Two years ago today, it was an ordinary morning in Newtown, Connecticut. As I was driving down Main Street, headed to work, I admired the grand old homes, decorated for the holidays, and the Stars and Stripes rippling from the town’s flagpole in the cold air. At that very moment, 5 minutes away, a disturbed 20 year old was systematically taking the lives of 26 beautiful souls, forever dividing time for so many of us.
I fell in love with Newtown the first time my husband-to-be drove me down the most beautiful Main Street I’d ever seen, where a massive flagpole, first erected in 1876, proudly stands directly in the middle of the street as an ongoing tribute to the 43 Newtownians who were determined to show the town’s patriotism to celebrate the United States’ 100th anniversary.
During that first December drive down Main Street, Newtown was the home of Lexington Gardens, the folksy “Newtown Bee,” Pasta Fresca—the best Italian restaurant that ever was—and such friendliness and warmth that many residents proudly displayed “Nicer in Newtown” bumper stickers on their cars.
It’s no longer nicer in Newtown–and now we’re also infamous.
As an advocate, I’ve been traveling quite a bit over the last several years, and whenever someone asked me where I was from—even if they were also from Connecticut—their response to my answer was always, “Newtown? Never heard of it; now where is that?” And I can’t tell you how many pieces of mail we’ve received that were addressed to “Newton.” Now, everyone knows Newtown. And everyone knows Sandy Hook, a village that is an intimate part of our town.
On December 14, 2012, shortly after I arrived at work, I heard a commotion in the office next to mine. When I opened my office door and stepped into the hallway, our entire Billing staff was talking at once, with expressions of horror in their faces. “Deb, there’s been a shooting in Newtown at one of the schools.”
With that one sentence, our lives changed instantly. I raced to the phone to call my husband, Marty: our friends across the street from us have 2 sons in Newtown schools, and their mom works in one of the schools as well. Thank the Lord, their dad had already called Marty to let us know that they were all okay.
The rest of the day was a blur. We all had our eyes glued to our computers, following the news and worrying about the people we know and love in Newtown. At one point, one of our doctors, who also lives in Newtown, was interviewed from the Sandy Hook Firehouse, where he was preparing to triage anyone who had been harmed in nearby Sandy Hook Elementary School. All of our MDs who weren’t working at the practice that day were called into Danbury Hospital to assist the wounded. They later said that the most devastating moment was when they realized that no more survivors were coming: just 3 people, 2 children and one adult, were brought to the Hospital, and the adult, an employee of Sandy Hook Elementary, was the only one to survive her injuries.
When I drove home that evening, just the thought of driving down my beautiful Main Street made me feel ill, anxious, nauseated. And I was right: it was absolutely devastating. There were police cars, news vans, and cameras everywhere, and Newtown looked like it had turned into a war zone—and it had.
Over night, memorials began to appear in town almost everywhere you looked. Two minutes from our home, someone had posted a makeshift sign on a telephone pole that simply said “Pray.” Another minute away, people had begun to bring roses, teddy bears, toys, bows, notes, candles, and prayers to a memorial right next to our police station, a memorial that grew larger and larger with every day that passed. Surrounding towns also began to place signs with messages for the people of Newtown: “We are praying for you, Newtown,” “We Choose Love,” and “We are Newtown.” And we in Newtown and Sandy Hook mourned deeply for all of those who lost their beloved family members and for the loss of what our town had been.
In the days following the tragedy, Newtownians made small acts of kindness the rule rather than the exception. When stopping at a 4-way intersection close to my home, all 4 of us waved one another on, wanting to be generous to the other folks, until one driver reluctantly went through the intersection. When walking in my daze through Newtown’s Library, I brought a greatly overdue book to the counter, and the librarian said, “We’re not charging Newtownians any overdue fees for now.” Yes, small acts of kindness: but these went far to thaw the freeze on our hearts.
Most of us who live in Newtown who were fortunate enough not to lose a loved one know families who were directly impacted. And we very much grieved together as a town—and still do, 2 years later. Many of us felt as if we were living in a fog, where nothing seemed real—and had one or more moments when the fog broke and we completely broke down from the weight of the sorrow. My moment came when I was driving to work one day about a week after the tragedy. I’d avoided driving through the center of Newtown as much as possible, because at first, it broke my heart and later it angered me that the news vans, the cameras, and the reporters were still there and increasing in number daily. But I had a present that I needed to mail to my sister for Hanukkah, so I had to stop by the post office across town. As I was driving down Main Street toward the flagpole in the center of Newtown, I heard a commotion behind me and realized it was a motorcade. As I pulled over, several police officers drove past on motorcycles … and then I saw the hearse. And that’s when I completely, totally, irrevocably “lost it.” There is only one other time when I’d sobbed like this: that day was on 9/11, when we saw the second plane crash into the World Trade Center, when the first and then the second tower came down, when we saw people at the windows of the towers gasping for air and preparing to escape the fire by jumping to their deaths. As I was trying to wipe my tears away and pulled back into the road behind the hearse and the motorcade, I heard another sound and realized that it was me, wailing. As I followed the hearse, I saw that it was pulling into the driveway of the church directly across from the flagpole. I noticed that there was a large, beautiful picture on the church’s lawn—and saw that it was a picture of Benjamin Wheeler, one of the little boys who had been killed. He was 6 years old, 6 years old.
I saw all the mourners stepping out of the church onto the lawn, and I just couldn’t take it. I somehow managed to keep driving … only to pass another church, where another funeral was taking place for another beautiful life that had been taken by the shooter. The lawn of this church was absolutely crawling with reporters, camera crews, and news vans from CNN, Fox News, ABC, CBS, MSNBC, and on and on and on. They were all planted directly in front of a sign that the church had posted, saying “No media past here.” I finally managed to pull into the post office’s driveway. I shut off the engine. I called my husband, absolutely distraught. I could barely get the words out, but that didn’t matter. He spoke with me for about 20 minutes, calmly, soothingly, sharing our grief. I thought I’d finally gotten myself together, so said good-bye to my husband, grabbed the package, and walked into the post office. I have no recollection of writing out the mailing label for my sister’s present. And when I walked to the counter and put the package on the scale, from the way the gentleman behind the counter looked at me, I realized then that I was still crying, but silently now, and the tears just kept rolling down my face. He then gently put his hand on mine, patted it a few times, and simply said, “I know. I know.” But that’s the thing: I just don’t know. I don’t know how the families who lost their loved ones this way are going on. My heart broke for them, as did everyone’s here in Newtown, neighboring towns, everywhere.
The first time I traveled following the shooting was in February or March 2013. I was meeting several advocates who were members of a panel on which I was also serving. As we got to know one another, we exchanged business cards, but I found that I did so reluctantly–because I knew what was going to happen. Two of the women with whom I’d exchanged cards were sitting directly across from me on the other side of a large table. It took about a minute. They then, simultaneously, looked up, held my card out to the other, pointed to the name of my town, and mouthed, “Oh my God: she’s from Newtown!” Later in the meeting, they both came up to me separately, saying how sorry they were and asking how all of us in Newtown were coping with the horror that happened in our sweet town. And this is what I told them:
There is absolutely no way to put the experience, this tragedy into words. It is simply unspeakable. But with the horror had also come such kindness, giving, and love. As I mentioned before, following the tragedy, I saw countless random acts of kindness here in Newtown. For many months, there were green and white ribbons on almost every telephone pole in town (representing Sandy Hook Elementary School’s colors), and beautiful little painted stars also appeared on the poles with words like “courage,” “love,” and “friendship” to honor those we lost. Comfort dogs were brought to town right after the tragedy occurred, and they continued to visit Newtown’s schools for months. Several charities have been established to help the families who lost loved ones; to establish scholarships for children who want to become teachers, celebrating the lives of the brave women who were lost that day; and to help some of the first responders who haven’t been the same since they saw the unseeable.
One of these charities is called Ben’s Lighthouse, which “was created in honor of Ben Wheeler and his Sandy Hook classmates to promote the long-term health of the children and families in the region while nurturing an environment of non-violence and caring.” As Christopher Murray, psychotherapist and friend of the Wheelers wrote in an article entitled “The last time I saw Ben Wheeler,” “Benny loved lighthouses… Since he’s been gone, lighthouses have become a symbol and a metaphor for him and his martyrdom. His spirit and his memory shine a strong and penetrating beam of light through clear nights and stormy ones to confer upon us awareness, and to bring us safely home.”
Please join me in praying for the families of all those so brutally lost to this unthinkable tragedy:
– Charlotte Bacon, 2/22/06, female
– Daniel Barden, 9/25/05, male
– Rachel Davino, 7/17/83, female.
– Olivia Engel, 7/18/06, female
– Josephine Gay, 12/11/05, female
– Ana M. Marquez-Greene, 04/04/06, female
– Dylan Hockley, 3/8/06, male
– Dawn Hochsprung, 06/28/65, female
– Madeleine F. Hsu, 7/10/06, female
– Catherine V. Hubbard, 6/08/06, female
– Chase Kowalski, 10/31/05, male
– Jesse Lewis, 6/30/06, male
– James Mattioli , 3/22/06, male
– Grace McDonnell, 12/04/05, female
– Anne Marie Murphy, 07/25/60, female
– Emilie Parker, 5/12/06, female
– Jack Pinto, 5/06/06, male
– Noah Pozner, 11/20/06, male
– Caroline Previdi, 9/07/06, female
– Jessica Rekos, 5/10/06, female
– Avielle Richman, 10/17/06, female
– Lauren Rousseau, 6/1982, female
– Mary Sherlach, 2/11/56, female
– Victoria Soto, 11/04/85, female
– Benjamin Wheeler, 9/12/06, male
– Allison N. Wyatt, 7/03/06, female