The stillness of an 8-year-old’s chest
I looked down on the ground. In the grass sat a little plastic coin, scuffed and scratched from little-boy cleats that had walked over it on the way to home plate.
“Caught doing good,” read the legend on the trinket’s perimeter. It was something a teacher or a coach might have given a child for an exemplary day. Somebody had left it behind.
An inning earlier, my son had legged out a grounder. His foot hit the bag hard. As my eyes saw it, he was a step ahead of the throw. I was close, just a few feet away and taking pictures for the team. My brain processed the ump calling my kid out just as his little eight-year-old frame flew through the air. His foot stuck too hard in the bag, and it catapulted him forward. He didn’t catch himself. He fell flat, his ribs and stomach hitting the dirt first.
I try not to run to my injured children when they are playing in games. I never have before. They have coaches to take care of them.
But this time, I was close, and it was clear my little boy was hurt. And so I was the first over him, rolling him on his back as he winced and struggled to breathe. He couldn’t cry because he couldn’t pull air into his lungs. I rubbed his chest and explained to him what was happening, that I knew it was scary, and that it would be better in a minute.
I felt all the people around me. Coach Tom had run in, and he was doing his best to comfort my kid, too. For sixty seconds, everyone watched a scared little boy try to process the fact he couldn’t breathe. I saw nothing but my boy’s tearing eyes.
It passed, of course. It’s happened to almost any athlete. It’s terrifying when you can’t breathe, even if you know what happened. But that didn’t stop me from absorbing the feeling of my hands on my eight-year-old’s chest as he struggled to take in a breath. Even though I knew it was fine, I couldn’t help but feel the stillness of my son’s body.
Martin Richard was eight years old. He’d gone to the Boston Marathon with his family to watch his father cross the finish line.
“No more hurting people,” he had written on a piece of blue construction paper at school.
Somebody took a picture of him with it. Somebody was as proud of Martin as I was of my son as he stood at the plate.
The picture of Martin would come to define him. The photo was taken on the day of a peace march.
Stop. Breathe. Pull oxygen into your lungs and process that.
It was for a peace march.
Martin wrote the word “peace” in the middle of the blue construction paper. There were hearts on either side. There was a peace sign at the bottom.
Martin died in the bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. His sister lost a leg. His mother took shrapnel in her head.
That night, Martin’s father went home alone and walked numb and blank into his house. He couldn’t respond to neighbors asking about how they could help. He couldn’t speak because somebody blew up his life while he struggled through 26.2 miles. Martin’s father didn’t have the breath knocked out of him. Somebody blew his life away.
Martin was eight years old.
I’ve tried to think about what an eight-year-old knows about peace. I’ve tried to think about how they can’t understand foreign policy, domestic strife, political battles, party fights, economic spirals, corporate shareholders, foreign oil, false flags, Supreme Court rulings, elections, religion, or the rule of law.
They don’t know anything, do they? They’ve not lived as we have lived. They haven’t joined a party, voted in an election, or even considered the necessity or lack thereof of wars, foreign or domestic.
But they know the one thing that matters. Martin Richard knew it. My son knows it. This is it:
We shouldn’t hurt people.
It’s the beginning and end of the discussion for an eight-year-old. There is no way to justify hurting someone who isn’t trying to hurt you.
And, yet, who do we kill?
Who are the people in America who have died the most incomprehensible deaths in the past six months?
Who do we kill?
We kill the people who believe in peace, people—children—who believe in peace wholly, as if it were sunshine, air, dirt, or love.
That’s who we kill.
I know. I know. We don’t kill them. We mourn them. Crazy people kill them.
And yes, I know. I know. Crazy people don’t kill kids because they believe in peace. Crazy people kill them because the kids are soft targets in elementary schools or at marathon finish lines.
And yes, I know. I know we’re not supposed to blame anything for the kids dying except the fickle hand of fate, statistical outliers, or the sharp scythe of genetic madness. If we blame anything else, it becomes an ideological fight, and it’s a fight idealists never win.
I know we’re supposed to accept the collateral damage. I know I’m supposed to turn off the TV when I can see the blood from a helicopter’s height. I know when we all light a candle, it’s supposed to be better.
But you know what I don’t know? I don’t know how we can look at a dead eight-year-old child and feel anything but fury about how he died.
Maybe you don’t feel the fury. Maybe you don’t feel sick in your gut. Maybe you haven’t found yourself walking to another room so your kids don’t see you cry.
Let me explain.
For reasons I would never have predicted ten years ago, I’ve taken the attacks on Boston personally.
I’m not from Boston. I’ve only been there once. I’ve never run the Boston Marathon.
I’m nobody. I’m just some guy who has been luckier than most others. My personal tragedies have literally been common twists of fate—aneurysms, cancers, heart attacks, car crashes. I’m America’s average guy who hides behind a cellophane shield of hope that tragedy won’t blow up his life.
But, I’m a runner.
Well, that’s not quite true.
I’ve run quite a lot in the past three years. I’ve pushed into corrals in races with more than 30,000 people. I’ve finished races where it’s nearly impossible to find a friend, let alone the one friend you’re looking for.
I know the joyous chaos of a finish line.
I know the environment, I know the people. I know the joggers who turn themselves into marathoners. And I know the family commitment that goes along with being a distance runner. Put another way, I want to be a runner, because I think the runners have things figured out much better than I do.
Monday, when the bombs went off, I was downstairs with my wife outlining for her how I was going to prepare for a 12k mountain trail race in May. I was on my way to put on my running shoes when I stepped into my office and saw the first Twitter messages coming out of Boston. It wasn’t lost on me that my Twitter feed and friends came in faster than any news outlet. I follow, love, and respect my runner friends. They told the story first.
My friends couldn’t find their friends. My friends were falling apart.
My friends. Yes, it was personal. But for more reasons than that.
I stopped myself from writing anything all day Monday and all night Monday night. I decided Tuesday morning I wouldn’t write anything at all.
Because it wasn’t my place. I’m not from Boston. I’m not a marathoner. I didn’t know anybody who was killed or injured. This wasn’t my story, so what right did I have to write about it? What right did I have to feel anything?
I’m not even a runner.
But there’s this: my son is eight years old. My son is the same age as Martin Richard. My son believes in peace. My son believes hurting people is bad.
There are a lot of things I don’t understand. There are more things that I misunderstand. Of all of those things, the only subjects I feel I can truly grip are those about which I write. It’s a selfish endeavor, but it’s the only way I survive.
And somehow that’s made me realize—no matter what you see on the news or how anyone chooses to eulogize this story—that I’m not wrong to feel fury. I’m not wrong to take this personally.
It’s not just because I appreciate the marathon and its value.
It’s not because I’ve tried to re-invent myself in the shape of a runner.
It’s because I’m a parent.
It’s because I value the people who still believe in peace.
And there are people out there who want to kill those people.
In 2013, it seems everything is an ideological fight. Maybe that’s not actually true at its roots, but the mass media, Internet, and constant stream of outrage and hate make it seem so. Maybe you and I can turn it off, but there are people—crazy, hateful people—who cannot. And they are the ones killing our children.
Are we so confused as a nation that we have to take up sides on everything? Is it true that the future of our country and our people depends on us taking up arms—figurative or literal—to fight the people who oppose us?
Put another way: I have no idea who bombed Boston, and I don’t care what his motive was. But I am not the least bit surprised it happened.
When you add a dash of madness to a cultural discourse that is already red-lining on hate, anger, and vitriol, all you need after that is a pressure cooker, some black powder, and an opportunity.
I can’t stop thinking about the decade before I was born. It’s when we killed our ideological leaders. We snuffed out Kennedys and Kings before they could further spread their belief in change. For a segment of our population, they were the embodiment of hope.
We don’t kill our leaders anymore. We parody them. We turn them into caricatures and scapegoats for our bad decisions and apathy.
We don’t kill our nation’s leaders. We kill our kids, because as I see it, they are the only hope we have left.
I picked up that little plastic coin and held it in my hand. My son grabbed his Easton bat and trotted to the plate. He was breathing again. He was smiling again. He stepped into the box, pulled his right elbow to his chest, put his left elbow in the air, and swung hard.
You know things as a parent. You know when your children are hurting. You know when your children are scared. You know when your children are happy.
And you know when your kid has just hit a home run.
He smiled as he trotted back in from home. One of the two runners on base had already picked up his bat. They ran beside him back to the first base dugout. I smiled and gave him five as he passed.
It wasn’t what I wanted to do.
I wanted to pick him up under his armpits and carry him off the field. I wanted to kiss him. I wanted to scream at him that he was a fascinating child. I wanted to remind him of the straight-As he brought home. I wanted to tell him he had just done a relatively inconsequential thing that made me as proud as I could be.
I wanted to tell him he was amazing.
But that’s not what you do as a father when your boy hits his first homerun.
So, I gave him five. I told him he swung well. And I let him live the moment on his own in the dugout with his friends. While he did, I thought about Martin Richard. Somebody stood over him. Somebody put hands on his chest and felt nothing move. Martin didn’t breathe again, and my son did.
When the game was over and we were back in the car on the way home, I leaned into the backseat and handed him that crinkled little coin that read “Caught doing good.”
“I found this just before you hit your first home run,” I said. “Throw it in your sock drawer. Someday you might want to remember this day.”
I want him to remember this day as I do. I want him to remember it as a joyous one where the worst thing in the world was getting called out at first when he had beaten the throw. I want him to remember the biggest pain of April 2013 was getting the breath knocked of his lungs. I want him to remember his first home run.
And I want him to remember above all that, at least for now, it’s still okay to believe that hurting people is bad. It’s okay to not worry about the crazies. It’s okay to just smile.
Damn it, it should be okay for an eight-year-old to just be alive and happy.