Talking to my son about the Boston Marathon: A mom reflects

The Nichols had to tell their 11-year-old son about the Boston Marathon bombings — he'd been upset when they hid the Newtown, Conn. headlines from in him December. Now, a day after the Boston Marathon, Martha Nichols mulls over their decision. 

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
People stand by the barricaded entrance at Boylston Street near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in Boston, Massachusetts April 16.

Sometimes, I hate this world. Or not the world, but its dangers and all that can hurt my son. On April 15, when bombs tore apart the finish line of the Boston Marathon, one of those dangerous tentacles got past me. I could see the green scales tightening around my child’s neck, the joyous light draining from his 11-year-old eyes.

This morning, he and my husband and I listened to the news. My son said he was glad we’d told him — even when we showed him the “Marathon terror” banner on the front page of the Boston Globe, complete with graphic photo of a victim, rescue workers, a sidewalk that looked spray-painted red. He’d been furious when we hid the headlines about Newtown after it happened. He’d insisted last December that he wanted to know.

But I’m still wondering if I told him too much about the Boston bombing, if it was wrong for him to find out just as I was finding out, my response unprocessed and far from an ultra-rational “teachable moment.” Sometimes, ignorance really is bliss. It is our Garden, the one we walk through every day with a child.
Before we knew, I picked up my son at his vacation camp. No school this week. Patriot’s Day, the Marathon, the streets around us sweetly and strangely empty. We strolled home through our Cambridge neighborhood, carrying the candles he’d made that afternoon. It was brisk and sunny, daffodils and hyacinths bursting free along the curbs.

We stopped at a local market for a snack. By then, as I found out later, the bombs had gone off in downtown Boston. In Copley Square, across from the Boston Public Library, places we’d visited many times. But at the store, nobody told us. My son chattered cheerfully about his candles, as the kind woman at the register asked about them, wanting to know if they could float.

Then back out into the spring day, walking the last blocks toward home, past beds of dying crocuses, more daffodils, and the first tulips. Even before I unlocked our front door, I was savoring the nap I needed.

My son would have his snack (Doritos and orange juice), work on the story he told me he was writing, play his Lego Lord of the Rings game on the Wii. I could close my eyes and disappear, because we were home. For a few moments, I didn’t have to worry.

When I woke from that nap, I learned that wasn’t true. I can’t claim prescience. I didn’t wake up knowing something terrible had occurred. But it’s also true that I was still groggy when my husband arrived home a few minutes later. By then, I was sitting in my downstairs office, about to check my email.

“Don’t you know what happened?” he asked.

“What?” It was shadowy in my office, which faces east, the maple trees in back just starting to bud. I felt a scratching claw inside my chest.

He told me. Raw information. I didn’t understand. I peppered him with questions, wanting details, not wanting details.

“Why are you whispering?” he asked.

Then I shot into the next room, where my son was still sending Legolas the Elf into the fray against a host of Orcs. I told him we had to turn on the TV now.

Several hours after it happened, we watched the bombs explode, over and over, my boy whimpering in my arms. I cried when I heard an 8-year-old had been killed.

My son hugged me then, trying to comfort me. That wasn’t right. We can’t let fear…we can’t. But I couldn’t stop staring at the screen, the replay of the two explosions, aerial views of the library and Trinity Church, the news ticker about dead and wounded in local hospitals, about what President Obama said, about a moment of silence.

“How could anybody do that?” my son asked.

“It was such a beautiful day,” my husband kept saying on the phone.

Memories, memories — what do you do with all the memories, except remember? Exhaustion followed the shock and tears, as I remembered the paranoia after 9/11, how it had sapped our collective spirit.

Just this past weekend, my son and I took a “photo excusion” around the neighborhood, snapping pictures of flowers and sidewalks and storefronts. I captured him huddled over a crocus with his camera for a closeup — and his skinny arms stretched in a dance move up a concrete wall— and our shadows together on an unmarred sidewalk.

Today I told him that we have to live our lives as if we aren’t afraid. I told him it would be okay. I have no way of knowing — and he knows that, too — but I said the words. The fear that whacked me to earth is not his yet, and fear is what defeats joy. The most terrible thing can become beautiful, too, if we focus on resilience, on innocence regained. I didn’t tell him this, thinking that people, grown-up people, need to experience a whole series of banner headlines, of shock and recovery, for such beauty to make sense.

And yet, maybe he — a Vietnamese adoptee, a not-so-little boy who now worries about all the kids in orphanages we saw on our last trip to Vietnam, who wonders in a new way if that could have been him — maybe he does understand. Certainly I should never underestimate what he doesn’t say.

When we finally sat down to dinner Monday evening, he wanted to light one of his candles. A memorial, he said, just as we lit a candle for my mother, who died a few months ago. His candle burned beautifully, glowing pink and blue from within.

“Can I blow it out?” he asked.

“Why?” I said too quickly.

“Because I want to.”

“Because it’s fun,” my husband said. “Then you can light it again. Right?”

My boy looked at me, the mischievous spark back in his eyes. He grinned.


Éomer and Aragorn stood together on the Deeping Wall. They heard the roar of voices and the thudding of rams; and then in a sudden flash of light they beheld the peril of the gates.

“Come!” said Aragorn. “This is the hour when we draw swords together!”

….Charging from the side, they hurled themselves upon the wild men. Andúril rose and fell, gleaming with white fire. A shout went up from the wall and tower: “Andúril! Andúril! goes to war. The Blade that was Broken shines again!”

— from The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to