“I looked at my phone. It said 9:05, and I said, ‘Oh, sweetheart, we need to hurry,’ ” de Zoysa said in an interview last month in her upper Northwest Washington home.
“That’s the last thing I remember.”
A few minutes later, a man standing in the nearby buffet line detonated the explosives stuffed in the large backpack he was wearing. The suicide bomber’s blast ripped through the crowded restaurant, shattering plate-glass windows, tearing chunks of concrete from the ceiling and walls, severing limbs and mutilating bodies.
For 20 seconds, maybe 30, de Zoysa lost consciousness. The sound of her own screaming is what she first remembers after coming to. She had not heard the explosion and initially thought a vase or a chandelier had landed on her head.
“I was sure that the restaurant manager would be running over to apologize,” she said.
Instead, kneeling on the floor, her hands still covering her head, she realized she had been hit by the large pieces of concrete and plaster that were now piled around her. She knew then it was a bomb. The white dress she was wearing was covered in blood. It would be much later before she realized the blood on her dress was not her own. Bodies and parts of bodies lay on the floor.
She turned and saw Kieran slumped in his seat across from her, a piece of concrete resting next to him. There were no marks on him. No blood.
“I stepped around the table, grabbed his face and said: ‘Baby, baby, open your eyes! Look at me!’ ” de Zoysa said. “And I know that he heard me because his eyelashes fluttered. He wasn’t able to open his eyes, but his eyelashes fluttered.”
She screamed for help. Her mother, who suffers from dementia, had cuts on her forehead, and blood dripped down her face. Within minutes, all three were being taken to a nearby hospital.
The April 21 attack at the Cinnamon Grand was one of a coordinated series of bombings at churches and five-star hotels across Sri Lanka within less than an hour that morning. The bombings were planned and carried out by members of a local Islamist extremist group. The Islamic State, or ISIS, claimed responsibility for the attack, but no direct link has been established, according to Sri Lankan officials. By day’s end, 259 people had been killed, including 45 children, and more than 500 injured. A Sri Lankan Parliament report last month said intelligence officials had information about the possible attacks for more than two weeks before they happened.
In the hospital emergency room, a team of doctors and nurses feverishly administered CPR to Kieran. They told de Zoysa that a small piece of shrapnel had pierced her son’s heart. It left a tiny, diamond-shaped mark on his chest that looked like a tattoo. There was no blood visible, but Kieran was hemorrhaging internally. They asked about his blood type.
“A-positive,” de Zoysa told them.
When the doctors returned 90 minutes later, they told her they were sorry. They had done everything they could for her only child.
“I said: ‘No! No, no,’ ” de Zoysa remembered. “ ‘Go back and work on him some more.’ ”
The doctors had never been able to restore Kieran’s heart rhythm or his circulation. A brain scan showed no activity. That evening, after consulting with Kieran’s father, Alex Arrow, a doctor who lives in California, de Zoysa made the decision to remove her son from a ventilator. It had been almost 12 hours since the bombing that morning.
A large framed photo of Kieran Shafritz de Zoysa is the first thing visitors to Dhulsini de Zoysa’s home see when they enter the door. He has dark black hair, well-deep brown eyes and a wide, warm smile that is the mirror of his mother’s. This fall, Kieran had planned to rejoin his class at Sidwell Friends School in Washington after taking 18 months off to attend school in his mother’s native Sri Lanka. Instead, classmates in both countries returned to school in a world without him.
Sitting in her quiet living room on a sunny fall day, his mother smiled often when she talked about her son.
“Just thinking about Kieran warms me,” de Zoysa said. “There have been times where I have been so, so low that I can actually almost feel something or someone pulling me up, lifting my heart. And that is, you know, Kieran’s love. That’s how I’ve survived.”
She smiled talking about his kindness to others, his keen intellect, his love of reading, his imitations of President Trump. And she smiled, too, remembering his habitual lateness and his exasperating habit of leaving dirty socks in the hallway instead of the hamper.
“What I wouldn’t give to have his dirty socks lying around now,” she said, laughing. In her hands, she held a photo of the boy she wanted to watch grow up, go to college, travel, fall in love, get married, have children. All of that stolen by a fragment of a bomb in a fragment of a second.
It was not God’s will, de Zoysa said. Or fate. She refuses to believe that.
“I have conversations with him in my head every day, and very often I’ll say to him or maybe the universe, ‘It’s so unfair,’ ” she said. “And I can hear Kieran say, ‘But Mom, isn’t it better than not having had me at all?’ Kieran’s glass wasn’t half-full; it was running over, spilling over.”
She knows that nothing will bring Kieran back, but like every parent who has lost a child, she does not want his death to be in vain. Death cannot be the end of the story.
The bombing attacks that shattered Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday began at a church about 25 minutes before the Cinnamon Grand bombing. If the government had sent out an immediate nationwide mobile-phone alert about the first bombing, de Zoysa said, her family would never have ventured out of the apartment that day.
“My real goal is remembering Kieran and having something meaningful come out of this,” she said. “What I’d like to see in Sri Lanka is an emergency communication system. The technology exists. And so we can maybe not stamp out terrorism, but at least protect innocent lives.”
She also wants Kieran to be remembered at the school he loved so much in Sri Lanka. He made close friends there in a short time and was a top student. To capture the joy Kieran took in reading, de Zoysa has offered to fund the building of a new library at the school and a scholarship in her son’s name.
Though his parents lived on opposite sides of the country, Kieran had a deeply close bond with both of them. He visited and spoke with his father often. This summer, de Zoysa traveled to California to attend a ceremony at which Arrow dedicated a park bench near his home in Kieran’s name. De Zoysa says Kieran would be happy to see how supportive his father has been to his mother. They talk regularly about the boy they have lost.
De Zoysa sees a trauma therapist weekly. At the beginning, it didn’t help much. More recently, it has. She also receives weekly physical therapy for the injuries she suffered in the bombing: four compression fractures in her neck, small lacerations in her spinal muscles, nerve damage down both arms, numbness in her fingers. She feels that day every day.
Parents of Kieran’s friends at Sidwell, where de Zoysa also went to school after moving to Washington in the early 1970s, have been especially helpful. The entire community at her alma mater has supported her in uncountable ways, she said. Friends stop by often to talk or go on walks with her.
Whether she is talking about Kieran or not talking about him, she is always thinking of him. Remembering Kieran. It still jolts her to realize he is not here. That he can only be a memory. But she remembers everything. She remembers him playing basketball, skateboarding in the neighborhood park, reading in the backyard, laughing with his friends, “just being a regular kid.”
“I don’t know how long I’ll be able to do it, but to the extent that I can sustain Kieran, his image, his voice, his spirit with me, I mean that’s my companionship and the most important companionship,” she said. “He was the most cheerful, happy human being I have ever encountered.”
Kieran’s bedroom at the top of the stairs is unchanged. Shelves are jammed with his favorite books. There are ribbons and awards and photos. On the bed are his favorite stuffed animals. A large poster of Batman safeguards from the wall above.
From an early age, one of Kieran’s favorite books was Sandra Boynton’s “Your Personal Penguin,” about a hippo and penguin who travel everywhere together. Even as he grew older, he and his mother read it often, more a guide for life than simply a silly story for children. Now, de Zoysa keeps it next to her bed. Sitting in her living room, she reads from it aloud:
I want to be your personal penguin
I want to walk right by your side
I want to be your personal penguin
I want to travel with you far and wide
Wherever you go, I’ll go there too
Here and there and everywhere
“We would argue about who was the hippo and who was the penguin,” de Zoysa said. “The idea of letting my child go. It’s unthinkable.”