After Newtown shooting, mourning parents enter into the lonely quiet
In NEWTOWN, Conn. — They had promised to try everything, so Mark Barden went down into the basement to begin another project in memory of Daniel. The families of Sandy Hook Elementary were collaborating on a Mother’s Day card, which would be produced by a marketing firm and mailed to hundreds of politicians across the country. “A difference-maker,” the organizers had called it. Maybe if Mark could find the most arresting photo of his 7-year-old son, people would be compelled to act.
It hardly mattered that what Mark and his wife, Jackie, really wanted was to ignore Mother’s Day altogether, to stay in their pajamas with their two surviving children, turn off their phones and reward themselves for making it through another day with a glass of Irish whiskey neat.
“Our purpose now is to force people to remember,” Mark said, so down he went into his office to sift through 1,700 photos of the family they had been.
The Bardens had already tried to change America’s gun laws by studying the Second Amendment and meeting with President Obama in the Oval Office. They had spoken at tea party rallies, posed for People magazine and grieved on TV with Katie Couric. They had taken advice from a public relations firm, learning to say “magazine limits” and not “magazine bans,” to say “gun responsibility” and never “gun control.” When none of that worked, they had walked the halls of Congress with a bag of 200 glossy pictures and beseeched lawmakers to look at their son: his auburn hair curling at the ears, his front teeth sacrificed to a soccer collision, his arms wrapped around Ninja Cat, the stuffed animal that had traveled with him everywhere, including into the hearse and underground.
Almost six months now, and so little had gotten through. So maybe a Mother’s Day card. Maybe that.
Mark turned on his computer and began looking for the right picture. “Something lighthearted,” he said. “Something sweet.” He had been sitting in the same chair Dec. 14, when he received an automated call about a Code Red Alert, and much of the basement had been preserved in that moment. Nobody had touched the foosball table, because Daniel had been the last to play. His books and toy trains sat in their familiar piles, gathering dust. The basement had always been Daniel’s space, and some days Mark believed he could still smell him here, just in from playing outside, all grassy and muddy.
Now it was Daniel’s face staring back at him on the computer screen, alit in an orange glow as he blew out seven candles on a birthday cake in September.
“Oh God. His last birthday,” Mark said, rubbing his forehead, scanning to the next photo, knowing the chronology that came next.
Daniel dressed as an elf for Halloween. Daniel grinning after his hair was cut short on Dec. 4. Daniel in a video taken a week before his death, wearing reindeer horns and carrying cookies to the neighbor’s house. “Bye, Dad,” he was saying.
Next came a photo Mark had taken early that last morning. He and Daniel had been lying on the couch, half asleep, after the rest of the family had left for school. Daniel had noticed how the sunrise and the Christmas lights were reflecting on the window, like a red-and-orange kaleidoscope. “Wow,” he had said. Mark had grabbed his camera and taken a picture of the window, and now he was searching that picture for a trace of Daniel’s reflection in the glass, zooming in, running his fingers against the screen.
“He has to be in here,” Mark said. Maybe he had taken another. He flipped to the next picture, but it was from four days later, of a police car parked in front of their house.
It sometimes felt to Mark in these moments like his grief was still deepening, like the worst was yet to come. After the gunfire, the funerals, the NRA protests and the congressional debates, they were finally coming into the lonely quiet. They were coming to the truth of what Newtown would become. Would it be the transformative moment in American gun policy that, in those first days, so many had promised? Or another Columbine, Virginia Tech, Gabby Giffords, Aurora — one more proper noun added to an ever-growing list? The FBI had closed its temporary Newtown office. Politicians in Washington were moving on to other issues. Scariest of all to Mark, he was starting to forget little things, too, losing pieces of Daniel to the recesses of his mind, so he had started a journal to log memories before they disappeared.
“I’m always one minute farther away from my life with Daniel,” he had written one day. “The gulf keeps getting bigger.”
He returned upstairs with four photos and brought them to Jackie in the living room. “For the Mother’s Day card,” he said. She looked at one that showed Daniel at 4, his freckled arms wrapped around her neck and his face buried into hers. She gasped. She touched her neck. “It physically hurts,” she said, reaching for Mark. “Stomach, arms, legs, chest.”
She had developed a habit in the last months of what her counselor called “defensive delusions,” when she would imagine for a few hours that Daniel was away at a friend’s house. Pretending helped her summon the energy to return a few e-mails or cook dinner, but the easiness of the mental game was starting to scare her. “Is it normal?” Jackie had asked the counselor at their last appointment. “Is this something other people do?”
“There is no normal,” the counselor had said. “There are only hard days to get through.”
So now, on this hard day, Jackie stared at the photo and considered whether to release another intimate moment to the world.
“Will it make a difference?” she asked Mark.
“I don’t know,” he said.
There were 26 of them in all — 26 victims, which meant 26 families left adrift, grasping for a way to continue on. Some found it in church, returning to the pews every Wednesday and Sunday with a Sandy Hook Bible group, lighting 26 candles each time they went. Others found it in the spiritual medium that contacted victims’ families on Facebook, offering to facilitate a private seance and “connect them with the other side.” Some started nonprofit foundations in their child’s name or escaped back into jobs in Manhattan or ordered wine by the case or planted 26 trees or considered moving out of state or installed blackout curtains for privacy. One mother took a job sorting corporate donations to the Newtown community fund, organizing 26,000 bottles of “Sandy Hook Green” nail polish and 2,600 wool blankets, because the magnitude of the donations helped reaffirm the magnitude of her loss.
What the Bardens chose to believe in during those first days was cause and effect, order and logic. America’s mental health system was broken, but they could fix it. Gun culture was extreme, but they could moderate it. This was the way they made sense of the world, which was why, less than a week after Daniel’s death, Mark and Jackie met with a start-up advocacy organization called Sandy Hook Promise and offered to help.
They had never owned or fired a gun, so they took trips with Sandy Hook Promise and the parents of four other victims to California and New York, where they learned about the National Rifle Association and technological advances in gun safety. The governor of Connecticut sent them drafts of new legislation. Vice President Biden briefed them on congressional voting procedures. Four times this year, Mark and Jackie traveled to Washington with their photographs of Daniel and met with two dozen senators to discuss a bill requiring universal background checks on gun purchases. When the measure came up for a vote in April, all four of the Bardens watched from the gallery: the father, a professional jazz guitarist who rarely had the desire to play anymore; the wife, an elementary school reading teacher who couldn’t imagine stepping back into a classroom; the eldest son, 13, fiddling with a Rubik’s Cube to quiet his anxiety; the daughter, 11, suddenly afraid of big cities, and loud noises, and darkness, and strangers.
When the Senate vote failed, Mark was asked to introduce President Obama for a speech in the Rose Garden. “Let’s go rip some bark off it,” Obama told him. And yes, Mark was angry, too — angry enough that his hands balled into fists and trembled at the podium — but mostly he was unmoored. “So what does all of this add up to now?” he had asked a White House employee later that day, when the speeches ended.
Because if it amounted to nothing at all, what was the logic, the order, the meaning of their broken lives?
What was the meaning of the anger he felt lately while shopping at Costco, hoping one of the strangers in the aisles might be a gun nut who would recognize and approach him, so he had an excuse to shout back?
What was the meaning of the endless tributes? A song performed in concert for Daniel because he liked music. A 5K race for Daniel because he liked to run. A mud festival for Daniel because he liked mud. A Play Day for Daniel because he liked to play. Then there were the boxes of mementos that filled a room in their house, gifts created and mailed by strangers: magnets bearing Daniel’s picture, paintings of him, wood carvings, wind chimes, T-shirts, pins and blankets stitched with a 10-foot image of his face. “To Our Angel,” the packages read — or to “Dan,” “Danny” or, weirdest of all, “Daniel Barden,” so formal and unfamiliar, like the etching on a headstone.
And what was the meaning of their new nighttime routine? All four of them crammed into one room in a five-bedroom house, three on a queen bed and one on the futon so they could will one another through the night, Jackie up every few hours, Mark closing his eyes and thinking about Daniel, always hoping he might come to him in a dream, even though he never did.
And then it was morning.
Down the stairs into the kitchen came the son, James, carrying his backpack and soccer cleats, ready for the 6:20 bus to junior high. “How are you today?” Jackie asked him, as she did every morning. “Pretty good,” he said, which was mostly true. He was starring on a competitive soccer team, working as a referee, playing bass in the school orchestra. “Can you believe these Barden kids?” one of Biden’s aides had said a few months earlier, after spending a morning with James. So polite. So resilient. But sometimes Jackie watched him from the window while he played soccer alone in the yard, where he had always played with Daniel. She thought he looked lost. “Want to talk about it with someone?” she had asked him. “I guess,” he had said, so now he was seeing a counselor who let him lie down in her office and work his Rubik’s Cube.
Next down the stairs came the daughter, Natalie, Newtown’s fifth-grade student of the month — a pianist and a violin player, a master of grade school hand-clapping games, a performer in the school musical. “Natalie is a social and academic marvel in my class,” one teacher had written in Natalie’s spring evaluation, not knowing that just getting her to class each morning had become a battle, because her newfound fear made her reluctant to leave home.
“I’m sick,” she said now, rubbing her eyes. “I don’t think I should go to school.”
“Probably just allergies,” Mark said. “You’ll be fine.”
“I should stay home,” she said.
“How many times do we have to have this conversation?” Jackie said.
“I don’t want to go.”
“Please stop it,” Jackie said.
“You’re so lucky,” Natalie said.
“You get to stay home.”
“Do you even know what you’re saying?” Jackie said, her voice louder now. “You think I’m home because I want to be? You think I wouldn’t rather be going on with my life, going to work? Lucky? I’m not even having this conversation.”
Jackie started to cry, and then Natalie started to cry. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Oh sweet pea,” Mark said, wrapping her into a hug, tearing up now, too. All three of them sat down for breakfast and then walked together to the bus stop. “Love you,” Natalie told them, settling in a window seat next to a friend, beginning a clapping game against the window. The bus rolled up the hill, and Mark and Jackie walked back to the house. Just them now. Nobody left to come downstairs. They sat in the living room sipping coffee in silence.
It had always seemed to them that this was the perfect house, in the perfect neighborhood, in the perfect town. They had often wondered: How did they get so lucky that life delivered them here? Mark had given up a touring career in Nashville, and Jackie had decided she could drive 45 minutes each way to her teaching job in Pawling, N.Y. They had borrowed money from both sides of the family and bought an unpretentious country house on a dead-end road, with an acre of wooded land where the kids could play freeze tag and leave out leftover food for hungry raccoons.
But lately everything about the house reminded them of Daniel, comfort and affliction all at once. Up there, on the ceiling, was the sticky toy he had bought in a vending machine and accidentally thrown too high. In the kitchen was the blender Mark had used to make him a smoothie each afternoon, always with four gummy vitamins at the bottom of the glass, always, in Daniel’s words, “the best one yet!” Out front was the dead-end road where he had waited for the school bus in a sprinter’s crouch each morning, so he could run alongside it for a block before climbing on board. Out back was the wooden play structure where he had knocked his head and bled for the first time, which sometimes made Mark and Jackie wonder about the last time. Had it been quick? Had he been scared? Had anybody held him?
“Let’s get out of here,” Mark said. “Let’s go get breakfast.”
“Someplace new,” Jackie agreed.
They drove nine miles outside of town to a small diner that a friend had once recommended. They had never been before. There were no memories here. A waitress led them to a booth by the window and handed over menus. “Perfect,” Mark said. The coffee tasted good. The restaurant was empty. They were the first customers of the day. The campy decor reminded Mark of a place he had liked in Nashville. “Pretty fun vibe,” he said. “I’m thinking about treating myself to the eggs Benedict,” Jackie said. “Yum,” Mark said.
Now another car pulled into the restaurant lot, carrying the second customers of the day, and out of all the people in central Connecticut, and all of the possible places and times for them to eat, these were two whom the Bardens recognized: a mother and her young son, who had been Daniel’s classmate in kindergarten.
“Do you remember the Bardens?” the mother asked her son, bringing him over to their booth.
“Hi!” the boy said, sitting down at the table next to them.
“Let’s let them enjoy their breakfast,” the mother told her son, sensing the awkwardness of the moment, pointing him to another table in the corner of the restaurant. She turned back to the Bardens: “I’m sorry. He’s excited. It’s his birthday.”
“Oh wow,” Jackie said.
“So nice,” Mark said.
“Seven,” the mother said, following her son to the other table.
“Should we leave?” Jackie said, whispering to Mark, once the mother was out of earshot. “Would it be easier?”
“It might be,” Mark said.
But instead they sat at the table and watched as the waiter brought the boy a gigantic waffle covered in powdered sugar, berries and whipped cream. They watched as the waiter stuck a candle into the center of that waffle, and as the mother sang “Happy Birthday” and took a picture with her phone. They watched as the boy swept his fingers through the whipped cream, smearing it across his mouth and face while his mother laughed. “You’re so silly,” she said.
This boy, who had ended up in the other first-grade class at Sandy Hook Elementary.
This boy, who had hidden in the other bathroom.
“Oh God,” Jackie said, shoulders trembling, questions and doubts tumbling out as she tried to catch her breath. “Why did we wait to enroll him in school?” she said. “He could have started a year earlier. He could have been in second grade. He was old enough.”
“We were thinking about what was best for him,” Mark said, knowing the cycle that was starting, the blame, the need for absolution. “We wanted him to be one of the oldest.”
“So he would be a leader and not a follower,” Jackie said, nodding.
“So he would be confident,” Mark said.
“So he wouldn’t be last to get his driver’s license,” she said.
They sat at the booth and thought about Daniel at 16. The coffee had gone cold. The eggs sat on their plates. The boy and his mother stood up to leave, walking past their table. “We had to eat in a hurry today,” the mother said. She explained that her son’s name and birth date were going to be read over the loudspeaker during the morning announcements at school, and he wanted to be there in time to hear it.
“Take care,” the mother told them.
“Bye!” the boy said, and Mark and Jackie watched as he ran to the parking lot.
A few days later, Mark and Jackie decided to go to Delaware. “Who even cares about Delaware?” Natalie had asked as they began to pack, and so they had explained to their daughter what political advisers had explained to them: that momentum for gun laws had stalled in Washington, and that the best remaining chance was to build momentum state by state, one incremental law at a time.
In Delaware that meant House Bill 58, championed by Democratic Gov. Jack Markell, who had called it “a historic and sweeping measure.” But when Mark began researching the bill on his computer in the days before the trip, what he mostly noticed was the addendum of exceptions. The bill proposed to make it illegal to possess high-capacity magazines of 10 bullets or more in the country’s second-smallest state — unless you only possessed those magazines at your house, which was okay; or on private property, which was also okay; or at a shooting range, which was fine; or if you were carrying a high-capacity magazine separately from a firearm, which would still be permitted; or if you were law enforcement or retired law enforcement or active military or a licensed firearms dealer, in which cases you were exempt. First-time violators would face a misdemeanor charge and a $75 fine. “Like a traffic ticket,” Mark told Jackie.
The NRA had dispatched two lobbyists to the state Capitol in opposition of the bill. Markell did not want to schedule a vote until he knew he had the 21 votes necessary to pass it, and he was still three or four short.
“Your heartfelt, personal stories might still help us make history,” one of the governor’s aides had written in an e-mail invitation to Sandy Hook families.
At the moment, it was the only history there was to make, and the best invitation they had, so Mark and Jackie traveled with a group that included a public relations specialist, the director of Sandy Hook Promise and the parents of two other victims: Nicole Hockley, mother of Dylan; and Nelba Marquez-Greene, mother of Ana. They took a car to a train to another car to a hotel located alongside a commercial highway on the outskirts of Dover. “What brings you to Delaware?” asked a cheery 18-year-old at the front desk, and for a few seconds the parents stared back at him in awkward silence. “Life, I guess,” Mark said, finally. “Bad luck,” Hockley said, with a slight smile. “Is this personal travel or business?” the hotel employee said, looking at his computer. “Both. It is personal business travel,” Mark said, and the parents laughed.
They went to the Capitol the next morning for a meeting with the governor’s staff to discuss their trip. “Basically, we want to make sure to maximize this visit,” the lieutenant governor told them, explaining that there would be a news conference, a lunch with lawmakers and dinner at the governor’s residence. One of the governor’s aides handed out head shots of all 41 state lawmakers, divided into who was a soft no or a soft yes. The parents’ mission, he explained, was to walk the halls of the Capitol and give their children’s photos to anyone who would take them. A survivor of the Virginia Tech shooting already had come to Delaware to lobby. Gabby Giffords’s husband already had come. “We think you all are the extra difference,” the aide said.
He said a last-minute opportunity had arisen for the parents to be recognized during a moment of silence on the House floor. Were they interested?
“We don’t love those,” Hockley said. “It is a little like being the exhibit in a museum.”
“I understand,” the staffer said. “We just want every one of these lawmakers to see you. We want them to feel your loss and understand what’s at stake.”
“Will they read off the victims’ names?” Mark asked, dreading that.
“And the ages?” he asked, dreading that, too.
Mark looked across the table at Hockley. She grimaced and shrugged. He looked over at Jackie. She nodded.
“Okay then,” Mark said.
They were led to seats in the House chamber, where a junior lawmaker recited the Pledge of Allegiance. “Today we have some special guests,” she said, and 41 lawmakers turned to look. “Will our guests please stand?” she said, and the parents stood. “Please come up here,” she said, and they did that, too. The room went quiet as she began reading the names.
Daniel Barden. Seven. Dylan Hockley. Six. Ana Marquez-Greene. Six. Six. Six. Six. Seven. Six. How long could one minute last? Mark looked at the lawmakers and tried to pick out the three who already had refused to meet with the Newtown parents. Could he barge into their offices? Wait at their cars? Jackie counted the seconds in her head — “breathe, breathe,” she told herself — believing she was holding it together until a lawmaker handed her a box of tissues. Hockley saw the tissues and thought about how she rarely cried anymore except for alone at night, unconscious in her sleep, awakening to a damp pillow. Marquez-Greene listened to the names and pictured her daughter dressed for school that last day: pudgy cheeks, curly hair and a T-shirt decorated with a sequined purple peace sign — a peace Marquez-Greene was still promising to deliver to her daughter every night when she prayed to her memory and whispered, “Love wins.”
The gavel banged. The moment of silence ended. The parents sat back in their chairs.
“Next is a motion to recognize National Nurses Week,” the House speaker said. “All in favor?”
“A motion to recognize women’s clubs for the important role they play.”
“A motion to honor a champion among us, one of our own, the winner of the state peach pie eating contest . . .”
“A motion to recognize another special guest, here on her vacation, the mother of one of our lawmakers . . .”
“Let’s go,” Mark said, standing up in the middle of the session, motioning for the other parents to follow. They walked upstairs into a private conference room. “This gets more surreal every day,” Hockley said. “Crazy,” Mark said. How was it, they wondered, that government could roll through its inconsequential daily agenda but then stall for months on an issue like gun control? They had seen polls that showed 80 percent of Delaware residents favored a ban on high-capacity magazines. Ninety percent of Americans wanted universal background checks. But in the months since the shooting in Newtown, only a handful of states with already-stringent gun laws had managed to pass stricter laws. Most states had done nothing, and the U.S. Senate had postponed another vote.
“Some of those lawmakers in there didn’t want to look at us,” Mark said.
“Just squirming,” Hockley said.
“It’s exhausting,” Jackie said, rubbing her eyes.
They drove back to the hotel, where the same teenage employee was waiting for them at the front desk. “How’d it go today?” he asked. He explained that some of the hotel staff had been watching the local TV news, and they had learned the exact nature of this group’s personal business. One of the employees, a bartender in the restaurant, had stayed up all night creating a tribute. She had scoured the Internet for pictures of Dylan Hockley and Daniel Barden and placed a rushed order for customized frames. “Please follow me to the bar,” the front desk employee said now. The parents walked with him into a corner of the restaurant that was dark except for the glow of 26 candles, which had been placed on a table next to framed photos of their children. “Our Angel Dylan,” one frame read. “Our Angel Daniel,” read the other. The table was secluded behind velvet rope, and the bartender came over with a bottle of whiskey.
“Please sit,” the bartender said, and the only thing the parents could think to do was to thank her, fill their glasses and drink fast before going upstairs to bed.
They were tired. They missed the kids. They were ready to go home. But there was still more to do. Before the parents left Delaware, they had a news conference with the governor.
They met with him privately first in a hallway at the Capitol. “Thank you for being here,” he said. The parents handed him pictures of their children, and he studied each one for a long minute, repeating their names out loud. “Dylan.” “Ana.” “Daniel.” He touched the pictures to his chest and nodded at the parents. “Look, the courage that you have shown to be here today . . . well, what can I even say?” he told them.
The parents followed him into his office, which two assistants had staged for the news conference. “It’s a casual and not a heavy,” one of the press assistants had told the parents, explaining how they would sit with the governor and answer questions while the media taped B-roll. The governor sat at the head of the coffee table. Jackie and Mark held hands on a couch under a chandelier. Hockley and Marquez-Greene sat across from them. Fifteen cameras and 12 reporters crowded into the room. “A good turnout for a small market,” the governor’s press secretary said, motioning for another staffer to close the door.
“Okay. We’re on,” the press secretary said, nodding to the governor.
He looked up at the row of cameras. He held up the victims’ pictures. He repeated their names. He touched the photos to his chest. “Look, the courage that you have shown to be here today . . . well, what can I say?” he told the parents again.
Jackie sat on the couch while the governor kept talking and thought about the first time her family had discussed guns, two days after Daniel’s death. Natalie had suggested something that Mark and Jackie thought was simple and beautiful: Why not collect all the guns and bury them at the bottom of the ocean, where they would rot and decay? They had encouraged her to write a letter to the president about her idea, which she had done: “My name is Natalie Barden and I wanted to tell the president that only police officers and the military should get guns,” she had written.
But the past five months had taught Mark and Jackie that simplicity and innocence didn’t work in politics. Neither did rage or brokenness. Their grief was only effective if it was resolute, polite, purposeful and factual. The uncertain path between a raw, four-minute massacre and U.S. policy was a months-long grind that consisted of marketing campaigns, fundraisers and public relations consultants. In the parents’ briefing book for the Delaware trip, a press aide had provided a list of possible talking points, the same suggestions parents had been given in Illinois, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
“We are not anti-gun. We are not for gun control. We are for gun responsibility and for gun safety laws,” one suggestion read.
“I am here today to honor my child’s memory,” read another.
“The Sandy Hook shooter used 30-round magazines. He fired 154 bullets in four minutes, murdering 20 children and six adults,” read one more.
Now, at this latest news conference, the governor finished his introduction and a reporter raised his hand to ask a question. “This one is for the parents,” he said. “How would a high-capacity ban prevent something like the carnage at Sandy Hook?”
Carnage? Mark squeezed Jackie’s hand. She stared down at the floor. He looked up at the cameras.
“The bills on the table here make good, common sense,” he said.
“This is not about banning or confiscation,” Hockley said.
“We are here to honor our children,” Marquez-Greene said.
“Our shooter used high-capacity magazines to fire 154 bullets,” Hockley said.
“Please know, this is not about gun control but gun responsibility,” Mark said, as the governor nodded in affirmation.
“So polished,” the press secretary told Mark afterward, squeezing his shoulder, and it was true. He never lost his temper. He always made eye contact. He spoke in anecdotes that were moving and hopeful.
But sometimes the story Mark really wanted to share was the unpolished one, the one that never seemed right for a news conference, or a vigil, or a meet and greet, or the Oval Office, or a TV interview, or a moment of silence, or a Mother’s Day card. Sometimes what he really wanted to tell them was what it was like in his house on another unbearable morning, like the one a few days earlier.
All of them awake again in the same room.
James to the bus.
Natalie to the bus.
And then it was upon them, the worst hour of the day, from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m., when Daniel had been alone with them in the house waiting for his bus. They had tried many ways of passing that hour: out to breakfast, back in bed, walking or hiring a trainer to meet them at the gym. A few times they had decided to wait for Daniel’s bus themselves, standing at the end of the driveway and climbing the four steps to hug Mr. Wheeler, the longtime bus driver who had loved Daniel and delivered a eulogy about how the boy raced his school bus, running sideways and backward in the grass, tripping and tumbling with his green backpack.
On this particular morning, the Bardens saw their next-door neighbor on the sidewalk at 7:30 and invited her in for coffee. She was a mother of three, including a second-grade girl who had been one of Daniel’s best friends. Before his death, the neighbor had come for coffee often, but lately the Bardens found it easier to see her less.
“Come visit,” Mark said.
“Are you sure?” the neighbor asked.
“It will be good,” Jackie said. “We’ve been trying to talk more about Daniel.”
So the neighbor came inside, poured coffee and started to tell stories they all knew. About how her daughter and Daniel had shared so many secrets, games they played for hours in the driveway and refused to tell anyone else about. About how Daniel had excused himself from a pizza party at her house five nights before his death, because the adults were watching “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” in the living room, and Daniel, an old soul and a rule follower, had said: “This language probably isn’t appropriate for me.”
Then she started telling another story, one the Bardens had never heard before, one about that day. The neighbor said her second-grade daughter had lost her glasses while scrambling to hide in her classroom during the chaos of the shooting. The girl had clung to her teacher’s leg on the way out of the school, unable to see anything, and she had still been clinging to that leg when her mother found her alive at the firehouse an hour later. She had brought her daughter home and, later that night, tried to tell her about Daniel. But her daughter had screamed not to say his name, that his name was now one of their secrets. She had sat by the window in her room and looked across the woods to Daniel’s room, as she always did, and she had sobbed because she couldn’t see it without her glasses.
“She loved him,” the neighbor was saying now.
“Oh God,” Jackie said. “It’s too much. Please stop.”
“I’m sorry,” the neighbor said, reaching for a box of tissues. “I, I . . . I shouldn’t have.”
“It’s okay,” Mark said, but now his mind was back inside the school that morning, where it sometimes went. Jackie’s imagination walked Daniel to the door of his classroom and no farther. She wanted to protect herself from the details, so she had left the box containing Daniel’s clothes from that day untouched and unlooked at in the attic, where state troopers had deposited it a few weeks after his death. Mark, however, felt compelled to know. For seven years, two months and 17 days, he had known every detail of Daniel’s life — the teeth that were just beginning to come in, the way his hands moved as they played “Jingle Bells” that morning on the piano — so it seemed necessary that he should also know every detail of its end. He had asked law enforcement officers to give him a tour of the school, which was still an active crime scene, and he had gone there one Friday morning while Jackie stayed home. The officers had walked him through the attack, all four minutes and 154 rounds, and because of that Mark could precisely picture the shooter, with his Bushmaster rifle, his earplugs and his olive green vest, firing six holes into the glass front door. He could hear the shouting over the intercom in the main office, where the principal had been shot, and he could hear the shooter’s footsteps on the linoleum hallway as he walked by one first-grade classroom and into the next, Daniel’s. He could see the substitute teacher scrambling to move the children into the corner, where there was a small bathroom. He could see all 15 of them huddled in there, squeezed together, and somewhere in that pile he could see Daniel.
Mark could see himself that morning, too, rushing out of the house at 10, knowing only that shots had been fired at Sandy Hook and parents would be reunited with their children at the firehouse. Jackie had started driving from Pawling, calling and texting him again and again. “Do you have him?” “DO YOU HAVE HIM YET?” A priest had announced that the principal had been killed, and Mark had wondered: “How will we explain this to Daniel?” Then the same priest had said 20 children were also dead, and there was shrieking and vomiting in the firehouse, and Mark had imagined Daniel running alone in the woods behind the school. He was fast. He had escaped.
Then the governor was in front of them, and he was saying, “No more survivors,” and a state trooper was driving Mark and Jackie home. Mark was sitting in the passenger seat, dazed and quiet and looking over at the state trooper, who had begun to weep.
“I should have waited with you at the school until the end,” the neighbor said now, in the kitchen.
“No,” Mark said. “You had to get your daughter home.”
“Oh dear God,” the neighbor said.
“I feel sick,” Jackie said, standing up and then sitting back down.
The neighbor looked at the clock and saw it was almost 8:30, time to walk her daughter to the bus. “I have to go,” she said, hugging the Bardens, leaving them at the kitchen table. Jackie poured more coffee. Mark checked his phone messages. Jackie walked outside to get the mail and brought it into the living room. Mark opened a package from Minnesota that contained a Sherpa blanket and a note that read: “We will never forget.”
The school bus came. The school bus went.
“What do you want to do?” Mark asked, and in that moment, the answer to both of them was clear.
“What can we do?” Jackie said.
“Nothing,” Mark said, and he sank down next to her on the couch.