Dear Dzhokhar Tsarnaev,
I am scared of you.
And I think that’s okay.
For a long time I believed otherwise, told that admitting fear lets you win, as if I were gambling the fragile parts of my soul at your leisure. As if April 15, 2013 became a stunt in a game and as if someone had volunteered my sanity as the prize, making it equivalent to the likings of petty monopoly money, something that I had to protect as if it’s not my own. As if each time I said those words out loud or shed another tear for my beloved city, you somehow passed go. Forget the $200 — here, take a couple nights sleep instead. I faltered, so you win. That’s just how it works.
For a long time I let those words bottle up in my chest, instead applauding myself at each milestone throughout my so-called recovery without first facing the truth, wondering the next time I broke down why this still affected me so much, why I couldn’t let go. I questioned my pain, wondering if I had appropriated the hurt so many others felt as my own. Even as I write this, I wonder if I deserve to — I was one of the lucky ones. I escaped unscathed. So why do you still scare me? And why does it still hurt?
Today I realized that I can try to deny it to the moon and back and I can try to push you underneath my bed with all of the other monsters who live there, but the truth is, I never stop feeling — and I think that’s okay. I tell you this, Jahar, because I don’t want it to ever not be.
I feel the pull of the Earth in everything I do. It tugs on the deepest valleys of my lungs and stretches the vessels of my heart taut until I walk with a heavy chest — each and every day. I find happiness in the simple success of a stranger and I cry, and I find sympathy and hope for others and I cry, and even on seemingly ordinary days, sometimes I cry — just because the world is so intense in its here and now, and I find that excruciatingly beautiful.
I tell you this because I need for you to understand the minute I fell in love with the city of Boston, and because I need for you to know that this is not an ordinary kind of love.
We were juniors in high school, barely 16, when I came to Boston for the first time. I was a stubborn, idealistic and aspiring journalist who was set on going to school in New York City despite my mom’s best wishes — that was where I would become someone, I thought. But the second I laid footsteps on the brick outside of Quincy Market and scoured Newbury Street for the first time, looking for nothing and everything all at once (much like I do these days), my heart dropped to my toes and I knew at once that I had been wrong. The Earth was calling me and telling me, this is home. I texted my mom on that first day simply saying, “I think I want to look into schools in Boston. It feels right here.” And the woman who hated the thought of her daughter in a faraway city surprisingly replied, “Boston sounds more like you. Let’s go for it.”
A year later I cried when I got my acceptance letter to Boston University and none of us really knew why, but the Earth tugged and I was ready to follow it wherever it took me.
The minute I stepped into Boston, it became my first love and my home. I need you to know that despite what you have done, that has not changed.
The pull of the Earth sometimes hurts — but I’ve realized that that’s okay. For a long time after the marathon I was ashamed of what I felt — mad at you for making me feel so much anguish and mad at the world for tugging so hard at my insides that every day seemed to be another battle that pushed me to the brink of collapsing at the hands of my very own thoughts. I tell you this because I finally recognize that this is what you were trying to do to me, and I need you to know that it almost worked — not because you held the controls, but because I tried constantly to deny what I felt.
I spent the hours after the marathon in a common room full of strangers and friends right in the heart of Kenmore Square, where we watched CNN replay the same explosion again and again as Boston University officials warned us of suspicious packages and similar explosions just seconds outside of the place we once deemed safe. In front of strangers and friends I had just begun to know, you made me vulnerable. I felt the world pull at me with frustration and confusion and hurt and disbelief and anger, and in a moment of everything all at once I threw my phone, constantly ringing with concerned messages from loved ones, across the room because in that moment the Earth became too much. For a moment, you made me hate feeling. Quickly I became ashamed of how hard I felt in a room full of strangers and I ran to a hidden hallway to debrief in solidarity. I need you to know that the friends I was just getting to know came after me.
For the next three days I was riddled with fear. I hated walking outside but hated even more that I lived in a large dorm right along the marathon route — the perfect site for another bomb, if there were any more. I didn’t eat and I didn’t sleep as I furiously scrolled through Twitter updates, waiting for someone to announce your arrest. Instead, every day seemed to bring a new Boston University Alert notifying us of “suspicious packages” found somewhere around the city. Each time, I texted my family: “Another alert. I’m sure it’s nothing, but I’m scared. I love you guys.” Just in case. I didn’t want to leave without saying it one last time.
On Thursday night I tried to go to bed early, knowing I had an early wakeup call to catch a bus to Grandma’s house for my cousin’s baby shower. I was so excited to be with family, to have something to celebrate after a week of terror. You almost took that from me, too. At 10 pm I checked Twitter one last time and saw the first tweet about Sean Collier’s death. I put the phone down — no distractions. But of course, you wouldn’t let that happen. An hour later I woke up in a panic to screaming sirens charging the streets below, right outside my window. Do you know what that feels like? To be startled awake by the one thing you feared for days? To wake up knowing nothing except that something was so very clearly wrong? I was so scared of you, Jahar.
You were caught within the next 24 hours, but I didn’t sleep for a total of three nights: Thursday to Saturday. How could I? We were so close, yet nobody knew what you had planned. On Friday, Twitter provided no use, repeating the same news again and again, yet I couldn’t look away. I became a zombie waiting for something, anything to happen. And then, just like that, it was over. I almost didn’t believe it. And then I learned what family was. An hour after the city ban was lifted and just before you were captured my family decided you had taken enough from us — they were coming to get me. My cousin drove through the dead of the night, into the wrath of your storm, to bring me home. We had a baby to celebrate.
Your arrest was supposed to be the end of my fear — that’s what everyone told me, at least. And I tried to believe it, but I was scared, and I was angry that I was scared. Upon my return to Boston I promised myself that I would stay away from the news for awhile to clear my head. Still, I wasn’t able to resist the first newspaper I saw with your picture plastered on the front page. Not knowing was almost scarier than knowing, I think. I picked it up, promising myself that it was okay. That night I felt your eyes pierce through me as you laid face up on my desk. I couldn’t sleep until you were in the trash, and even then I woke up in the middle of the night, wondering if you were still watching me somehow. Do you know what that feels like, Jahar? To fear somebody on paper? Trying to deny it only made it worse. I was now scared of the simple idea of you, afraid that you would see through my attempts to cover up my vulnerability and that you would win my sanity. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t yours to take. But everyone told me that if I was scared, you would win, and so I didn’t know what to feel anymore.
My recovery became plagued with a series of questions, based upon ruthless tests that I realistically wasn’t yet able to put myself through. Still, I tried and I questioned myself furiously along the way.
When will I be able to pass through Copley Station on the Green Line without holding my breath, waiting for another explosion? When will I be able to walk past the Boston Public Library without pausing at the finish line to remember it all again, to test myself and see if, just this time, my throat won’t close up? When will I stop stopping at the site of the second bomb to graze my fingertips across the blue and yellow knit wrap that suffocates the pole that survived your wrath? When will I be able to walk these streets without wondering where I’m walking, did someone die here, did they lose an arm, a leg? When will I be able to walk past a newspaper with your face on the front page without having to turn around and pick it up?
I was angry that I couldn’t pass these steps, so angry with myself and with you and with feeling. I was so angry that other people had waltzed on by, seemingly unaffected, while for me, every day seemed to get harder and harder. I was worried that this day would consume me and eat me alive from the inside. I was scared that it was too late, that you had already won. All I wanted was for it to be over.
What is Boston Strong and how do I become it? I wanted so badly to be like the city who stood tall even as you tried to shake us to the ground, but the ache that weighed down my chest and the tears that gathered in my throat at every second made me feel like I was everything and anything but that. And I didn’t know what that meant.
And that scared me almost more than you did.
I went home and I was still angry, angry with anyone who questioned me about that day after learning I had just finished my first year in Boston. When did Boston become synonymous with bomb? I wanted to scream at them. It wasn’t their fault, but I hated it and I wanted so desperately to take it back. I knew my city was beautiful beyond belief, but I was scared that your actions had diluted that, taken that privilege from others. And I was scared that it would last.
This lasted for a year. It took me a year to accept what I was feeling — the anger and the sadness. I went to the memorial service alone, still ashamed that I had felt the need to take the day off from life, but in turn, it was exactly what I needed. Despite your best efforts and despite the rain, the memorial reminded me of the light Boston had brought into my life junior year. Together, as strangers, we cried in the rain, taking just a quiet moment to remember. “Boston isn’t a city. It’s a family,” Boston Globe journalist Chad Finn tweeted the day after the Marathon. I felt that again — I need you to know that — and it felt healthy, having the opportunity to remember. I finally felt good, and I finally felt the Earth ease in a new direction. There, I realized, it was okay to pause for half a second every time I pass the finish line — that that was remembering, and that remembering is okay, and that I want to remember. On the T ride back to campus I exhaled for the first time in a long time. But still, a part of me would not admit fear — what was there to be afraid of? I wouldn’t concede.
I tell you this because I need for you to understand that none of this was or is easy for me, the girl who feels everything. I tell you this because this was the day that I realized the importance of validating my own feelings. Yes, the Earth pulled and yes, it pulled hard and it hurt throughout that year, but the day I recognized that I was causing my own pain by denying myself the act of feeling, everything became a little lighter. I need you to know that you never had any control over me. I only thought you did — and that thought almost destroyed me. On that day, I thought that I was finally done, that I had grieved enough and that the rest of my days would finally be light now that I had released myself. But since then, I have realized that to believe so meant I was only slipping back into the act of denying my sanity the truth of feeling. I would love to say that I’m not angry anymore — anger is a waste of time, they tell me, it destroys you almost more than the one you’re angry with — but sometimes I am. I need you to know that while on most days the anger has dissipated, I still shake with an ounce of fury as I write this, and on the hardest days I am mad that you found opportunity to hurt us. I tell you this because since that day, I’ve learned that anger is okay.
Sometimes I feel sad for you. I feel sad for you because I know you have not yet felt the pull of the Earth like I have. For, if you did, we would not be here — you would’ve seen the beauty of our community long before you set off your bombs. The morning of April 15th, I declared it one of the happiest days I had seen — in a pool of thousands of strangers, I felt completely at home, inspired by a new and exhilarating brightness I had never seen before. I hopped around the last two miles of the race without any direction, without a care in the world, foolishly denying the anti-runner in me and promising the closest friend that one day, I would race. I feel sad for you because those few hours and those feelings are ones that I cherish in the deepest pockets of my heart — the feeling of togetherness and unity when there was nothing yet driving us together except happiness and community and sunshine. Why didn’t you see that? I would have invited you in, had I the opportunity — our city is a beautiful place, Jahar, full of love and laughter. Would you have said yes? Would you then have seen? Why didn’t you in the first place? I ask you this because I want to believe that you didn’t know what kind of community you aimed to destroy. I tell you this because I need for you to know that this community still exists; that your efforts did nothing. I hope you see it now, but I am sad for you because I don’t think you do.
This week you began your trial, and I have been watching you, waiting. Hoping for answers. I’ve been waiting to see if now you feel anything, if the pull of the Earth has reached you yet. I feel sad for you because I want to believe there’s some good in you — like I do for anyone — that you’ve realized what you’ve done and that you’re sorry. But instead, you strengthen my doubts as you stare blankly ahead, barely flinching as the lives you took are described right in front of you in full detail. What are you thinking in these moments? I wish I could see into your head, just for a second, just to see. I want to believe that this is an act — that you are afraid to feel, instead tucking everything away like I once did. I wish I could shake you and tell you to let go. But the part of me that feels the pull of the Earth in everything I do can’t rationalize how someone who feels anything at all can sit so calmly, listening to the terror they’ve caused, the innocent lives they’ve taken. I feel sad for you because even in my darkest moments, even when I was scared and sad and angry — and even when I was told not to be, I knew that feeling something was better than feeling nothing at all, because I knew that that something meant that I was alive. What are you?
I am still scared of you. You took my innocence, and without it I was left vulnerable, afraid. But I need you to know that that’s all you took. Somehow I am still the girl who feels the pull of the Earth in all its glory and is happy to do so, even when that same force was almost the cause of my demise. I still find the world excruciatingly beautiful, even on the hard days. I am scared of you but I am no longer scared of feeling. You failed at stealing that privilege from me.
Admitting all of this to you will not be the final step of my recovery. When I set out to write this letter, I thought it would be. Instead, I think I’ve realized that I won’t ever stop recovering, much like I never stop feeling — and that’s okay.
I’ve realized I will always be the girl who will cry on April 15th, and again on Marathon Monday after I’ve had way too much to drink and spent the morning laughing and dancing in the midst of the crowds cheering, celebrating. I will always be the girl who cringes when people ask was I there, unknowingly seeing Boston simply as a synonym for bomb, but I will always be the girl who brings up the marathon and the heartache and success of those affected in years to come, even if it attracts discomfort and silence. I will always be the girl who mourns for those who loved the beautiful lives of Martin Richard, Lingzi Lu, Krystle Campbell and Sean Collier, and I will love their memory as if I had the same privilege. I will always be the girl who loves Boston, simple as it is, with every ounce of her stature. I will always be the girl who is proud to stop at the finish line on Boylston Street to graze her fingertips along the blue and yellow cozy that hugs the lamppost that survived your bomb and I will always be the girl who stops to say a prayer for those who did not. I’ve realized I will always be the girl who remembers every excruciating detail of that day without fear of feeling, and starting today, I will always be the girl who knows that that is okay.
The world is an excruciatingly beautiful place, Jahar.
I hope one day you feel it, too.