Marathon brings blessings of family

Somewhere in the blur of the next few hours -- none of us can remember how -- we discovered how close we'd all been to the finish line. I felt anguished. I wanted to shoulder their experience and erase it from their brains.

Like many that night, I was swamped by the what-ifs. Runners who were forced off the course wondered where they might have been if they'd run a little faster. Spectators shuddered at the randomness of where they chose to stand. The thought that kept piercing me, making my legs rubbery, was that I could have lost people dear to me that day when I hadn't tried my best to keep them.

We are all returning to Boylston Street on Monday. And we have made some changes.

The lucky among us have that one house whose blueprint never fades, the one you walk through in your waking dreams. That was my cousins' house in West Springfield for me. It remained virtually unchanged through my childhood and nomadic adolescence and early adulthood. It was the safest place I knew.

My father was very close to his sister, Norma, and we visited often. I sneaked candy from the dish she kept filled in the living room, and soaked in the big white claw-foot tub upstairs. Out back, a gate in a low picket fence led to the yard where my uncle Frank tended wildly prolific tomato plants. In the winter, he flooded one end so Larry and his brother Gary could play hockey with a homemade goal. Just off their shared bedroom was a tiny triangular alcove stocked with board games. It was kid paradise.

Their baby sister Corinne, four years older than me, hung beads in her room and plastered the walls with rock n' roll posters. I hung on her every word. I learned to play pool on the table Gary built in the basement, and drank my first cup of coffee -- really, milk with a splash that turned it beige -- in a white china mug with pink roses in my aunt's kitchen.

Larry went off to Providence College in the late 1960s and came home telling animated tales of basketball stars Ernie DiGregorio and Marvin Barnes. I was a bookish little girl who loved sports when that wasn't so common, and he drew me out as I burbled on about baseball. It was one of the first affirmations I had that I wasn't a total weirdo.

We grew up. I went to my cousins' weddings and held their firstborn sons. My work as a sportswriter frequently brought me to the Boston area, where Larry and Corinne had settled with their families. Then my travel pattern changed and the visits thinned out.

My aunt died of breast cancer in 2002. My uncle, his spirit broken, followed six weeks later. Gary, a talented contractor, moved into the house and did some remodeling, but it was still my touchstone, always there for me. He married a second time in the backyard with his own vegetable garden ripening in the July sun, a wedding I missed because I was covering the Tour de France.

A year later, he died suddenly after a brief illness. Once again, I was on assignment in France, and once again, I missed the family gathering. I wept over the phone with Corinne and privately questioned my priorities. Siblings and cousins are the ones you envision your arms around as you get older, helping you through unfamiliar territory as parents pass away, houses pass into other hands and the generation under you lifts off. This was out of order. Apparently, my sense of order had been an illusion.

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