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Katie Mgongolwa Headshot

Boston Strong on the Anniversary of the Marathon Bombing

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When my family moved to Newton, MA, a suburb on outskirts of Boston, back in 2005, we had no idea that our home on "the carriage lane" (a side road running parallel to the main road) on Commonwealth Avenue was the heart and soul of the Boston marathon. But sure enough, as winter thawed, runners began to appear in packs. We lived at the foot of "heartbreak hill" and as we planted flowers in the yard or took our dogs for a walk we enjoyed seeing our city come to life with the promise of spring, and the tradition of generations.

Marathon Monday is a holiday in itself, celebrated on Patriots' Day on the third Monday every April. The city shuts down for the marathon. School is closed. Do not plan to cross Comm Ave or any other streets used for the race that day, unless you do so on foot. Everyone lines up to watch; it is a daylong event. There are young families, college students who drink from red solo cups all day, former runners, entire neighborhoods. Our home was a hotspot. We got out the grill and lawn chairs and picnic blankets and coolers. We cheered on runners, occasionally searching for celebrities rumored to be in the race. We loved how the morning started with military troops walking the route in camouflage. We loved the tradition of the father pushing his son in the wheelchair. My sister and I invited friends; she was in high school at Andover, then later a student at Boston College. When I graduated from UNC I moved to Boston too, first to get my Master's in Education at BC, then to teach in Newton. I rented an apartment near Jamaica Pond and walked my dog through Fenway Park. We had become a Boston family and the marathon was our favorite city holiday. It was a day everyone was a Bostonian.

Eventually my parents moved due to my dad's job. I left to teach overseas, and then, after getting married in Boston, resettled in North Carolina as I became a newlywed and a mother. My sister stayed in Boston, even after she graduated. It had been our city, and now it belonged to her.

In 2013, terrorists struck the marathon. We all know how that played out. We know that people died and bled; hearts were broken and tears were shed. The city, rather than shrink, became a mammoth fighter and shut down until the terrorists were found. I remember the day so clearly, because after my sister and her friends were accounted for, and after my friend Tim -- who, as a local fireman always runs the race to raise money for the Newton Fire Department Children's Fund -- was accounted for (he had been only a mile away from the finish line when the bombs went off), I watched the news on TV. I watched police cars zoom by the Watertown Target I always shopped at. I watched news clips of teachers I worked with played over and over as they were evacuated during the manhunt. I felt a stab of fear and anger as streets I knew so well were covered in police tape and fear. I thought about how my parents had been in Boston a few days earlier for Red Sox opening day and sent me pictures of the finish line. I felt grateful they had come home instead of staying for the marathon.

As the dust settled and arrests were made, I couldn't watch from afar anymore. I took my 17-month-old daughter and flew to Boston. My sister and I stayed in a hotel around the corner from the finish line, which had served as headquarters during the manhunt, and we walked by the yellow finish line every day as we went to Boston Commons and City Sports and Boloco. A memorial had been erected in Copley Square and we visited it many times, absorbing the flowers and messages and hope and grief. Stores were beginning to replace glass that had blown out from the explosion. As we spent a few days meandering down Boylston and Newbury, we relished that the city had been strong. One night, while eating dinner in Watertown at Not Your Average Joe's, we saw dozens of signs in buildings saying "Watertown Strong, Boston Strong." I felt, in visiting the wounded but strong city, like I was visiting a friend who had been through a war.

A year later, the city prepares for its first Marathon after the bombing. I heard entries to run the marathon sold out in record time -- so many people wanted to show support and hope instead of fear. Our family's relationship with the city is changing, too: my sister is now preparing to move to Arizona. This will likely be her last time as a spectator of the Boston Marathon. In fact, she delayed her move until after the marathon. It felt like a proper good bye to the city we had all loved.

Although I am happy and settled in North Carolina, I miss Boston. I miss Arnold Arboretum and Thai food in Cleveland Circle and riding the T to a Red Sox game. I miss the amazing aquarium and JP Licks ice cream and ocean breezes and late nights in Brighton. I miss my friends, of course, and value the endless memories made during my years there. But the best part is that by being lucky enough to have lived in and loved that city, I will always be Boston strong. To know the city is to love the city, and I look forward to celebrating hope, strength, and Bostonians on April 21.