NEWTOWN, Conn. — Tangible reminders of the massacre still linger. On the door of the Blue Colony Diner, next to the quarter candy dispensers, a frayed sticker clings to the glass. A teddy bear with wings cradles a smaller bear, alongside a message declaring that the town’s “26 Angels” are “Always Here, Never Forgotten.”
Not all the signs of the bloodshed that erupted five years ago at Sandy Hook Elementary are as visible. But they exist — in the features of the new school building, like bullet-resistant windows and reinforced walls, meant to ease the fears of parents still haunted by memories of a 20-year-old man storming into the old building and killing 20 first-graders and six adults in a spray of gunfire.
There is also the uncomfortable silence that creeps into everyday conversations — at soccer games and in pediatricians’ offices, where doctors wonder if their patients’ symptoms stem from trauma. The town struggles to figure out how to talk about what happened. But the community quickly developed a shorthand to refer to it: “the tragedy,” or “12/14,” the date of the anniversary, which is occurring yet again. Some say they know it is coming — this “season of extra mourning,” as one teacher described it — as soon as the sun starts setting earlier in the fall.
“It’s still so raw,” said a mother whose son and daughter attend elementary school in town.
“We’re all just holding our breath,” she added, declining to be identified out of concern about offending relatives of the victims. “We don’t know what to do.”
In the five years since the shooting, which transformed a fairly anonymous Connecticut town into a buzzword in the caustic national debate on gun violence, armed men have killed people at a nightclub, an outdoor music festival, a social services center, movie theaters, a church in South Carolina and a church in Texas.
The displays of grief follow a familiar routine: Candlelight vigils and makeshift memorials. National offerings of thoughts and prayers. Pleas to tighten gun laws, immediately trailed by calls to avoid politicizing a tragedy.
But to see Newtown in 2017 is to see how grief endures and evolves, and how a community can, however fitfully, negotiate a way forward. It is an uncomfortable process, involving a delicate dance between not wanting to dwell on the loss and not wanting to stray from a vow to never forget.
“It’s a very tricky balance,” said Abbey Clements, who was a second-grade teacher at Sandy Hook. She sat in the cold and dark outside a Starbucks just over the town line, where she had asked to meet reporters because she worried about upsetting people who might overhear. “We work really hard to be resilient and strong,” she said. “And I think it’s OK to recognize that we’re still grieving, and that we should never forget. We don’t want to forget.”
The shooting punctured the sense of security that blanketed Newtown, a quiet and bucolic New England community, and stunned a country that could not comprehend an act as depraved as mowing down 6- and 7-year-old children. That day, an emotional President Barack Obama dabbed his eyes as he addressed the nation.
The shock waves have, by now, faded to something more subtle. Yet they still ripple through the town, stirring concentric circles of anguish, leaving people with varying degrees of pain and differing sets of struggles. The victims’ relatives are at the core. Beyond them are the teachers and students who witnessed the carnage and chaos that day; the police officers, emergency workers and doctors who responded to it; and then an entire community.
“It’s almost impossible to ask the question, ‘How is the town doing?’ It depends entirely on who you ask,” said David Wheeler, whose 6-year-old son, Benjamin, was killed. “One of the things an event like this does — it doesn’t change you, it simply heightens who you already are. There are beautiful, meaningful, thoughtful and very kind gestures at every turn, from people you know well and people you don’t know at all.”
A father finds solace in activism
Twenty-six families had 26 different ways to respond. Some withdrew, seeking space and solitude. Some formed charitable foundations and organized fundraisers. And there were some, like the Wheelers, who leapt into activism.
This month, Wheeler traveled by plane and church van to Grinnell, Iowa, a small college town about an hour’s drive east of Des Moines. He had come for a screening of a documentary about the shooting and a demonstration outside the headquarters of Brownells Inc., a gun company whose chief executive, Pete Brownell, was elected president of the National Rifle Association this year.
On a long, flat highway to Grinnell, wind jostled the van as it passed a billboard advertising Brownells’ long guns. Wheeler leaned his head against the window as others who had also traveled from Newtown discussed the best places for trick-or-treating (around the flagpole, a landmark in Newtown), the Thanksgiving turkey trot race and the weather forecast for Grinnell (cold, windy).
“How old would Ben be?” asked Mary Ann Jacob, who was a library aide at Sandy Hook who helped hide more than a dozen children, hushing them as they heard gunfire.
“Eleven,” Wheeler replied. Ben would be a sixth-grader now.
His older son is 14, and he had been cast in a high school play. His younger son, who was born after Ben’s death, is 3.
The Wheelers are one of nine families, along with a teacher who was shot and survived, who have sued the companies that manufactured and sold the military-style assault rifle used in the attack by Adam Lanza, the gunman. After years of legal back and forth, the families are awaiting a decision from the Connecticut Supreme Court.
The Wheelers, like the other families, have faced harassment. Searching for the names of parents or survivors online makes for a quick trip into a virtual sewer of conspiracy theories and claims that the shooting was a hoax.
And then there are the messages Wheeler regularly receives on social media. However, he said, “my favorite one came in the mail.” Someone had written out the Second Amendment on a ruled piece of paper and ripped the top and the bottom of the page “as if it was parchment.”
“I thought it was hysterical,” he said, “almost like performance art.”
Leaning on a faraway friend
A few weeks after the shooting, teachers from Columbine High School in Colorado, which had endured its own deadly shooting, came to Connecticut. Clements’ husband drove through a snowstorm to make sure she would be there. Returning to Sandy Hook seemed like an impossible task, but it was necessary.
“It was like you knew you were waking up every day to be there for those kids,” she said. “It got you up in the morning, through the exhaustion and answering questions you didn’t know how to answer.”
Her son, then 11, craved normalcy, the life he lived before Dec. 14. Her daughter, then a junior in high school, responded by becoming an activist, and now, as a senior at Georgetown University, she continues to be engaged.
As Clements returned to the classroom, she and the other teachers relied on each other, she said. They were “almost like comrades after a war.” They understood each other.
She relied on the help of teachers outside the school, as well. Among all the mail that the school received was a letter from another second-grade teacher, offering to be Clements’ pen pal. They have never met in person, but they continue to correspond.
About three years ago, Clements decided to make a change. She would leave Sandy Hook for another school in the district and switch to fourth grade. She dreaded breaking the news to her pen pal but was relieved by her response: She was about to start teaching fourth grade, too.
Communities marked by pain
Dr. William Begg, the director of emergency medical services at Danbury Hospital, remembered the “complete hopelessness” he felt as patients were brought in after the shooting and how little, if anything, could be done for them. Three people were brought to the hospital, and two of them died.
Since then, he has witnessed the insidiousness of lingering trauma as it has coursed through the bloodstream of the community and the various ways it has revealed itself, especially in the children who were in the school and in the siblings of the victims.
“So,” he said at his kitchen table before a hospital shift, “the aftermath and damage of the Sandy Hook tragedy continues.”
The shooting compelled him to enter the wider discussion on gun violence. It took time to figure out his place, but he eventually settled on addressing gun violence as a public health issue, like cigarette smoking. He has pushed for more research and pointed out that wounds from assault rifles can be far more devastating than those caused by less powerful firearms.
Two recent shootings have reminded him of what Newtown has had to endure: the one at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, and especially the one at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. These places now face a similar plight. “My heart breaks for them,” Begg said.
The shooting in Sutherland Springs had the same death toll as the one at Sandy Hook. It also happened in a place that was largely unknown before falling under the spotlight brought by horrific violence. It is something that binds itself to a community and its identity, and it follows residents wherever they go.
“When you say you’re from Newtown, you have to be ready to answer those questions,” Begg said. “I will not say I’m from Newtown unless I have to.” He added, “If they say, ‘Where are you from?’ I’ll say, ‘I’m from Connecticut.’ If I don’t want to have the conversation, I’ll say, ‘I’m from Waterbury, Connecticut.’ That’s where I grew up.”
Memorializing a tragedy
Dan Rosenthal took office recently as first selectman, following his father and grandfather in the job, which is the equivalent of mayor. Whatever Newtown has wrestled with, he said, its character is no different from when his forefathers led the town.
“We didn’t want to be defined by this,” Rosenthal said. “I still think we haven’t been defined by it.”
“The world has seen Newtown in a different light, obviously, and is more aware of Newtown,” he added, “but it’s still very much, in my view, the same town that I knew and loved as a kid. It’s that same place. It’s a special place.”
After the shooting, the town was inundated with offers of support and heaps of donations — letters, paper cranes, 65,000 teddy bears. Early on, officials pleaded with outsiders to stop sending things. And for the first anniversary, town leaders and school officials implored the news media to stay away. The town avoided public events or tributes, and it has done so since then.
The town is planning a permanent memorial, which will be set on a 5-acre parcel near the school. Design guidelines issued by the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial Commission described its hope for “an inspirational setting in which to remember the victims of the tragic event that shocked the Newtown community and the world.”
Simplicity and plants that attract butterflies and other wildlife are welcome. References to “12/14” or the number 26, literal depictions of the victims, and designs involving playground equipment should be avoided.
“People haven’t taken that deep breath of, ‘Is this ever going to end?” said Kyle Lyddy, the commission’s chairman. “It isn’t. We have to get used to living with this new normal.”
As the anniversary neared, Christmas lights lined the roofs of houses, and garlands looped around lampposts along a main street. Residents gathered for tree-lighting events. And at the firehouse in front of the elementary school — a landmark seared into the memories of many as the place where families learned their children or relatives were dead — dozens of bundled-up conifers had been propped up outside, awaiting a tree sale.
On the front of the firehouse, beside its towering doors, was one of the few public markers, a plaque etched with names: Charlotte Bacon. Rachel D’Avino. Daniel Barden. Olivia Engel. Josephine Gay. Ana Marquez-Greene. Madeleine F. Hsu. Dylan Hockley. Dawn Hochsprung. Catherine V. Hubbard. Chase Kowalski. Jesse Lewis. James Mattioli. Grace McDonnell. Emilie Parker. Anne Marie Murphy. Jack Pinto. Noah Pozner. Caroline Previdi. Lauren Rousseau. Jessica Rekos. Mary Sherlach. Avielle Richman. Benjamin Wheeler. Victoria Soto. Allison N. Wyatt.
And on the roof were 26 copper stars. They had weathered some since they were installed. Even so, they maintained their luster in the last burst of golden, late-afternoon light that washed over Newtown before the darkness, which had been arriving earlier and earlier, set in.