Sandy Hook

The first four days

Sandy Hook
Nathaniel and Hannah (Sandy Hook Elementary School in background), Sandy Hook, CT, 1994. courtesy of Rachel Basch.

“There’s been a shooting.” My friend Lisa calls just after 10 AM. “All the kids are in lockdown.”

I no longer have children in the school system, so I don’t receive the robocall with this information. I put down the Christmas card I’ve just opened from my friend Bud and his husband Rick. The card is a still from the final scene of It’s a Wonderful Life, in which Jimmy Stewart has one arm around Donna Reed and in the other holds Zuzu. Rick’s head has been photoshopped in for Jimmy Stewart’s and Bud’s for little Zuzu’s.

“Turn on the television,” Lisa says.

The local news channel is running a crawl and I see the words Sandy Hook Elementary. I know it’s nothing serious, because that’s our school. Our first house in Sandy Hook abutted the school grounds. For nine years we treated the schoolyard as an extension of our backyard. Lisa is still talking, listing all the people we know in the building. We hang up and my phone begins to ping with texts. Little, little kids go to that school. If anything, it’s a disgruntled spouse . . . that’s what it is. I decide to meditate, to pray. The phone rings. I check to see if it’s my daughter Hannah, who is supposed to drive home from college today for Christmas break.

“Mumma.”

I can tell by the way Hannah speaks those two syllables that she knows.

“Maybe it’s nothing,” I say.

“Erin just texted me. She’s at the hospital and they’re going crazy. It’s not nothing.”

“Keep packing.” She has a 450-mile drive ahead of her. “Just keep moving, OK?”

“OK.”

“Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

We hang up, but I don’t go back to meditating. I go to the computer. And then I call my son in Brooklyn. I was with Nathaniel the night before, watching him perform in an experimental theater piece about a boy clown and a girl clown. There were no words, just music and movement. He was the boy clown, with dark red lips and those little black crosses above and under his eyes. At the beginning he is Chaplinesque funny, innocent and vulnerable. By the end he’s lost everything.

“Hey, Mum.”

I can tell from his voice he doesn’t know.

I jump from computer to TV to landline to cell. It’s eleven or eleven-thirty when my daughter calls again. “Danielle’s parents got evacuated from their house by a SWAT team. It’s Adam Lanza,” she says. “He lives across the street. Yogananda’s cordoned off.”

Danielle’s family lives around the corner. Growing up, Hannah spent so much time at Danielle’s that the school bus driver once asked if she had a meal plan there. It will be hours before the correct identity of the shooter is announced on television.

I’m sitting on the edge of the couch, shivering. The number moves from three to eight to twelve. Reporters are crying. When the crawl reads twenty I scream. I am alone in my house and the sound travels into the empty bedrooms, down the stairs, past all the Hanukkah decorations. The sound is one I will hear from others during the next several days. It’s a gasp and a shout, a reverberation that lives on the border between plea and protest.

I call Nathaniel again. When I hear his voice I sob. He begins to sob, too. I have not heard him cry in three years, since his dad and I told him we were separating. Later in the afternoon his dad will tell me that Nathaniel got sent home from work.

All network programming has been preempted for this story, and this frightens me almost as much as the continual buzz of helicopters over the house. The hallways and classrooms of that school are the matrix of all that is sweet and generative in my experience. For nine years I was there every week to help with writing and reading workshops. On winter Saturdays we’d be in the gym for basketball. In the fall there was soccer on the field beside the playground. In the spring, Little League on the dusty diamond by the parking lot.

At six-thirty I drive to a prayer service at Trinity Episcopal Church. There is a service at the same time at St. Rose, and cars snake slowly through the part of town still open to vehicles. We are already in a cortege. At the end of the service, Pastor Kathy steps down from the altar and stands in the center aisle of the small stone church. “I want to tell you about my day at the Sandy Hook firehouse, where we sat with the families as they received the news. The parents have been told their children are not alive, but no identifications have been made. So it’s very difficult. They know but they don’t know. For those of you asking, ‘Where was God this morning?’ God was there in those adults caring for those children. God was in the firehouse in the form of all the counselors and nurses. God was in that building when the first responders raced in as others were running out. The veil between here and there, between those who were killed and where we sit, is very thin,” she says. “Pay attention. Pay attention.”

I return home to an urgent message from Candice, the executive director of Newtown Youth and Family Services. I help administer a fund there, called Caroline’s Gift, which was established fifteen years ago in memory of our stillborn daughter. Candice has asked NBC and Yahoo to direct people who want to contribute to Newtown’s recovery to Caroline’s Gift.

We talk for a while, and she tells me ninety-two therapists have called from around the world, offering to fly in. “If you need to reach me at the office, call my cell, it’s the only way to get through.”

Hannah walks through the door at ten. She tells me that when she stopped for gas in Pennsylvania she went inside and everyone was looking up at a TV. “The anchor was talking about my town. And all these strangers in Pennsylvania were watching. I stood in the back of the crowd and that’s when I began to believe it really happened.”

She’s not even taken off her coat when her cell phone rings. It’s the LA Times. I hear her say what she will repeat for several days. “I don’t want to talk about him. The last time we were in a class together was sixth grade.” Three other news organizations called as she was driving. 60 Minutes wants to send a limo to Storrs to pick up her friend Olivia from UConn.

It’s the second-to-last night of Hanukkah, and I decide to light the candles. Suddenly the dining room in this house where I have lived for fifteen years looks completely foreign, as if I’ve never been here before. It’s the opposite of déjà vu. This will happen to me again, several times, in other rooms of my house and as I drive around town. I am disoriented, vertiginous, like when a wave sucks you under.

Hannah articulates what I’ve been thinking, what I feel bad thinking. Newtown’s been stolen from us. We’ll be Columbine. You will tell people where you live and they’ll have this single, indelible association. On CNN I’ve already seen a map of the United States with nothing written on it except a star to indicate Newtown. “This was such a great place to grow up. The perfect place,” Hannah says. “We complained when we were younger about how boring it was, but it gave us this big canvas to work from. And those kids, the ones that lived, all the children in town, they’ve been robbed of that — that pride of place.”

Before bed I check my email one last time. Chris has written to say that friends who live around the corner from me have lost their 6-year-old, Ben. While they’ve been told there are no more survivors, this limbo persists in which positive IDs have not been made. He writes that the bodies are still inside the school, and another howl comes out. It is very cold that Friday night, and I catch myself thinking that someone in charge will know to turn up the heat and give the children blankets.

At 12:50 AM I call an old friend. Steve was the minister of the Congregational Church in Newtown for twenty-two years. He lives in Montana now, which I hope is Pacific time, but I don’t check. He picks up after a few rings. He’s sick with laryngitis. I tell him this is too big for one God to handle. “There is so much pain here.” He does not counter me. “No words,” he rasps. “Hold each other.”

“Ben Wheeler,” I say over and over as I try to fall asleep.

When I wake up, it’s still true. And I realize we will have to lift this truth again, all day long. Quickly I think of the forty parents. And I can feel it — the weight of absence, like someone has gutted you and left lead inside. If I feel like this, then the mothers and fathers, the sisters and brothers, the children and husbands and lovers . . . they’ve only begun to serve the sentence. The pain will roar and it will silence, the pain will have more endurance than anything else, it will feel greater than its container. There will be nothing outside the pain.

Before I even get out of bed I turn on NPR. The first thing I hear is Scott Simon speaking the name of my town. Three people I know are interviewed. The car guys are replaced by shooting coverage. It’s all tragedy all day long. When the BBC host starts talking about Newtown and Sandy Hook I turn it off. I want people that far away to be thinking of something else.

My daughter comes into the kitchen with her iPhone. “Kelly Anne Murphy’s mom,” she says. That guttural sound comes out again. Anne Marie Murphy and I used to volunteer together when our kids were in Mr. Myhill’s class. She has four children, and a very ill husband, and she is the nicest person. I know her sister, too.

I drive up town to talk to Eunice, who owns Bagel Delight. The place is steamy from the boiling bagels, and I feel warm for the first time in twenty-four hours. She has a toddler on her lap, the son of a red-eyed customer, and she’s plugged in the singing Santa. “Previdis, McDonnells, Pintos,” she says, turning away from the little boy she’s holding. “Four on Cobblers Mill alone.”

At the dry cleaner, I relay this to Sue, the owner, who lives between my street and Cobblers Mill. She lets out a little shout and begins to cry. She holds up four fingers to be sure she heard correctly. I nod. Last week she told me how bad some people’s dogs smell and how the smell gets into their clothing and how overwhelming this can be on her end. She explained all this in her not-so-hot English, and we both laughed. Today we just clasp hands across a pile of soiled dress shirts.

In the supermarket, Patty is barely recognizable, her face ashen, her eyes pink. We embrace and sob. Our children are exactly the same ages. Her older son is in the Coast Guard. “He called three times yesterday, and they’re not usually allowed to call out from the ship, so he must have . . .” While we’re still in front of the bananas, Jennifer comes up and weeps with us.

I drive home through the center of Sandy Hook. It takes thirty minutes to go one mile. There must be a hundred or more news-gathering organizations. There are satellite transmission trucks, blinding lights, mics, cameras, audio recorders, chunky yellow and orange cables crisscrossing the road, reporters everywhere.

At home I move again from TV to computer to phone, telling myself that I need to cook, pick up, take a shower, get it together. Friends who were supposed to come for dinner still want to come, need to come, they say. Everyone is expending all their energy trying to break off little bits of this reality, trying to incorporate it into what they know to be true. On the news, the reporters I just drove past say the town is in shock. Yes, this must be what shock feels like.

Peter, the man I’ve been seeing, is supposed to come to dinner too. When he calls, I warn him for the third time that he’s entering a vortex of pain. “We will only be talking about this and the people we know, and you’re not from here and so . . . you might not want to come.”

“I’m coming,” he says.

In the late afternoon the phone rings and I hear nothing but choking sounds. I know it is Lisa because I have caller ID. The list of names is out and she reads it to me, along with the ages of everyone who died. As soon as I hang up my aunt calls. We have not talked, for various reasons, for a year and a half. She is 81, and she tells me this is the worst thing she’s ever experienced. She begins talking about gun control. I tell her I’ll forward the email a friend has sent to his gun-loving family, telling them how they can help. It is a list of candidates and organizations that support gun-control legislation.

It’s dark by the time I go up the driveway for the mail. There was no delivery on Friday. I carry a flashlight so I can see where I’m going. The box is filled with Christmas cards. As I head back toward the house, a van pulls into the driveway. It’s a senior producer from NBC News and two crew members. “We’re looking for Hannah.” I tell them she’s not home, and even if she were it’s unlikely she would talk to them. They’re very nice, apologetic. They tell me what I want to hear, how unusual the town seems, how it feels like a community, like a much smaller town than it is. “We get it,” they tell me. I tell them about the New Year’s Eve when Hannah was 14 and I thought she was at a friend’s, until a mom I vaguely knew called to ask if Hannah was wearing a light-blue parka.

“Yes.”

“Well, she’s walking down 34 with a bunch of kids, and it’s slippery driving. I’m worried they’re going to get hit.” I’m not finished with the story when I realize that Ana and Charlotte and Catherine and Emilie will never have the chance to misbehave that way.

My friends come. Everyone seems to be complaining of sore backs, chest pain, rashes. Joanne and Phil have brought their youngest child. He’s 13, and they did not want to leave him alone. He goes into another room to watch TV, and when I check to see if he’s hungry or thirsty, he looks up from his iPhone and says, “They just posted the list of names.” I nod. He begins to tell me his connections. I sit on the floor. He says he’s not hungry or thirsty. I open a drawer full of DVDs. “I’m OK,” he says. When I go back into the living room his mother is telling the group how she drove him to Starbucks to meet his girlfriend, and before she drove away, she saw him hug her and hold her. “The girl was crying, and my 13-year-old was consoling her.”

We all drink too much and I burn the latkes. We repeat ourselves, saying it doesn’t seem real. “Nothing will ever be the same,” Lisa says. No one burying a family member or coworker will be the same. No one who entered or exited that building will be the same. I can only hope that we, in this living room, are never the same again either.

I sleep four hours and pop up to go to Mass at St. Rose. I know I will see some people I need to see, to touch. It’s raining as I wait for people to exit the Mass before Mel sees me from a distance. Her face is puffy and her hair is matted and she lurches into me. “This brings up a lot for people,” she says. She tells me she’s already been to the emergency counseling center at the 5/6 school. “This must bring up a lot for you.” She pulls me close. With her mouth to my ear she says, “You know, when I was growing up my brother who’s mentally ill shot and killed two of our neighbors.”

Five minutes into the Mass I realize I’ve made a mistake. The church is so crowded, and everyone is looking for the comfort of a familiar ritual. Despite having been married into an Irish Catholic family for over twenty-five years, this ritual will not be comforting for me. I exit the church, pushing through all the people standing in the narthex. I look at my watch. I can make it for the start of the service at Trinity. There’s a reason this street is named Church Hill Road. I am acutely aware of how crazy this is, the Jew running from one church to the next in the rain. I walk up the hill behind the Episcopal church where all the kids in town go sledding. In the entry to Trinity there is a waist-high shipping container filled with boxes of Kleenex. The church is almost empty, and the usher tells me they’re running late. I sit for thirty seconds before bolting. Lisa lives around the corner. I will go there.

Along the way a reporter from WNYC stops me. My instincts tell me to keep walking, but she is very kind. I talk. She wants to know if I know someone personally who died, how closely connected I am. “It’s not like that,” I hear myself telling her. “Everyone is connected here. There are concentric circles of grief. But no one, not one person, is untouched. There are two things happening here,” I say, desperate for her to understand me, so desperate that I cause her to step back. “There is the individual loss, the unthinkable, unbearable loss, and then there is the communal loss. It is happening to every one of us.” When I finish I think I will be sick. I fear that I have somehow diminished the suffering of those twenty-seven families. I want to take it back. Why can’t I keep my mouth shut? I wish I had quoted Auden, the line that keeps repeating in my head, “We must love one another or die.” I wish I had said, “We are one body. Those bullets designed for maximum tissue damage, bullets that do not exit the body, they entered the collective body.” But as I think this, as I run down Main Street to Lisa’s, some dim part of me knows I should have felt this about all of the ten thousand children who have been killed by guns in this country in the past three years.

When I return home, Linda calls. She is 78 and I have not talked to her in five years, since her husband died. She tells me she’s living with a man now. “There’s no marriage in my future,” she bellows in her nasally Connecticut accent. “Trust me. It’s no great romance.” I wonder if the guy’s within earshot. It’s the first time that I really laugh. Linda is the mother of Annie, a college classmate, who died at 26. “Oh, these parents, what they’re going through. It never ends,” she says, “and they’re only at the beginning. Not all of them will make it.”

When I drive up town on Monday, red Solo cups have been wedged into the chain-link fence around the Reed School to spell out Pray.

I am at the supermarket again. I have been feeding a lot of people. The towering displays of flour and sugar, fancy chocolates and wrapping paper cause the store to tilt and sway. As I go to the checkout I notice an elderly man hunched over his cart. Inside the cart is only a cane. “Oh, God,” he says.

“Are you OK?” I look around. I can’t believe he’s here by himself, he looks that bad.

“Oh, God, my legs.”

I think he might collapse. A week before I would have raced past him, or else I would have shamed myself into approaching, that do-the-right-thing voice of my father’s impelling me to act in a way that does not come naturally. But today there is nothing but the smell of cigarette smoke separating him from me. One of the clerks has gone to get him orange juice and eggs. I help him toward an open checkout line. I ask if I can assist him to his car.

“No, thank you, ma’am,” he says. “No, I can get there.”

A woman I do not know, about my age, with that same distorted look we all wear, comes over and says, “I thought he was going to die.”

On my way home, I stop at Newtown Youth and Family Services. It’s after 5 PM. Candice and two staff members are standing behind the reception desk, all talking on phones. Candice holds up a finger for me to wait. We walk to the building next door. “We’ve taken over this space. Come in.” We go into a badly sheetrocked room that contains nothing but five metal folding chairs. “These will be extra counseling rooms, separate entrances for adults and children. Jim McGuire said to just take the space and we can work out the details later or never.” She tells me that the McGuires, who own the building, lost a son some years ago. “Jim owns a restoration company too. They’re going to be the ones going into the school to do the cleanup. We have counselors lined up to talk to him and his crew before and after.”

I tell Candice how thankful I am that she’s the one in charge. She says, “I have to tell you something, something happy.” She is pregnant. “We’re especially thrilled,” she says, “because it was doubtful it would happen. I had cancer last year.”

Dave, the man I was married to, comes through the kitchen door from Massachusetts and crashes into my arms. He has just driven through the center of Sandy Hook. We talk about our old house. We talk about wheeling the babies in carriages to the General Store, the diner, the post office. Before the town park was built, the park where the first press conferences were held, we would strap them into back carriers and hike through the woods and around the beaver dam. Dave was a scout leader when Nathaniel was 5 and 6 and 7, and he used to walk the boys from the school to our house once a week. Our neighbor Eleanor, born at the end of the 19th century, had lived in Sandy Hook all her life. She liked to invite us in for tea and cookies and tell us what the town was like when she was a child. She would show the kids artifacts from before the school was built, when that land was (as she called it) a gypsy encampment, and from before that, when the Pootatuck tribe lived in the area. In late spring each year, she would remind us to find another way to walk from home to school to avoid the piping plovers, who nested along the usual route. They were fiercely protective, and if you came too close, the mothers would dive-bomb you to safeguard their nests.

I tell Dave what Candice has just told me, that in seventy-two hours $108,000 has been donated to Caroline’s Gift. They can now fund a full-time grief counselor, forever. It is only when I say this aloud that I remember my debt to Mary Sherlach, the school psychologist who was killed. It was Mary Sherlach I consulted seventeen Decembers ago when Nathaniel became afraid to go to sleep, afraid to go to school. “He’s afraid you’ll die or he’ll die,” she explained. Every day that winter I walked him across the sandy soil between our home and school. I’d go with him into his first-grade classroom, and we’d walk to the window together. “See,” I’d say, pointing toward our house. “I’ll be right there all the time.”

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