED while out on patrol in Kandahar Province. Technically, he died that day: he flat-lined twice in the helicopter that lifted him out of the explosion site, but he came back. For that, I am profoundly grateful every day. He lost one of his legs below the knee in the blast, and has spent the last year in and out of surgery, learning to use a series of increasingly sophisticated prostheses, and building up his strength again.
Like most people who were fortunate enough to not have loved ones in harm’s way yesterday, I sat in shock at the news out of Boston. I scrolled through my Twitter feed with the kind of disgust and disbelief, that mingled fear and sadness that has become sickeningly familiar to Americans of late. I didn’t rage and I didn’t cry; I just sat there, reading and watching.
And then I heard the news of marathon runners sustaining serious injuries to their lower extremities, the report from Mass General that several amputations had been performed. People losing calves, and feet. Men and women who had just run a marathon, who run every single day, who have honed their bodies into world-class athletic machines, suddenly without feet, or living without a leg. For reasons I can't explain, it was that thought that broke my heart.
Perhaps it was because I grew up on the balance beam and at the ballet barre, reveling in the things my body could do. I've never run a marathon—never come close—but I know what it feels like to command your body to do something that seems impossible, to gradually, determinedly coax it, correcting an angle here and a foot placement there until finally, your body does what your mind has decided it will do. And though I never injured myself in a catastrophic way, I did, over time, lose that capacity. Bits of my body gave out, until I could no longer issue the same commands. It simply wouldn't cooperate, and I grieved the loss. The news of marathon runners suddenly robbed of the ability to do what they do brought back that grief.