We Are Only Human

On the path to self discovery

Gratitude

An impromptu Thanksgiving after a week of tragedy.

I woke up this morning to discover that Cambridge, the city I have called home for 30 years, was in lockdown. As our city reels from a week of tragedy, I am honoring my home Cambridge and the people who work in our schools.

I have seen a lot during my years in this city, where I work as Director of School Programs at the Cambridge Health Alliance and as a child psychiatrist at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School. The beloved school where I have consulted for over twenty years is now entangled in the dreadful bombing that rocked our community at the Boston Marathon on Monday.

On the day of the tragedy, I got calls from friends all over the country asking if I was okay. I have run the Boston Marathon 12 times. I ran it when I was in my pediatric internship, doing long training runs after all-nighters in a neonatal intensive care unit. I ran it for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute when my nephew had a rare form of kidney cancer. My daughter and I ran it last year for the Samaritans in memory of my mother who died by suicide and to provide support to those who feel bereft and need a lifeline. I took this year off after the blistering heat last year.

Despite the horrific events of this week and the lockdown, I am still filled with gratitude. Governor Deval Patrick is, too. In his eloquent speech at Thursday's memorial service, he recounted his thanks for all of those who displayed bravery and kindness. I am doing the same, with an impromptu Thanksgiving feast.

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I am thankful for my family. For an excruciating ten minutes on Monday, I didn't know if my daughter was at the finish line cheering on the runners when the bombs exploded. Her phone broke down just before the explosion. Teenagers' phones always seem to short-circuit in times of crisis. I shook as I texted her friends, who responded quickly that she was safe.

I am thankful for my friends and neighbors. My Cambridge neighbor and constant running buddy was six minutes away from the finish line just before the bomb exploded. He was turned away at Massachusetts Avenue a mile before the finish line. He has run the race 59 times, and this was the first time he failed to finish. We had trained together many an early morning on icy winter roads when our kids were young.

I am thankful for my colleagues. Over the years, I have often called on Brian, a guidance counselor at Rindge and Latin. He is an affable guy who cares deeply about our students. After he retired from Rindge, he volunteered at a food kitchen in his spare time. When I spoke with him recently, he said, "You can never tell who will fall from grace and end up homeless.'' He raved about a man who came to the food kitchen who played the piano exquisitely. His wife, Deb, is also a retired teacher from Rindge. For years, she worked with children who struggled to learn and helped them to advance. They live down the street in Cambridge and are dear friends. Their son lost a leg in Monday's explosion. So did their daughter-in-law. They were away on Cape Cod, and they received a police escort back to Boston. For three hours, they didn't know if their son was alive or dead.

I am thankful for our teachers. A Cambridge school teacher was hit in the chest by shrapnel. We had talked last week about efforts to support a student. This dedicated teacher had taken middle school students to China as a way to show them the larger world.

I am thankful for our schools. For years, I have supported our school community through tragedies, murder, suicide, and the heartbreak of neglect and abuse. I am stunned that the suspect was one of our students. I know we are all wondering, "How did we not know?" But even as I try to reset my compass, I know we need to prepare for Monday, when our children return to school. Over the years, this is what I have admired about schools: time and time again, devoted educators demonstrate their ability to mobilize and to heal and to provide continuity. They are able to contain their own fear because the children need them.

I am thankful for my city. Like many others who live here, I anticipate that Cambridge may receive some criticism because it is known as a compassionate, liberal place. Some say the attitude here is too soft. But I stand by this city in our time of need. I want us to be strong and reflective and move forward, knowing that at this time it is hardest for me to follow the counsel I have given over so many years. All the professionals say to limit media exposure, but I find myself sneaking onto the computer to get the latest update, devouring the details to make sense of something that defies our sense of security. I dread that we will turn our sense of powerlessness into bigotry. And I try to tell myself not to "catastrophize" when I hear the sirens and the helicopters and think of worst-case scenarios.

But I remain thankful. I cooked a turkey tonight. As the hostage negotiation continued and we sat down to dinner, I prayed that we'd come out of lockdown a safer, more caring community. I loaded the plates and raised a glass, with the hope that my fellow citizens will find the strength to heal.

Nancy Rappaport is associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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