On April 15, 2013, Rebekah stood with her 5-year-old son near the Boston Marathon finish line, just three feet away from a bomb-loaded backpack. When the bomb detonated, it set into motion a series of events that would change almost every aspect of Rebekah’s life. Rather than succumb to bitterness, Rebekah summons the deepest, truest elements of character to meet everyday challenges, to run and finish the Boston Marathon in 2015, to write a book–and to forgive her attackers.
Interviewed by Sara G. Stephens
HFM: Why were you in Boston on April 15, 2013?
RG: I was in Boston to cheer on a friend who had qualified to run the race.
HFM: You and your son were only a few feet from one of the bombs that went off at the marathon that day. Can you take us through the moments you experienced leading up to, during, and after the bombs went off?
RG: We started out the day with our group of about nine, tracking our runner on an app on our phones. We arrived at the 17-mile marker and held up our handmade signs, and it was really neat to see all the support and encouragement each runner received streaming by. I couldn’t
believe how many people were there! It was so chaotic, but amazing, all at the same time.
My five-year-old son, Noah, was with us and had started out the day enthused to be at the race, but as time passed on, he got really bored. One of the members of our group decided that we needed to make our way closer to the finish line, and I just remember Noah tugging on my clothes and wanting to leave the whole time we were walking to find a spot. When we got settled, with a great view of the finish line, I told Noah to sit down on my feet and play in the rocks like he was a scientist. There were no rocks, but, thankfully, to a five-year-old it was cool. That’s exactly where Noah was when the first bomb went off in a backpack three feet behind us.
HFM: How would you describe, in the chaotic moments following the explosions, your thoughts and emotions regarding Noah?
RG: There are no words to describe the fear and helplessness I felt after the bombs went off. I was pinned to the ground, with my body completely mangled, and there was nothing I could do to save myself and, more importantly, my little boy. It was a mother’s worst nightmare, and I wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemy. Those moments are what still haunt my dreams every night, even four years later.
HFM: How has this incident, and your son’s proximity to such peril, affected you as a parent?
RG: Those few minutes changed everything for me. I always say I left my normal life on Boylston street that day, and it’s true. Nothing has been the same since. And in some ways that is a good thing. I appreciate every moment I spend with the people I love and my children so much more now, and I realize how much of my life I was taking for granted before.
But I am much more cautious and a little less carefree than I used to be. I have to constantly give myself pep talks to even leave the house most days, and sometimes I’m scared to death to even send Noah to school. But I try very hard to teach him the same lesson I am trying so hard to learn, too: We can’t live our lives in fear.
HFM: Your leg took the brunt of the impact from the explosion, and, after multiple major surgeries, you eventually ended up losing your leg. I understand you wrote a farewell letter the day you had it amputated.
RG: That letter still makes me laugh because I wrote it in about five minutes, just being goofy. But I basically said I was getting rid of what was holding me back, that it was time to move on etc., and that’s how I felt. My leg was like a bad boyfriend. I needed to get it out of my life!
HFM: How have you adapted to parenting with a prosthesis?
RG: I surprise myself every day with new adaptations with parenting with a prosthesis, or even just having one at all. A lot of times my husband or son will end up “searching for my leg” because I have a tendency to forget what room I left it in. It’s become an ongoing joke in our house. Sometimes it’s just easier not to have it on or to roll around in my wheelchair. When you have a fake leg, it will never be real, so you have to learn how to do everything differently than before.
HFM: The shrapnel damage you sustained from the bomb also resulted in reproductive problems for you, and you were told that conceiving a child would be nearly impossible. How did this news affect you?
RG: The news that I wouldn’t ever be able to give Noah a sibling crushed me. It’s something I had always wanted when the time was right. But I learned [this diagnosis] only a few weeks after everything happened, so back then I was just fighting to get through the day. It was hard to envision much of anything else.
HFM: You did up conceiving a child, and you went into labor months before your due date, resulting in yet another struggle for your both your lives. At this point, after so much struggle, how did you muster the courage, strength and faith to see you through yet another crisis?
RG: If I’ve learned anything, it is that life is hard. And just because you go through something terrible, doesn’t mean something else is not right around the corner. These last several years have presented us with a lot of heartache, but even in the biggest storms, there is sunshine if we look hard enough for it. Don’t get me wrong. I have days where I don’t want to fight anymore and when I’m ready to finally throw in the towel. But even then I know that my blessings far outweigh my problems, so I will never stop fighting. After all, my son and I were standing three feet from a bomb, and we are both here to tell about it. I’d say I have a pretty good life.
HFM: How do you talk to your kids about the tragedy that left such a permanent impression on your and your family’s life?
RG: For Noah, he saw everything I did that day, so I’ve never tried to sugar coat it. Fortunately, he was five, so the more time that passes, the less he remembers. But we just try to focus on the positive and trying to help others through our own obstacles. For my daughter Ryleigh, she is too young to know anything right now, although she is starting to become intrigued by my leg. I think it will be interesting to talk about it with her one day and maybe let Noah lead the conversation.
HFM: What tips do you have for parents when it comes to talking to their kids about tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombings?
RG: It’s hard to give tips, because I’m not even sure if I’m doing the right thing on a regular basis. I think as parents we feel like failures 95% of the time. At least I do. But if I had one word of advice, it would just be honesty. We live in a very scary world, where things are happening all the time. It is important that we are being honest about what is going on and teaching our kids to be observant and mindful of everything around them. It is also more important than ever to teach love. I tell Noah all the time, “Just because a couple bad guys blew us up, we will not hold hate in our heart. Instead, we will love even more.”
HFM: What are your feelings toward the bombers? Have you forgiven them?
RG: This is always the toughest question I am ever asked, and I’m not quite sure if I even know my answer. There was a time early on when I thought I had gotten to the point of forgiveness. I told myself it wasn’t a personal attack, it was an attack on America as a whole. But when I went to testify in the trial, and I heard the stories, and saw the pain in the eyes of the people who lost so much that day–and became friends with a lot of them–it got intensely personal. Then when I looked into the eyes of the remaining brother, and didn’t see an ounce of remorse, that made it near impossible. But forgiveness isn’t something you do for the other person, it is something you do for yourself. That is what I’m learning. So, while I can’t say that I’m all the way there yet, one day I will be.
HFM: If you were to write them a letter, what would you say?
RG: I did that after the trial and posted it to my Facebook page. I had no idea it would resonate with so many, and was so humbled by the support.
HFM: What brought you to Houston, and how are you enjoying raising your family here?
RG: My parents were originally what brought me to Houston, I guess. They had moved down here from Kentucky, where I was born and raised, and I just wanted something different. On a whim, I applied for a job, got it, packed my car three weeks later, and never looked back. We absolutely love Texas, and I can’t think of a better place to raise our family.
Rebekah’s Open Letter
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 3 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.
And 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. And 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
Rebekah’s book, “Taking My Life Back,” is available for purchase on amazon.com.