Of birthdays and the death of strangers

I awoke this morning, on my 45th birthday, with a deep sense of contentment. After a year of hard decisions and of embracing uncertainty, this sense of something higher than mere happiness was both unexpected and welcome. All was beautiful - a lovely visit from friends last night, easy laughter with my son Sahir as he 'treated' me to a viewing of one of his favorite films - Woody Allen's 'Stardust Memories,' and then a picnic with him at Volunteer Park, where we ate pizza and talked about imperialism before I dropped him off to head off on a Spring Break road trip with his friends. It was pleasant, even crushing, this feeling that all was so, so well in the world, even though I know and write of its troubles.

I didn't know as I was waving goodbye to my 17-year-old boy in Seattle, that someone's eight-year-old boy was dying in an explosion at the Boston Marathon. Over the next hour or so of news, I was stripped of that fleeting sensation I described. All is not well with the world and all are not well. The images on television looked too much like 9/11. I thought back to the days I had spent researching and documenting the coverage of 9/11 by four major networks for an article and how I felt for months after that intense, close-up, play-and-replay viewing that we live in a sick world.

The Boston Marathon blasts also brought back horrific memories of that other place I call home - Mumbai, where serial blasts in 1993 forever changed my nation's sense of self. I shuddered and wept this morning, for those who died today and those who are injured and those affected in so many ways, and then also for the way we will be from this day forward. Yes, each such event changes the way we will be toward one another.

For, my next response was to call my son and ask him if he really had to go on the trip. Couldn't he just come home? Why, he asked me. I didn't want to answer. But I asked him if he had his green card with him. I told him to hold it close and to stick close to his friends. Yes, that's what we do, we immigrant mothers of dark-skinned boys in our 'post-9/11 world.' Yes, that's another layer of such tragedies that some of us carry along with all the other layers.

I let him go. Why? Because, just that morning, as we sat in the park, the tiniest incident foreshadowed my tryst with the different layers of fear today. As Sahir and I sat chatting on our stone bench, I noticed we were in a lonely part of the park. When I saw a man's figure approach from down the path to my left, my arm went out to my purse and I moved it closer to me. Sahir saw this and asked me to put it back where it originally was. Neither of us could see who the man was or what he wore or how he looked, so our little discussion had nothing to do with any profiling apart from 'man approaching.' Still, maybe because of a gut-level fear that women carry in them, or from my life in cities across the world, or from my work on a newspaper's crime beat, my little maneuver was instinctive. My son's maneuver - telling me to undo mine - was instinctive, too. Whose instincts would we go by?

I put the purse back. We watched the man pass at a distance, just a man taking an aimless, contented walk in the park. We fell back into our conversation about imperialism. Of course, a few minutes later, when a rather large squirrel approached, my son had to calm me down again.

So, how could I ask my son, who had asked me to choose fearlessness over fear, to come home because of the explosions in Boston and the color of his skin and the stamp on his passport? If I am to choose contentment rather than let it merely settle over me one day and unsettle me the next, I would have to choose also to let go of fear, over and over again. 

That's where we go from here. We choose, across the world, to get on planes and run marathons and take trains to work and send out children to schools where teachers don't wield guns.

Because more men are just taking a walk in the park than are planting bombs.