SOMERVILLE, Mass. — While her husband, Kevin, runs the 26 miles from Hopkinton to Boston on Monday, Karen Rand McWatters will move around the kitchen of their third-floor apartment.
She’ll chop onions, toss several pasta salads and make sure the beer is cold for the post-marathon cookout. She’ll go to the Boston Marathon website and track bib number 34340. Maybe not so silently, she’ll cheer the progress of his 12th and last marathon.
Karen won’t be at the finish line on Boylston Street. Not this time.
“It’s not about being afraid. I want to remember the marathon as it was,” she says.
Before the two bomb blasts that shattered the joy of this storied race. Before she lost the dear friend who stood next to her that afternoon near the finish line.
Before she was cut down by the bomb’s shrapnel and the later amputation of her lower left leg.
The 53-year-old woman who was Karen Engelhardt when she graduated from Westbrook High, Class of ’78, lost a piece of her life on April 15, 2013.
By no means has she lost her love of life.
She and Kevin did return to the finish line last Tuesday. The occasion was a tribute to the lives of the three who were killed, the hundreds who were injured in the blasts and those who rushed to their aid.
“I didn’t want to go (at first),” said Karen. “I was afraid it would be too emotional.”
Then Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick called to ask how she was doing and to say he would talk about her in his speech at the tribute. Karen’s presence would help the healing, he said.
Karen decided to attend. She didn’t regret it. Seeing the other survivors again was important. She could have done without the bombing hoax later in the day: “I was the definition of an anxiety attack.”
She grieves for Chrystle Campbell, who died in the bombing last year. Chrystle was 29 and despite the age difference, they were sisters in laughter and how they enjoyed life and the people around them.
Karen worked in the corporate offices of a small restaurant chain and Chrystle was manager of one of its restaurants. Chrystle’s new boyfriend was a friend of Kevin McWatters.
Someday Karen may return to the marathon to watch. Not now. “Do I look back? Yes.”
Kevin was among the runners about a mile or two away from the finish line when the blasts happened. He is a correctional officer for the Middlesex County Sheriff’s Department and soon learned Karen was hurt. Someone saw her in the photos taken afterward.
Kevin spent the next 10 hours searching for the woman he planned to marry. They had become engaged before the marathon.
“We went to hospitals, we went to Boston police headquarters. We talked to anyone who might know.” He sat exhausted in the back seat of a car shuttling him from one place to another.
Karen had Chrystle’s cellphone and identification when she was brought to the hospital. The misidentification was the problem. Kevin knew Chrystle’s family and boyfriend were searching for her.
“We were like two ships crossing in a lonely night,” said Kevin. “It was the saddest moment of my life.
“It was 2:30 a.m. when I found her. She was all beat up.” But alive.
In the weeks and months after, Kevin was her rock. The families of both, and friends, rallied around. Karen has two adult sons, Steve and Andrew Rand.
“I grew up in a family where there was no whining, no sniveling,” Karen said, smiling. “If you’re crying, you really better be hurt.”
In their small living room, Karen sat in a chair while Kevin stretched out on their couch. She leaned over to touch the toes through his socks. “What did you keep telling me when I was in the hospital?”
“No pity parties,” said Kevin.
“Karen and Kevin are resilient, strong, positive, sensitive, and gracious,” said Joan Benoit Samuelson. She invited them to last summer’s TD Beach to Beacon road race. Karen was the official starter. “Kevin has been there for Karen every step of the way. (He will) be going the distance Monday with passion, heart, sweat and I’m sure a few tears.
“I’m honored to call them friends.”
Karen adjusted to her prosthesis at Spaulding Rehabilitation in Charlestown. Other Boston Marathon amputees were there, including Jane Richard, then 7. The Richard family suffered most; Martin, Jane’s 8-year-old brother, died at the scene. Her mother, Denise, was injured and lost her sight in one eye. Her father, Bill, was injured by the shrapnel as was older brother Henry. Jane lost her lower leg.
“I’d be on my treadmill and watching Jane,” said Karen. “She’d fall down, laugh, and get up. She was hysterical, funny, wonderful.”
The survivors have bonded and remain connected through gatherings, official or otherwise. They alone understand their shared hurt and pain.
When Karen was able, she asked Kevin if he still wanted to marry her. After the bombing there was less of her. She told Kevin he could walk away.
“I was horrified,” said Kevin. “Of course I still loved her.”
“I knew that’s how he felt,” said Karen, grinning. “I wanted to hear him say it.” They married in March.
She wore bright red shoelaces in her sneakers during an interview on Friday. Very eye-catching. “I have to be flashy somehow,” she said, laughing again.
They avoided most interviews for months. Karen had lost some control of her life after the bombings. As bubbly and warm as she appeared outside, she needed time.
She is easily recognized, especially in Somerville, just outside Boston. Her photos have been in traditional and social media. She’s 6 feet tall, and with her smile and prosthesis stands apart from any crowd.
Actually, she’s about four inches taller than Kevin. “I call him my little husband.”
“Kevin and I will be shopping and people will come up. They’ll talk to Kevin first. Some hug me and cry,” she said. “Most people mean it in the kindest way, but it does make me remember. I do want my anonymity back sometimes. Kevin and I are just simple people.”
An Easter basket sits on their coffee table. Sunday, they’ll bring it to Estefania Salinas, a 14-year-old girl from El Salvador who lost one leg above the knee in an accident. By chance, Karen and Kevin were told of her situation this winter.
Remembering all the support Karen received, they decided to help Estefania. She’s now at Shriners Hospital in Boston and has been fitted with a prosthetic leg by Next Step Bionics and Prosthetics in Newton, Mass. Her other leg was mangled and she suffered burns when a drag-racing car went out of control on a city street and hit her.
Last week, Estefania got her new leg and walked for the first time in months while her mother and new friends watched. “I was happier for her mother,” Karen said. “Estefania is strong and brave. Her mother was worried. ‘What if it’s not possible?’ I can’t tell you what it was like to see the look on her mother’s face when Estefania took her first steps.”
Monday, after Kevin finishes the marathon, he will bring Estefania the Boston Marathon medal every finisher receives. It will be his gift to her.
Karen cannot talk about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who with his brother Tamerlan is accused of the bombings and the shooting death of an MIT police officer. She will testify at the trial of the surviving brother, Dzhokhar.
Kevin has no such reservations. “It’s a shame they didn’t kill him (in the shootout that killed his brother on April 18, 2013). He’s asking for his rights now. These people didn’t have rights when he put the bag down. He wants rights? What about the rights of these people?”
Karen and Kevin will return to Maine two days after the marathon. They have a new condo in the Portland area, adapted for her needs. While in Maine, she will continue to work for Estefania and the local Red Cross.
“I nearly bled out. I needed 14 pints of blood, three of platelets. I can help now.”
She and Kevin have met President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. They’ve met other politicians and celebrities. She has been supported and hugged by strangers
“I don’t have my anonymity. I have a voice. I can do things for others.”