The Washington Post

Life and death on Heartbreak Hill

On Monday I sat down in a hotel room two blocks from where the explosion occurred at the end of the Boston Marathon finish line. I was shaking. The sirens had not stopped. I, too, was running but not in the marathon. I was outside, a block from where it happened. I heard two loud explosions, saw people screaming and began – like everyone else – to run away from the noise. I watched people run out of the Prudential Center and down stairs onto Huntington Avenue and heard sirens in every direction. And with all the noise there is only static. No one seems to know what was happening, least of all people right near the site of the explosions.

On my run away from the marathon, I was escorting a young runner from New York who was hovering in her foil sheet in the lobby of Talbot’s, freezing cold and shaking. “Can I help you?”

“I am so cold. I am so cold. I need to get warm. I need to take a hot shower.”

She had finished the marathon but did not feel well and was angry with herself for taking four hours. It was hard for me to sympathize since this is the approximate time it takes me to get up the stairs of my house on a good day. She could not get across the street because of the congestion and needed to check in to any place that had a shower.

I was in town for an event to discuss my new book, “Happier Endings: A Meditation on Life and Death.” Having lived in Boston for six years and always loved the marathon, I was grateful for a beautiful clear day and a hotel room near the finish line. It moves me to tears to see people reaching that goal that seems so elusive; hundreds at a time were finishing, grabbing their Gatorades and slowing their pulses.

Families cheered; vendors sold single roses – pink for the women, red for the men - and there were hugs all around. Well-wishers shouted out their congrats to runners wearing their new medals proudly. I took a photo and sent it to the kids to share the moment, that amazing breathless moment when people push themselves to their physical limits.

And here was Megan, my new very cold friend who had exceeded her limits. I offered her the use of my hotel room. She could shower, change, get her bearings and get on her way to find family and friends without the chill factor. But suddenly, our walk through the crowds turned into a run. We heard a crushing explosive sound followed right away by another and then the Edvard Munch ‘screaming’ mouths of hundreds of frightened people who were quickly replaying September 11th without wanting to think it.

Megan warmed up and thanked me, for nothing, I thought, but a simple kindness now overshadowed by human cruelty. And for some reason, this little gift to a stranger seemed to take on more mental significance than I could imagine in a world where people kill strangers for no reason that I will ever fully comprehend.

When I returned to my room and saw my book cover staring at me, I thought of my own sudden meditations on life and death. I tried to prepare people to die better on the assumption that they would have the time to get their thoughts and finances and wisdom and regrets in order. Who am I kidding? One block over to the right, and it could have been me on the stretcher in the picture that keeps playing over and over on NBC coverage. And I understood with clarity the ancient Jewish saying that one should repent the day before one’s death. Since we never know when that will be, repent today.

I had followed my own advice, bought our plots, wrote an ethical will, made sure our financial wills are in order and made my burial requests. I have tried to prepare as best I can, mulled over mistakes, considered regrets, tried to squeeze a little meaning and love from each day. I thought I was ready. I am not. But at least I have the basics in place.

A young woman who was running the marathon with her mother told me that the explosion happened when they were at mile 24. Instead of ending the marathon then when it was officially shut down, her mother redirected them. The two of them ran another 2.6 miles with the help of a GPS and finished their own race.

Some marathons have finish lines. Some don’t. Some people create their own finish lines.

There were runners who came close to a finish line Monday but did not cross it and will never cross it because of the human capacity for evil. It was real heartbreak on Heartbreak Hill.

Maybe all we can do to redeem the pain to strangers is inexplicable kindness to strangers. It is not enough, but it is something.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments

Sign up for email updates from the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

You have signed up for the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

Thank you for signing up
You'll receive e-mail when new stories are published in this series.
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Video curated for you.

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.