What the Boston Marathon bombing taught me about coping with crisis


I thought I knew what real fear was seven years ago, sitting in a locked-down hotel after two explosions ripped through the crowd packed along the homestretch of the Boston Marathon course. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic, all the world has become Boylston Street. Every day brings new shock waves. We’re frozen in place while brave first responders run toward the disaster. And we have no idea where the finish line is.

That day in 2013 changed me forever. I wrote this essay a year later to explain why. I took the guilt I felt for letting some important relationships slide, and I took action. I’m not perfect at it — who is? — but I gave more. I checked in more. I said yes more. I tried not to pass up opportunities for reunions and celebrations. I got closer to building a life without regrets.

When I’m swamped by despair at the thought of losing loved ones without being able to hug them again, or say goodbye, or grieve in any recognizable way, I try to remind myself that it’s what I’ve done all along that counts.

Editor’s note: This piece was originally published on April 20, 2014.

BOSTON — Larry and Stephanie Guidetti were standing three rows back in a dense crowd when the bombs exploded on the sidewalks across the street, first to their right and then to their left on the finishing stretch of the Boston Marathon. Their 27-year-old daughter, Gillian, was still out on the course, somewhere close, according to the race tracker they’d been checking all afternoon.

Stephanie was a nurse for 23 years, trained to cope with life and death on the job. Larry has logged 44 years as a math teacher, coach and guidance counselor. He has dealt with the aftermath of suicides and car wrecks and heart attacks.

But what faced them at that moment was wholesale shock and gore. People turned away, fleeing to either side and behind them. Stephanie’s body iced over. Her mind congealed into a single thought: Please, God, let her be OK.

Larry’s head instantly cleared of all but the essential. He worked the equation. If there was a third bomb, he reasoned, it was likely to be on their side of Boylston.

“We need to get into the street,” he told Stephanie. He climbed over the metal barricade and yanked it just wide enough to let her slip through. She grabbed his arm. They began walking in the opposite direction from where the runners had been flowing moments before.

Their path took them past the swath of devastation in the second bomb zone. “Don’t look,” Larry said. But it was unavoidable. He remembers more than she does: Severed body parts, pools of blood, first responders crouching over the wounded, a man with clothing still smoldering.

Stephanie, dazed and frantic, tried to call Gillian. Police stopped their forward progress after a few minutes, gesticulating toward side streets. “They were saying, ‘Get to safety,'” Stephanie recalled later. “I thought, ‘Where is that? We don’t know where that is.'”

A couple of blocks away in the media workroom in the locked-down Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel, I was fielding an onslaught of texts and tweets from concerned friends, colleagues and near-strangers. I’d never grasped how many people had a piece of the Boston Marathon. Everyone seemed to know someone who was running or someone there to support a runner.

Were there more bombs? Could there be one in the building where I was pinned down? Fear clawed in my stomach briefly. I stiff-armed it away.

It never occurred to me that I could have loved ones in danger.

Larry is my father’s sister’s oldest son, a cousin I adored as a child. He is one of an ever-dwindling group of people who can summon up the faces and voices of my grandparents, who emigrated from Italy as children. He can remember my father, Vincent, as a young Army veteran from Springfield, Massachusetts, who brought home a beautiful blonde named Susan from Minnesota.

Yet I had no idea Larry and Stephanie were on Boylston Street, or that Gillian was running. And they had no clue I was in Boston. We shared 50-plus years of family history, but we weren’t in regular touch.

Our family was fortunate compared to many. Gillian, running her first full marathon, was stopped roughly a mile from the finish and didn’t understand the scope of what had happened until she got back to her apartment near Fenway Park. Larry and Stephanie made their way there and took her to dinner and told her they were proud of her.

Somewhere in the blur of the next few hours — none of us can remember how — we discovered how close we’d all been to the finish line. I felt anguished. I wanted to shoulder their experience and erase it from their brains.

Like many that night, I was swamped by the what-ifs. Runners who were forced off the course wondered where they might have been if they’d run a little faster. Spectators shuddered at the randomness of where they chose to stand. The thought that kept piercing me, making my legs rubbery, was that I could have lost people dear to me that day when I hadn’t tried my best to keep them.

We are all returning to Boylston Street on Monday. And we have made some changes.

The lucky among us have that one house whose blueprint never fades, the one you walk through in your waking dreams. That was my cousins’ house in West Springfield for me. It remained virtually unchanged through my childhood and nomadic adolescence and early adulthood. It was the safest place I knew.

My father was very close to his sister, Norma, and we visited often. I sneaked candy from the dish she kept filled in the living room, and soaked in the big white claw-foot tub upstairs. Out back, a gate in a low picket fence led to the yard where my uncle Frank tended wildly prolific tomato plants. In the winter, he flooded one end so Larry and his brother, Gary, could play hockey with a homemade goal. Just off their shared bedroom was a tiny triangular alcove stocked with board games. It was kid paradise.

Their baby sister, Corinne, four years older than me, hung beads in her room and plastered the walls with rock n’ roll posters. I hung on her every word. I learned to play pool on the table Gary built in the basement, and drank my first cup of coffee — really, milk with a splash that turned it beige — in a white china mug with pink roses in my aunt’s kitchen.

Larry went off to Providence College in the late 1960s and came home telling animated tales of basketball stars Ernie DiGregorio and Marvin Barnes. I was a bookish little girl who loved sports when that wasn’t so common, and he drew me out as I burbled on about baseball. It was one of the first affirmations I had that I wasn’t a total weirdo.

We grew up. I went to my cousins’ weddings and held their firstborn sons. My work as a sportswriter frequently brought me to the Boston area, where Larry and Corinne had settled with their families. Then my travel pattern changed and the visits thinned out.

My aunt died of breast cancer in 2002. My uncle, his spirit broken, followed six weeks later. Gary, a talented contractor, moved into the house and did some remodeling, but it was still my touchstone, always there for me. He married a second time in the backyard with his own vegetable garden ripening in the July sun, a wedding I missed because I was covering the Tour de France.

A year later, he died suddenly after a brief illness. Once again, I was on assignment in France, and once again, I missed the family gathering. I wept over the phone with Corinne and privately questioned my priorities. Siblings and cousins are the ones you envision your arms around as you get older, helping you through unfamiliar territory as parents pass away, houses pass into other hands and the generation under you lifts off. This was out of order. Apparently, my sense of order had been an illusion.

I promised myself I would do better by my cousins, but more years evaporated. The night of the marathon bombings, I cast back in memory for the last time I had seen Gillian and all I could picture was a winsome, wide-eyed little girl. Now, I learned, she managed operations for the pulmonary clinic at Boston Children’s Hospital and had raised more than $5,000 in marathon pledges for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

Stephanie left nursing for health care marketing. Larry is in his 29th year at Westford Academy outside Boston. Both will retire within the next year. I’d seen them more recently, at my father’s 85th birthday celebration. Larry took the occasion to give a beautiful speech about my dad’s influence on him, articulating things I’d never heard or understood before.

“I was bucking the system,” Larry told me last week, reprising his remarks at my request since I hadn’t taken notes at the party. “I was going to be the first Guidetti to go to college. He always would encourage me. Whenever I had doubts about whether I’d be smart enough or good enough, he was my model: ‘If Uncle Vincent did it, and he thinks I can do it, I can do it.'”

In the days after the bombings, I thought a lot about what more I didn’t know about the people I’d known the longest. Gaps had opened up in my life — inadvertent, perhaps, but they needed attention. Actor Tim Robbins’ famous line from “The Shawshank Redemption” — “Get busy living or get busy dying” — scrolled through my head. I told myself I better get busy getting reacquainted with my extended family.

The scar tissue that binds Boston now is also connective tissue. I suspect it feels that way for many torn and touched by the tragedy. I know it does for my cousins and me.

I returned to Boston last August and retraced all my steps from marathon day, reclaiming the end of the race for myself. Then I had a meal with Larry and Stephanie and Gillian. We made a pledge to each other to keep the lines open. I had gotten out of the habit of making personal plans on business trips, afraid work would intervene. That reduced love to an ordinary obligation, and that had to stop. From now on, I told them, I would never visit without calling first. Even if we couldn’t see each other. Just to check in.

On Boylston Street last April 15, Stephanie dialed her daughter and improbably got through. Gillian was on Beacon Street, running on fumes and unaware of what had happened.

She heard her mother scream something about explosions and felt a surge of irritation. Everything looked normal where she was. “What are you calling me for?” Gillian shouted into the phone. “I’m running a marathon. I’ll call you when I’m done.”

“I figured she was exaggerating,” Gillian told me. “I hung up on her. If anything had happened …” Her voice trailed off.

Her mother can laugh now about Gillian’s exasperated tone, the phone clicking off in her ear. Those few seconds told her what she needed to know: Her daughter was all right. There would be more time to talk, but not all the time in the world. “We are much more conscious of the time we spend together,” Stephanie said. “We bought season tickets for the Boston Ballet. We’re being smarter about what we’re doing.”

Gillian decided almost immediately that she wanted to enter the marathon again and accepted the automatic invitation offered to non-finishers. The harsh winter challenged her training plans, but she was forced indoors only twice. On mornings after a heavy snowfall, she went to the Museum of Fine Arts, where the sidewalks were always “impeccably shoveled,” and ran around the building for an hour.

Her parents will be at the finish line. They have seats in the grandstand with Stephanie’s parents, who are in their 80s, and their son, Geoffrey, who has come from California. “I feel very supported,” Gillian said. “I’m sure it’s not going to be easy for them to go back.”

Life has felt more precious and fragile to Larry over the past year, and he will carry that with him to Boylston Street.

“I know my eyes will be darting around,” he said. “I’m not afraid to go back and I want to go back, but I’m not going to totally relax until she finishes the race and we leave the race site. But if anybody’s doing something brave in our family, it’s Gill. She’s running it. I’m just being a supportive, loving father.”

Stephanie was just as resolute. “We’re not going to let terrorism dictate what our family does,” she said. But she was shaken enough that she sought counseling last spring. She still finds it helpful to talk. And there is one thing she treasures from that terrible day.

“Larry was unbelievably cool under pressure,” she said. “Much more so than me. I really admire that. I reacted like a mother, not a medical professional.

“It was another aspect of my husband I didn’t know about, and we’ve been married 34 years. It’s always nice to discover something new about someone you’ve known for a long time.”

The timing of this year’s marathon was fortuitous. We had Easter dinner together Sunday. Twenty-one people around two tables hushed only once, when Stephanie asked them to hold hands. “We thank you for the blessing of family,” she said.

Later, I picked up my dessert plate and sat next to Gillian and asked how she felt. She is excited that the day has come and will be excited when it’s over, she said, echoing many others I’d spoken to over the past few days in Boston.

She recalls the exact spot on Beacon where she got her mother’s call, and where she and others were stopped on Commonwealth Avenue, and she is eager to put those waypoints behind her. She said she is better prepared than she was last year. She’s confident she can do the distance. But she will be nervous at the start in Hopkinton, same as she was last year.

“It’s kind of daunting,” she said. “All my family is waiting for me 26.2 miles away, and I have to run to them.”

What safer destination could there be?

Writer’s note: Gillian did finish the marathon in 2014. She and the other family members I wrote about here are safe today. I called Larry and Stephanie recently, and the resolve and resilience in their voices helped sustain me. I caught up with Gillian by text. She’s married now, with a beautiful 15-month-old daughter, and is a director of operations at the Mass Eye and Ear Infirmary — a facility that sits in the shadow of Mass General. She’s still going to work two or three times a week amid the stress and peril of this pandemic, making sure staff can function and patients are served. I’m so proud of her.