Minutes after I read a letter on Rebekah Gregory’s Facebook page yesterday, I was mere seconds from summoning the marching band, our prancing elephants, and the flag-bearers so we could rightfully induct this dazzling survivor of the Boston Marathon blast into my personal Hall of Fame.
I do that, you know, when I see everyday people display courage, kindness, guts, brilliance, gumption, excellence and the like, their examples far above what ordinary people like me can do. But something stopped me. It seemed there was more, much more. After an intensive morning of reading dozens of stories on the Internet, watching snippets of taped interviews, and studying pictures of her walking out of the courthouse on her prosthesis, I learned there is more, indeed.
My personal Hall of Fame isn’t good enough for this one, not this girl.
No, Rebekah needs to take a place somewhere real high like Mount Olympus, way up among the gods, because in just the last two years, as agonizing as they may well have been, she has reached a plateau that mortal men and women will never know.
Rebekah was among the competitors in the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, when she felt Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s lethal backpack brush her shoulder. Minutes later his bomb went off, shattering her left leg from the knee down, ripping everything away. Her young son, Noah, was nearby but not as badly hurt. In hindsight the trauma doctors should have amputated her lower leg right then but, no, she endured another 16 painful surgeries – the kind that hurt “11” on the 1-to-10 pain scale. (I know a little bit about that.)
She spent 39 days at Beth Israel Deaconess in Boston before she was air-lifted to Houston, which is closer to her home in Katy, Texas. There, at Memorial Hermann Hospital, her left leg became horribly infected (I know a little bit about that) and it was discovered she had a terrible born-borne disease called osteomyelitis (I know a little bit about that) and then spent eight weeks at her mother’s house on IV drips (I know a little bit about that.)
Her fiancée, Pete, lost three-fourths of his Achilles’ tendon in the blast and was released from Boston General after 17 days, but recovery for both was gruesome. “All of it … just felt like this ongoing movie that we couldn’t get out of. It never ended. It still hasn’t,” she said a year later. (I know a little bit about that.)
She and Pete got married at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville. Not long after that she fought off feeling like she was letting down all the doctors and nurses in Boston and Houston who had so wonderfully and valiantly tried to help her when she bit her lip, nodded, and told a surgeon to cut off her still sick and mangled leg. (I know a little bit about that.)
And then it got terribly worse. Rebekah knew that she would be among the first people to testify at the despicable Tsarnaev’s trial but she had no way of knowing of what would come just several days before she would take the stand. An equally-despicable tipster would anonymously inform the media that her physical battles and all else had left her picture-book marriage shaky at best. (I know a little bit about that.)
On her Facebook page Feb. 27 she blogged: “I am not a movie star. I do not get paid the big bucks to be followed around by paparazzi and constantly have my life in the spotlight. I am also not an attention seeker. I have not from day one, attempted to use any of the publicity that I have gained for my own personal benefit. It has always been about helping others and spreading God's word. Period.”
Then Rebekah wrote, “As you are all aware, a very private issue in my life was thrown into the media this week that forced me to release a statement that I wasn't quite ready to make. And as a result, it has been harder than the bomb, surgeries, amputation, rehab, etc. all rolled into one. But my life doesn't stop.
“I will keep moving forward because giving up is not an option and I still -- despite everything -- believe in a bigger plan. I cannot control the decisions that other people make, but I can continue on with my head high, because I know the truth, and I've done nothing to be ashamed of.” (I know a little bit about that.)
Understand – all you have read thus far I didn’t not know when I declared Rebekah Gregory should be enshrined in my personal Hall of Fame. I did not know of the painful surgeries, the painful heartbreak, or the repeated anguish she has endured over the past two years.
But maybe because my osteomyelitis count is up to 134 surgeries, and I’ve struggled through heartbreak, and those nights when the throbbing wouldn’t stop, and the fever wouldn’t drop, and days where it seemed like things would never fall right, I am blessed to see this girl in a sharper light than most.
At first all I knew was that she cried from the witness stand this week when prosecutors showed her the very graphic photographs and videos of her bloodied self on the sidewalk with the bones still protruding. Two years ago I remember reading where she had prayed to God when she first regained consciousness, “If it’s my time to go that’s okay … just tell me my baby is alright … find my baby.”
That all came back in a rush yesterday as I went through my morning readings and happened across a letter Rebekah had posted on her Facebook page. It was an open letter she sat down and posted right after she had looked at the bomber’s face, and right into his eyes for the very first time. She wrote this just after she left the courtroom:
* * *
Dear Dzhokhar Tsarnaev,
My name is Rebekah Gregory. We don't really know each other and never will. But over the last two years, I have seen your face, not only in pictures, but in almost every one of my nightmares. Moments before the first blast, your stupid backpack even brushed up against my arm, but I doubt you remember because I am no one to you. A complete stranger.
And although I was merely just a blip on your radar, (someone that happened to be standing three feet from your designated "good spot" for a bomb), you have been so much more to me. Because you have undoubtedly been my source of fear since April 15th, 2013. (After all, you are one of the men responsible for nearly taking my child, and for the permanent image embedded in my brain of watching someone die.)
Up until now, I have been truly scared of you and, because of this, fearful of everything else people might be capable of.
But today, all that changed. Because this afternoon, I got to walk into a courtroom and take my place at the witness stand, just a few feet away from where you were sitting. (I was WALKING. Did you get that?) And today I explained all the horrific details, of how you changed my life, to the people that literally hold YOURS in their hands. That's a little scary, right?
And this afternoon before going in, I'm not going to lie ... my palms were sweaty. And sitting up there talking to the prosecution did make me cry. But today, do you know what else happened? TODAY … I looked at you right in the face … and realized I wasn't afraid anymore. And today I realized that sitting across from you was somehow the crazy kind of step forward that I needed all along.
I think that's the ironic thing that happens when someone intends something for evil. Because somehow, some way, it always ends up good. But you are a coward. A little boy who wouldn't even look me in the eyes to see that. Because you can't handle the fact that what you tried to destroy, you only made stronger.
If your eyes would've met mine for just one second, you would've also seen that what you "blew up" really did BLOW UP. Because now you have given me (and the other survivors) a tremendous platform to help others, and essentially do our parts in changing the world for the better.
So yes … you did take a part of me. Congratulations, you now have a leg up … literally. But in so many ways, you saved my life. Because now, I am so much more appreciative of every new day I am given. And now, I get to hug my son even tighter than before, blessed that he is THRIVING, despite everything that has happened.
So now ... while you are sitting in solitary confinement (awaiting the verdict on your life), I will be actually ENJOYING everything this beautiful world has to offer. And guess what else? I will do so without fear....of YOU. Because now to me you're a nobody, and it is official that you have lost. So, man, that really sucks for you bro. I truly hope it was worth it.
Someone you shouldn't have messed with
* * *
Now you know why Rebekah Gregory can’t be in my personal Hall of Fame. I know too much about her. She’s too big for it. We can’t get a big enough plaque. No trophy is shiny enough. No ring could ever hold such a diamond. Oh my goodness!
Thank God for Rebekah Gregory! (I know a little bit about that, too.)