The terror of Boston and the reality of goodbye

I remember standing in my grandmother’s kitchen and seeing her cry. I was a teenager, probably about 17 or 18, and I was struck dumb. It was the first time I had ever seen her cry. Her eldest son, my uncle Sean, had just left to return to his home in Australia. I asked granny why she was crying, still not able to comprehend the fact that my grandmother was crying. Sighing, then breathing deeply, she looked for a handkerchief and said, “I’m just sad because I’ve seen Sean for the last time.”

Suddenly I felt like an intruder. But still I mumbled something like “You don’t know that, Granny. He’ll be back some day.” She smiled dolefully, her usually twinkling eyes wet with tears, and said, “Sean will be back some day, but I won’t be here. That was my last goodbye to Sean.” Sean did come back, and Granny wasn’t there.

It is a truism to say that none of us know when we say our last goodbye. Every night, before going to bed, I make sure to say good night to my boyfriend. I make sure to tell him that I love him every single time I leave the house. Maybe it is a subconscious reflection of my experience. Maybe it is why I insist we speak at least once a day when we are apart.

We all know what it feels like to lose someone; grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends. If we love, we will feel loss. We will, one day, say a final goodbye. The certainty with which we all face that prospect is tempered by the joy of living and loving.

Those people killed in two bombs at the end of Boston’s marathon did not know that they had uttered their last goodbye. What they did know was that they were heading off to run a race, possibly having raised thousands of dollars for charity. Or they were out enjoying the festive atmosphere on a public holiday, possibly supporting friends and family running in the race.

They include an 8-year old boy. He was waiting, with his mother and sister, to cheer his dad across the finish line. Both his mother and sister were seriously injured in the bomb. None of them knew they had said their last goodbye to Martin. That the world has said goodbye to someone so young, in such a violent way, should not surprise us. It happens around the world with depressing regularity. It happens in Syria, in Gaza, in Mexico. It happens on the playgrounds of Pakistan’s schools, and it happens daily on the streets of America’s cities.

None of them get to say goodbye; whether to family, friends, or the world in general. The loss of children so young, barely having said hello to the world, seems to have such little impact on us. We become caught up in whether what happened in Boston was or was not terrorism. We get caught up in assigning blame. We are lucky if we remember, but for a fleeting moment, that the people who died have said their last goodbye.

Many people have highlighted that dozens of people were killed, yesterday, in car bombs in Iraq. That news did not dominate the rolling ticker tapes on 24 hour news channels. Perhaps it is because such news no longer shocks. The bombing of a marathon does. Perhaps it is because, as others have suggested, we simply have a greater affinity with people in the West than people in the East.

Perhaps it is also because we become desensitised by news that brings the same stories week after week. We all know someone who has run a marathon. We can relate to the presence of being there, of understanding the motivation of someone setting out to run 26 miles in order to raise money for charity. We bear witness to the effort that runners put into training. We know that the end of a marathon is not supposed to look like how Boylston Street looked like yesterday.

How we define what happened in Boston seems rather moot. Terrorism may or may not have a political end, but terror does not need one. If, as seems likely, the explosions were the result of calculation and not accident, then they were designed to terrorise. Commentators and politicians will parse their words, and they will debate the semantics of acts of terror versus terrorism. Even Lord West, former Security Minister in the UK, appeared on ‘The World Tonight’ and permitted the possibility that what happened in Boston was not necessarily terrorism.

For the families of those killed, the semantics matter little; they will bring no comfort, no solace nor no more understanding. The reality remains that their loved ones have said their last goodbye.

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