Excerpted Chapter, “The New Normal,” from the new book Boston Strong: A City’s Triumph Over Tragedy by Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sits in isolation in a small prison cell at the Federal Medical Center in Devens, Massachusetts, forty miles from the finish line on Boylston Street. He is cut off from the outside world. Communicating with other prisoners is strictly forbidden. Sunlight is rare. His only visitors are his sisters, a psychiatrist, and members of his legal team, which includes five attorneys, a team of paralegals, and two investigators.His lawyers are trying to keep him alive and away from lethal injection if and when he is found guilty. Their plan is to argue that he was seduced and manipulated by his older brother, Tamerlan, and that he acted under his “domination and control.” It is a defense the victims find laughable. To muddy the waters even more, his lawyers claim that the FBI had encouraged Tamerlan to become an informant to provide the Bureau with intelligence on Boston’s Chechen and Muslim communities. Dzhokhar’s lawyers argue that the alleged pressure from the FBI toward Tamerlan to get him to rat on his fellow Muslims may have added to his “increased paranoia and distress.”
Federal prosecutors are looking to expose a different side of Dzhokhar. He was not a manipulated man-child, they argue, but a cold-blooded killer. Prosecutors claim that Tsarnaev has made “detrimental” statements during jailhouse visits with his sisters. This legal Ping-Pong game will continue to go back and forth through his trial. Meanwhile, Dzhokhar sits in his cell, living off meals of chicken and rice and allowed to make only one phone call, write only one letter each week. This is the life of an American teenager—an American teenager accused of killing and maiming his fellow citizens, including a young boy who should be enjoying the fourth grade.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is caged, but his victims are free—free to resume their lives in new and different ways. In January, Jeff Bauman and Carlos Arredondo were invited to attend President Obama’s State of the Union Address as special guests of the First Lady. A week later, they were asked to deliver the commencement address at Fisher College in Boston. Such opportunities could not have been imagined before April 15, 2013. The survivors had sacrificed their bodies and their minds, but they had also discovered a new strength in the well of their souls. Through their healing, they reclaimed their lives, tackled new challenges, and savored new experiences. Mery Daniel, Heather Abbott, and Adrienne Haslet-Davis found themselves backstage at a Beyoncé concert taking photos with the singing star. Members of the Collier family, the Richard family, and others were invited to Fenway Park for the 2014 home opener, where they presented World Series rings to the Red Sox. Survivors Colton Kilgore and Sabrina Dello Russo began training for their first Boston Marathon.
Michelle L’Heureux returned to the ski slopes, a place she feared she would never be able to return to. She was nervous but dug deep, thinking to herself that it was time to get back to some of the things she loved. But when the day arrived, she worried about her quad muscles in her injured leg, which hadn’t yet returned to full strength. Would they be strong enough to handle the turns and stops?
Michelle met her best friend Sare Largay at Blue Hills in Milton, Massachusetts. They entered the small lodge, got bundled up, and Michelle strapped into her ski boots for the first time since before she was injured. Ski boots are always stiff the first time you put them on at the beginning of a season, but for Michelle, the feeling was especially foreign—and a bit scary. Carrying their skis, they walked to the lift line, put down their skis, and Michelle snapped in. It was something she’d done literally thousands of times in her life, but this time, it felt really good. She smiled, albeit a bit anxiously. Overcoming her fears is a personal goal. And skiing this night was one of them.
Getting onto the chairlift is as natural as tying shoes to Michelle. But on this night, she was afraid. She couldn’t bring herself to get onto the chair. Partly she was afraid about her leg, but she was also scared of getting on the rickety, old, metal chairlift. She feared an accident.
It was the same fear she felt in Lyon, France, a month earlier when she got on a Ferris wheel with other survivors. She thought about the Ferris wheel and how she was scared then, too.
Nothing happened on the Ferris wheel. Nothing is going to happen now, she told herself.
Sare sensed her apprehension and asked the lift operator to slow it down for them. The chair slowly pulled up behind them, Michelle grabbed the rail, sat down, and they were off toward the top of the hill.
Nearing the top, Michelle was afraid to raise the bar, so Sare grabbed her arm, held it tight, and raised the bar.
They skied down the small off-ramp and onto the snow. Michelle stood at the top for a solid five minutes. She was terrified. Have I made a mistake? What if my leg gives out? What if I fall? Her mind was racing.
Michelle started to slide down the hill and made her first turn. It felt awkward, but she had done it hundreds of times before. I can do this, she thought.
She was shaky, but she made each turn, keeping her speed down. She gained confidence along the way. Her leg was definitely feeling weak, so she stopped about halfway down.
She rested a minute and then started up again. As she got toward the end of the short intermediate trail, she started picking up a bit too much speed, her weakened leg resisting her efforts to slow her body down.
She pulled it together, though, and slowed herself down, regaining control. She made it to the bottom.
They did six runs that night, and it got easier each time. Her turns got sharper and she skied a bit more freely each time. But by the final run, Michelle’s leg was sore.
The friends snapped out of their skis and called it a night. Michelle was exhausted but was also exhilarated that she had returned to doing something she loved. It was another milestone for her as she resumed her “new normal.”
Since that first time back skiing, Michelle realized that she needed to pick up the work on rebuilding her quad muscles. She started doing wall sits, in which she crouches down with her back against a wall and her knees bent at a right angle. She also started doing more weight exercises with her legs at the gym — for she had in mind a promise she’d made to her Marathon Day “heroes” that she would run a 5K road race with them the day before the 2014 Boston Marathon.
Michelle, like many survivors, regularly gets together with her heroes. For Michelle, those are Andrew Daly, Joe McMenamy, and Lauren Blanda. All three are friends with a manager at Marathon Sports and were there the day of the bombing to watch the race.
Joe worked at Marathon Sports, while Lauren worked at nearby City Sports. Andrew, a running specialist for Adidas, sells to Marathon Sports. Lauren and Andrew have been dating for years and got engaged in January 2014.
Michelle credits the three with saving her life that day. As she lay on the floor of Marathon Sports, the three kept her calm while they tore T-shirts off the racks and made tourniquets to stop the bleeding from her gaping wounds.
After EMTs evacuated Michelle, Joe walked away from Marathon Sports covered in her blood. His pants were soaked with it. He, like most there that day, was in shock.
He called his mom and told her the whole experience had changed him. He now wanted to become a firefighter or an EMT. In February 2014, he took the exam to become a Boston firefighter.
One afternoon in January, Michelle was at the gym walking on the treadmill as usual. She was feeling unusually strong this day and, with her heroes in mind, she decided to try and run for the first time since the bombings.
OK, let’s see what I can do, she said to herself, increasing the speed.
She started to trot. Then she started to jog.
I’m running, she thought to herself. It wasn’t easy, but she felt good. Her goal was to do a mile. Around the seventh-tenths mile mark, she started feeling weak. Her knee was aching from the pounding, and her wound was chafing. She wanted to quit.
She was getting annoyed with herself. A year ago, you could have run a mile, but you just didn’t choose to, she thought to herself. Her anger rising, her thoughts turned to the terrorists.
You have to finish this mile.
She pictured the faces of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. It’s something she does regularly, whenever her arm or leg injury is becoming an obstacle. It gives her motivation to finish.
If I finish this mile, I win, she told herself. She then mentally addressed the terrorists directly: You’re not going to win this. You did this to my leg, but I’m going to prove you wrong and I’m going to finish.
She finished the mile. She let out a sigh of exhaustion, turned off the treadmill, and headed for the locker room. She was sore, but she was satisfied.
She went home, took some Motrin, and iced her knee. Surprisingly, she woke up the next morning with no pain. That day, she went back to the gym and ran one and a half miles.
Two weeks later, she and her boyfriend, Brian, who is training to run the marathon again, went to the gym together.
They ran side-by-side on treadmills. After a mile, Michelle told him, “One mile.” She wanted to stop.
“Keep going,” Brian encouraged her.
She got to a mile and a half.
“Keep going,” he said.
Her goal was to make it to two miles. She made it.
“Woo-hoo!” she said, letting out a small yell. People working out turned around and looked at her awkwardly.
She didn’t care. She was another step closer toward being able to run the 5K race with her heroes.