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Rebuilding from Tragedy
As we near the tenth anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing, married couple Patrick Downes ’05 and Jessica Kensky reflect on finding joy and meaning in the years after the horrific attack.
The tenth anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing looms this spring, and with it, Patrick Downes ‘05 and Jessica Kensky are facing down a tidal wave of media coverage—and their own complicated feelings about the date. The married couple were two of the faces the public got to know in the aftermath of the horrific event. On April 15, 2013, domestic terrorists set off homemade bombs at the marathon finish line, killing three people and grievously wounding hundreds of others, including Downes and Kensky. The newlyweds, who were cheering runners on, each became amputees, with Downes losing one leg, and Kensky ultimately losing both. The years between then and now have been a vast ocean of surgery, physical therapy, and trying to figure out what their lives would look like. Today, there’s a sense of pride as they talk about their ability to continue in the careers they’d begun before the bombing—Downes is a therapist, and Kensky a nurse—but everything else about their lives is unimaginably different.
When the anniversary of the event has rolled around each year, it’s brought ambivalent feelings for them. Sometimes they’ve wanted to be at the race, cheering on the charity runners they support. And “sometimes we just want to get out of town and do something ourselves,” Downes said recently. “I don’t really know what this time’s going to feel like yet.” Kensky agreed, describing how much the pain has lessened because they’re doing so much better now. And yet, there’s always going to be the memory of what couldn’t be. “There was this road that we weren’t able to take,” Kensky said. “No matter how hard we’ve tried to get back, our life is forever different.”
Of course, it really is worth reiterating how well they’re doing. Kensky is able to spend ten-hour nursing shifts standing in her prosthetic legs, something she says would have been “unthinkable” only a few years ago. When Downes, who also uses a prosthetic, ran the marathon back in 2016, Kensky still couldn’t walk, and she went through so many surgeries over the years that she felt like an outlier even among bombing survivors. Today, though, life’s quotidian joys, which had become impossible in the aftermath of the bombing, are folded back into the day-to-day for her. This past fall, she cooked a whole meal the night before Thanksgiving, served soup, and cleared the dishes. And Downes pointed out how freeing it was for Kensky to be able to casually wait in line for a coffee.
One of the more remarkable things about these two survivors is how much time they spend laughing. When I spoke with them in December, they were both quick to roll their eyes at the absurdity of some of the situations they’ve found themselves in, like when someone in an elevator asked Kensky, a double amputee, if her shoes were comfortable. Or the time they decided to rent a small boat for their anniversary, and got beached on a sandbar on the Cape. Kensky had her water legs on, so she climbed into the water to start pushing, while Downes tried to steer them free as passersby looked on. “I’m sure they’re just like, Why is the girl missing her legs below the knee trying to push this boat?” Kensky said, laughing. Eventually people came over to help, which revealed, of course, that Downes was also missing a leg, but everyone just helped free them without asking anything about who they were. “I’m like, well, they’ve got a great story to tell at their cookout tonight,” Kensky said.
Not everyone has been so polite. Once, they were waiting in a security line at the airport, and a man, without even saying hello, bluntly asked if they’d met in rehab. Downes said no, and chose not to engage further. Kids have been easier. They’re never trying to be voyeuristic, Downes pointed out—they’re just curious. That’s part of the reason the couple released a children’s book in 2018, Rescue and Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship, about Kensky’s service dog. They have no plans at the moment to write a memoir about their experiences, but they love visiting schools to talk about the book with kids.
Their public stature also provided Downes with the platform to endow a scholarship called Boston College Strong. It was originally proposed as a one-off gift for a student in need, but four of Downes’s BC friends decided to take things to the next level, ultimately raising around $450,000, enough to permanently endow the scholarship. Every year for the past six years, the fund has given scholarships to students with disabilities, a cohort of students Downes called “extraordinary human beings who have been such a force for good on campus.” Many recipients have gotten involved in advocacy for students with disabilities, hosting events and working with the undergraduate student council.
As this year’s marathon approaches, it’s a reminder that ten years is not just an anniversary—it’s not only an accumulation of years but of life itself, all building into a new version of who Downes and Kensky are, and who they will be in the years to come. A doctor once told Kensky when she was going through a rough period that it was possible the bombing could someday be just a footnote in their lives, and the idea has lingered with her, as hard as it sometimes is to imagine. “It’s an enormous part of our life,” she said. “But I think all this time has been trying to figure out how to make it a footnote, and figure out what else we’re going to fill in there, and have it be a part of me, and a part of us. But not all of us.”