Mass. Community Struggles to Find a Road Back

Washington Post
04/20/2013
By Annie Gowen

LOWELL, Mass. — It took a while — maybe after the first, or the second surgery, her mother can’t remember — for Roseann Sdoia to finally bring herself to ask the question.

Will I be able to run again?

“I told her, absolutely, she will,” her mother, Rosemarie Buckley, recalled this week. There was no sadness, no fear in the exchange at her daughter’s hospital bedside, she said. “I don’t do tears.”

Sdoia, a blond, athletic, property manager, grew up in the running-crazed area of greater Lowell, Mass., in one of the communities surrounding the fraying former mill town where running, for some, is almost a form of religion. The area has more than 25 running clubs, its own fall marathon and road races every weekend — and most Tuesday nights.

Until that fateful moment at the finish line at this year’s Boston Marathon, Sdoia had been a frequent 5K competitor. On Monday, she lost her right leg.

Here, more than anywhere else in the country, the reverberations from the blasts have been keenly felt. There have been candlelight vigils almost every night. Mothers couldn’t sleep. Children couldn’t sleep.

Then, Friday, more death — and the entire metropolitan region of Boston, 30 miles south, on lockdown.

Amid the chaos, many in the Lowell area were grappling with more basic concerns: how to explain evil to a 10-year-old; how to make your way back and forth to a city hospital when everything’s shut down; how to help a neighbor who has had the unthinkable happen.

Three of the most grievously injured amputees, including Sdoia, live in or are from the area.

This week, the flag flew at half-staff over Memorial Stadium in Lowell, where a youth track meet went on as scheduled. Parents sat in the sagging bleachers watching their little ones run, arms flailing, along the patchy track. Toddlers were using the long-jump pit as a sandbox.

“They start the kids young here,” said Joe Fischetti, 52, a middle school track coach. Lowell, he said, “is the mill city that people think time has passed by. But when it comes to athletics, it’s always had this culture of running.”

A key crucible 

Much of that has to do with the area’s long affinity with the Boston Marathon, the iconic race that helped give rise to the running craze in the nearby Merrimack Valley that began in the 1970s.

The train trip to the city on marathon Monday — for the Red Sox game and then the marathon and maybe a Bruins game in the evening — is an annual pilgrimage. Sixty-three runners from one of the local running clubs, the Greater Lowell Road Runners, competed in the race Monday.

Along with boxing, running is the town’s key crucible. Tuesday night runs along the Merrimack River, near the abandoned textile mills with their ghostly, blown-out windows, foster community spirit, runners say.

For that reason, the bombing Monday may hit harder here than even the Sept. 11 attacks, locals said.

“It’s like six degrees of separation,” said Kelly Hodgdon, 39, a mother of three. “Everybody knows someone who is affected.”

Students from Lowell High School were stunned when they learned that their classmate, senior Sydney Corcoran, had been seriously wounded and that her mother, Celeste, a hairdresser, had lost both legs in the attack. In the immediate aftermath of the blasts, runners on the track team spent more than an hour in fear that four of their coaches — two of whom ran the race — might have been injured, or worse.

Most of them have little memory of 9/11, so this attack threatened their sense of security in ways they could not have imagined before.

“It makes you not take people for granted,” said Bryanna Allison, 18, a senior. During the time her coaches were unaccounted for, she said, she realized that “it could happen to anyone.”

Nearby, Hodgdon and her friend Jennifer Laurin, 44, a staff accountant, were standing in the middle of the football field watching their kids compete. At the same time, Hodgdon was constantly checking her phone for updates from the local news station.

“I find myself to be more aware of what’s going on. Where are my children?” said Laurin. “It’s that same edginess after 9/11 — what’s going on around you?”

“A newfound paranoia,” Hodgdon said.

As a friend’s son, Evan, lined up for a race, Laurin said that the week’s events had prompted many soul-searching discussions with her own child.

“It’s sad that you have to tell your 10-year-old about evil,” she said. “I had to explain that there are people who don’t like what we stand for.”

The starting gun went off, and Evan took flight.

“Oh, he’s got a blistering pace, doesn’t he?” Laurin said. “Looks good.”

Church vigil 

Buckley, Sdoia’s mother, was invited to one of the vigils for the victims this week. She wanted to go but decided not to because she finds large crowds overwhelming right now. Instead, her brother Bill joined the 100 or so worshipers at St. Francis Church in Dracut, the community just outside Lowell where Sdoia was raised.

Inside the church, the altar was still loaded down with Easter lilies. Those assembled read Matthew 5:9 (“Blessed are the peacemakers. . .”). They sang “Abide With Me.” The priest asked everyone who knew someone who had been hurt or killed in the bombing to stand and say the victim’s name. When people began standing, one by one, others wept.

Afterward, several friends rushed to comfort Bill Buckley, who had boomed out Sdoia’s name.

“She’s great,” Buckley told them. “She said she wants to throw out the first pitch next year at the Red Sox marathon day game.”

It was her tradition, her mother said. For years, beginning from the time Sdoia was a student at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell and after she moved to Boston, Sdoia would go to the Red Sox game, then meet friends on Boylston Street for the race, followed by revelry. This year, she was standing there, not far from where the second bomb had been placed. Shrapnel tore through one of her legs, a tree branch through the other. Bystanders rushed to help. One took off his belt and tied it around her leg. She believes that he saved her life.

The road ahead for the family doesn’t stretch more than a few days. They have tried not to focus on the violent newscasts but instead on the steady stream of well-wishers, including President Obama, who kissed Rosemarie Buckley on the cheek.

Sdoia is expected to be transferred to a rehabilitation facility next week, her mother said.

They haven’t even begun talking about a prosthetic limb yet. But that will come.