At last year’s Boston Marathon, Carol Downing was just a half a mile from the finish line when bombs exploded and injured two of her daughters. This year, she’s going back to complete the race.
More than 36,000 runners hope to cross the finish line for the Boston Marathon this year. Downing plans to be among them. But she’s worried.
“There’s definitely some fear of going back,” Downing says. “I know that for the whole time of the 26.2 miles, I’m going to be wondering if my family is safe.”
The same tension is building for hundreds of thousands of runners, spectators, police, firefighters and medical team members who watched the horror of the bombings or their aftermath. Downing knows that backpacks (hiding places for the two bombs last year) will be discouraged this time, and that many new security measures will be in place. But she’s still afraid.
And how could she not worry? Downing’s daughter Erika Brannock spent 50 days in a Boston hospital recovering. Doctors amputated her left leg above the knee, and when she checked out of the hospital and flew back to Baltimore last June, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to keep her other leg.
In February, Brannock had her 18th surgery since leaving Boston. Now, after months of progress and setbacks, she is taking small steps with her prosthetic left leg and the rebuilt right one.
“My surgeon’s really happy with how it’s healed, and I can start getting back up and walking again,” she says.
Brannock still needs surgery to repair her right eardrum. There will be another operation to smooth the landscape of shrapnel scars on her right leg. And then, the bone at the end of her amputation is growing.
“I know that there have been a couple of amputees who’ve had to have their limb shaved off so that it’s not poking through and they’ve had issues with it,” she says. “So far, mine’s been good.”
Brannock has dark days. But Downing says her daughter has become a symbol of resilience.
“When Erika and I … first got home, it was kind of crazy,” Downing says. “We couldn’t go out in public without people stopping her and telling her what an inspiration she was, and hugging and kissing.”
Brannock says she tries to set a good example for these strangers, for her friends and for the little boys and girls she hopes to teach full time once she finishes a master’s degree in early childhood education.
“I’m not a ‘woe is me’ kind of person,” Brannock says.
But she does require a lot of attention. “I didn’t get the nickname of Princess for nothing,” she says, and laughs.
And the person most at her bidding every day is her mom. Brannock moved in with her mom and stepdad after the bombing.
“She’s been a really great support to have there,” Brannock says. “Even before all of this, she was one of my best friends, and she still is.”
Brannock plans to watch her mother complete the marathon this year. Downing did finish the race once — last spring, while Brannock and her sister, Nicole Gross, who was also injured in the blast, were still in the hospital.
“One morning I was out running along the Charles River, and I just [realized]: Today’s the day. I turned around and went back to the exact spot where I’d been stopped and I just ran it like it was a race,” Downing says. “I just remember, the closer I got to the finish line, just imagining what my kids had gone through — and I hadn’t been there.”
She says memories of that terrifying experience are mixed now with gratitude for the people who saved her daughter’s life and excitement about reuniting with other survivors in Boston.
It’s a city that Brannock and Downing now call their home away from home because, they say, love of many overpowered the hatred of a few.