Inside Newtown

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Photo by Brianne Bowen.

To get to Newtown, Connecticut, drive on Interstate 95 to Bridgeport and take Exit 27A onto Route 25, then go straight for 20 miles. The three-lane highway cuts through the deep New England woods before narrowing to two lanes. The speed limit goes from 55 to 40 and the road narrows to one lane, dipping and turning through the Connecticut hills as it squeezes its traffic past dark ponds, liquor stores and volunteer fire engines.

After passing through Trumbull and Monroe, the road comes to a hill that rises steeply for a quarter mile. At the top, in the middle of the road between the Episcopal Church and a public library is a flagpole first raised in 1876 and rising at least 75 feet above the road.

On the left, just past the flagpole, is the Newtown General Store, founded in 1847. The store provides the town with sandwiches, coffee, homemade jams and knickknacks. It is where teenagers go for lunch and where lifelong residents spot each other while buying their morning coffee. Inside the general store are two tables by the windows and two behind the counter, which is an enormous square covered in cookies and candies. At the back is a place to order sandwiches, some of which are named after places in town — the Queen Street, the Sandy Hook.

Just to the right of the general store is Edmond Town Hall, constructed in the 1930s, made of brick with marble columns in the center. Across the street from the town hall is the Honan Funeral Home.

At the flagpole, a left turn takes the road down a steep hill and past The Newtown Bee, the town paper owned by the same family since its founding in 1877. The road continues past two shopping centers and the St. Rose of Lima Church, rounds a corner and passes a sign welcoming visitors to Sandy Hook, a neighborhood and commercial area. It rolls by the Sandy Hook Diner and the Toy Tree before intersecting Washington Avenue. Continuing straight, up over a slight rise, a small one-story firehouse stands across from a wooden sign welcoming visitors to Sandy Hook Elementary School.

“It’s overwhelming” 

On Dec. 14, the drive into Newtown changed.

The flagpole by the public library was pulled down to half-mast. Two large electronic signs parked at the bottom of a hill, facing traffic in both directions, flashed, “Thanks to our heroes, God bless our angels,” 24 hours a day. Trumbull, Monroe and Newtown residents lit luminaries and placed them in their front yards, in town greens or just along the road. Sometimes they lit 26, sometimes 27, rarely 28.

Parents and teachers asked each other and themselves how to talk to kids about the 20 six- and seven-year-olds laying slain by three, four, seven, 11 hollow-point bullets on the floor of a classroom in Fairfield County.

A vigil at Newtown High School came two days after the shooting. The night before, President Obama announced he would attend, and any news channels yet to descend upon Newtown packed their bags and drove those 20 miles on Route 25.

Waiting in line for the vigil in the cold mist outside of Newtown High School on that Sunday night, Tamara and Christopher Spalvieri recounted the previous two days. Media trucks parked on their front lawn and knocked on their door in search of an interview while their ninth-grade son was home alone. “It’s overwhelming,” Tamara said.

They lived six blocks from the school, and their children, now in middle school and ninth grade, had attended Sandy Hook. They knew school psychologist Mary Sherlach, who died with principal Dawn Hochsprung while running toward the gunman, and Victoria Soto, who died shielding her students from the bullets. They remembered Sandy Hook as a community school that hosted Halloween parties and a harvest festival.

Christopher told me he’d been trying to pray all day, but had been prevented by a bomb threat at their church, St. Rose of Lima, by someone taking advantage of the influx of mourners.

The town was saturated with media, but their thoughts already ran to when the media would leave. It seemed that part of them wanted the media gone so they could grieve away from the cameras, but another part worried that once the media left, Newtown would be forgotten.

Tom Mahoney, a lifelong resident of Sandy Hook whose grandson previously attended the school and who volunteered there every Monday, stood next to the Spalvieris. He knew all of those killed.

They seemed in a daze, tossed suddenly into at once a deeply personal tragedy and a national debate. All three, in suggesting a ban on semi-automatic weapons, were more certain about the right way forward for the nation than their community. As for the future of Newtown, they were unsure.

“We’ll come though it,” Tom said. “But it’s not quite going to be the same anymore.”

Few spoke in the general store that week. A sign on the old coffee machine informed residents that the coffee was free, donated each day by a different American — on Dec. 19 the donor was the Floor Supply and Equipment Co. from Gardena, Calif., while a large basket of candy next to the register was donated by a woman named Theresa from Newman, Ga. Teenagers from the high school and home from college sat at the tables and looked out the window, unable to stomach the Sandy Hook sandwich as they looked at the lines outside the Honan Funeral Home across the street. Customers took complimentary copies of The Newtown Bee, in which a front-page editorial suggested the town was already on its way to healing and would refuse to allow the tragedy to define it.

The people of Newtown, narcotized by grief, walked through the store slowly. Beyond quiet words of reassurance and hugs, they seemed unsure of what to do with themselves. “This is the first time I’ve been out of the house,” one woman told a shopkeeper six days after the shooting. For a week, beyond attending funerals, there was little to be done.

In the following days, the circle around Newtown in which the flags still hung limply at half-mast grew ever smaller. People, more people all the time, came to leave things at the memorials that sprung up throughout the town in the first week. On the Saturday eight days after the shooting, men and women from New York, New Jersey and the rest of Connecticut, off work and for the first time able to make the drive to that oft-forgotten corner of Fairfield County, left notes, candles, figurines of the Madonna, wooden crosses carved with their own hands and teddy bears. Thousands of teddy bears of every variety. Some had names. Some came in boxes. Some were pink and small, others white and large.

A group of students from Red Lake, Minn., where in 2005 a student killed nine at his high school, came to provide support. Eight years ago, students from Columbine had come to them as well. A woman handed out slices of homemade apple pie in front of the town hall. Therapy dogs came, too. It rained incessantly, and the town hall struggled to shake the smell of wet golden retriever.

At the memorial closest to the school six days after the shooting, at night and long after the out-of-towners had headed home, a mother and her five-year-old son wandered through the Christmas trees donated anonymously and now covered in notes and ornaments. The multicolored lights strung over the firehouse, lighted before Christmas became a time of mourning, provided a somber light. While the mother looked down at the names of the boys and girls her son had gone to school with, the boy, dressed in a firefighter outfit, swung around the poles of the tents that sheltered the memorial from a coming storm.  After five minutes, the mother reached over to the boy, took his hand and began the walk up the hill.

“So bad people go to hell, right?” he asked her. “And good people go to heaven?”

“That’s right.”

Ideas normally reserved for fifth-graders, or even adults, have been thrust upon those in first grade.

 

Wind and rain slapped the half-masted flag at the top of the hill on the morning of Friday, Dec. 21, one week after the shooting. At 8 a.m. it seemed the sun was yet to rise. A media team of four from Boston ran into the general store, pants and hair drenched, to get coffee and breakfast while waiting for Governor Malloy to arrive for a moment of silence. The woman at the register said the coffee was still free. When the cameraman tried to pay and said uncomfortably, “But we’re not from here,” the woman replied almost in a whisper, “Don’t worry.” Neither looked the other in the eye.

The cameraman brought the coffee and four egg and bacon sandwiches to a table by the window. The three male technicians, wearing jeans, flannel and waterproof jackets, and the female reporter, wearing a pantsuit under a red windbreaker, said nothing to each other as they chewed on the sandwiches. They looked out across the street through the rain to the Honan Funeral Home, where in the days past boys who will not need to shave for 10 years lined up to say goodbye to their friends.

An hour later the governor arrived and greeted families in the dimly lit lobby of the town hall. Some families cried openly, others stood stoic. By then, most had buried their dead. Then at 9:30 a.m., the governor, along with Newtown First Selectwoman Pat Llodra and the families. stepped outside and into the glare of cameras on the sidewalk. As the wind and rain battered the families, the bells of Trinity Episcopal Church rang 27 times, and the nation hurried to the task of forgetting.

“Can we stop killing babies?”

Later that morning, Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s top lobbyist, told the nation, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” But Shannon Doherty, a lifelong Newtown resident who attended Sandy Hook told me three days later, “He’s not talking to us. We’re not his audience.”

As I spoke to Shannon just inside the door of his store – Wishing Well Gifts, which he owns with his wife Tamara — the sun was setting outside and the floodlights around the memorial were beginning to turn on. He looked out the window while speaking, subject to the same daze that still hovered over the town. He told me about why 26 were dead, most of their bodies destroyed by at least three bullets. The AR-15 Bushmaster, which Adam Lanza used that day to kill 26, is essentially the same gun as the M-16, which was designed in 1963 to kill as many humans as quickly as possible in the jungles of Vietnam.

Shannon paused for a moment, stood back, looked at the ground and shook his head before speaking again. The rounds were hollow-point bullets, which are prohibited internationally from military use but are widely available for American civilians. When a hollow-point bullet hits the body, especially when fired from a Bushmaster at supersonic speeds, it mushrooms, tearing everything in its path to shreds. When six-year-old Noah Pozner was shot 11 times with hollow-point bullets, there was nothing left.

“Enough of this bullshit,” Shannon said. Mental health care is an important discussion, he noted, but “in the meantime can we stop killing babies? Ban the fucking Bushmaster.”

When Shannon said the word “babies,” I was reminded of everything I had learned about the slain children: Benjamin Wheeler’s love of lighthouses, Jack Pinto’s obsession with the Giants, the fact that Noah Pozner loved tacos so much he wanted to become a taco factory manager. Maybe it is this innocence that will prompt us to change, the notion that the dead led short lives free of hatred, free of despair; the size of the coffins at 20 premature funerals; the fact that those coffins held victims whose last days had been spent not worrying about paying the mortgage, but rather thinking about frogs, dance recitals and tacos.

Tamara Doherty told me that the days following the shooting felt like Groundhog Day, the Bill Murray movie in which he relives the same day over and over. It feels like Groundhog Day not just for the people of Newtown, but for the people of this country who nevertheless refuse to be angry for longer than two weeks that the same scene has been replayed in Newtown as in Aurora, Colo.; Blacksburg, Va.; Littleton, Colo.; Tucson, Ariz. and hundreds of other towns across America. It feels like Groundhog Day because we keep killing each other and we keep forgetting.

“All of a sudden you start getting panic attacks”

One week after the shooting, on the evening of Friday, Dec. 21, 2,500 Newtown residents gathered on the fields of the abandoned campus of Fairfield Hills Hospital to light candles and remember. Unlike previous vigils, reporters were nowhere to be seen. After that morning’s moment of silence, the media vans parked at the town hall had headed back down Route 25.

The people of Newtown welcomed the disappearance of media vans from their front yards and reporters from the Starbucks on Church Hill Road, but did so cautiously. “We want the media out,” Sarah Farris, a college student who organized the Friday night vigil, said. “But we don’t want to be forgotten. We don’t want to be alone.”

Yet more than one month later, the embrace of a nation has lifted because of mere inattentiveness, while Newtown is still there.

The way forward is uncertain. Newtown residents all stress the resilience of this community of 28,000. But according to Neil Rattan, a Connecticut clinical psychologist specializing in trauma, as a town attempts to re-establish order there is a quiescent period of “building feelings of desperation.” Withdrawal and isolation, as well as increased drug and alcohol use — symptoms of broader emotional chaos — begin to surface within family units in the weeks after a tragedy. Children close to the incident act out more and perform worse in school.

For those closest to the tragedy — the ones most likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder — symptoms are unlikely to appear for as long as two years after the traumatic event. But the onset of the symptoms is not slow at all — “It’s the kind of thing that can come on you pretty quickly,” Rattan says. “All of a sudden you’re having panic attacks. All of a sudden you have moderate to severe depression.” Anything can trigger the emergence of symptoms: a commercial, a classroom.

The necessary counseling for Newtown is made all the more complicated by the ages of the survivors. Counseling is built upon the idea of meshing cognition and emotion, a capability 6-year olds lack. Therefore, Rattan says, parents and teachers should not push surviving children to talk about the tragedy, but should instead wait for them to open up, gradually providing more therapeutic opportunities and delving deeper into the horrors of December 14 as they grow older.

According to Rattan, the only way to make any dent in the trauma endured by teachers, janitors, first responders and students is to develop a highly organized counseling system that not only provides long-term counseling, but also trains teachers and parents how to effectively talk to the surviving children as they mature. The system needs to include mental health professionals willing to make a long-term commitment to the town. “This is not the job for newcomers,” Rattan says.

The 10 minutes of gunfire and ensuing hours of uncertainty — as parents waited in that firehouse for their children and children waited for their friends — will replay perpetually and compulsively in the minds of the people of Sandy Hook for the better part of a century, ingraining December 14, 2012 into the fabric of Newtown’s identity.

On a door of a house on Church Hill Road, right before the road bends into Sandy Hook, a sign in late December read “12/14, Never Forget,” not unlike the signs that hung on doors in this part of New England in the weeks after September 11. As the weeks wear on, Sandy Hook, Newtown and perhaps this nation will be faced with a question: Is December 14 Newtown’s September 11? September 11 changed the way we perceive our nation and ourselves. To Americans who lived through it, things were one way when we woke up on that clear Tuesday morning and fundamentally different when we woke up the next. And so the people of Newtown are faced with what is at heart the same question that this nation, 11 years ago, answered so unambiguously: Is the Newtown, Connecticut of December 15 the same place as the Newtown, Connecticut of December 13?

When Pat Llodra told the 2,500 assembled in the cold at that Friday night vigil, “We will prevail,” what she meant to tell them was that the answer to this question was “Yes.” The people of Newtown, the suburban mothers, fathers and children, have shown tremendous resilience — in their returns to work, to school and to the daily business of living — and will continue to do so.  “This is a town of 28,000,” Audrey Petschek, a Newtown resident of 20 years, said at the memorial by the school one afternoon. “But it feels like a town of 4,000.” That part of Newtown will refuse to change. But while The Newtown Bee asserted that the shooting would not come to define this rural community, and while the people of Newtown, in these first weeks, have remained confident in the town’s ability to heal, the fact remains that to this town, Dec. 14 will become what Sept. 11 is to this nation: a demarcation, a moment after which nothing is the same as it was before.

 

The flowers, candles and teddy bears, for the most part, have been taken away and will be ground apart, and their fragments eventually poured into the foundation of a permanent memorial. The flags have been brought back up.

The children of Newtown have gone back to school, although Sandy Hook Elementary now occupies what was once Chalk Hill School in Monroe. On the first day, their faces beamed through foggy bus windows as they pulled into the new school and, for the first time in weeks, a sense of normalcy.

The general store is noisier now and the coffee is no longer free. Neighbors still offer words of reassurance but speak louder. Teenagers, eating Queen Street and Sandy Hook sandwiches, no longer stare across the street to the funeral home. Instead they look at each other and, albeit with a slight hesitancy, allow themselves to laugh. But every now and then they look out the window across the street, and the Honan Funeral Home, with its white sideboards, green shutters and neatly trimmed lawn still stands there.

Someday Newtown will look the same as it did before December 14, save for a memorial nestled beside that firehouse deep in the Connecticut woods. The last teddy bear will have disappeared from the town’s intersections. The children who settled into desks at Sandy Hook Elementary at 9:30 on that December morning will eventually look out from the tables at the Newtown General Store. That will be when the truest and most permanent memorial to those lives, untouched by malice save for 10 minutes, will be most acutely needed: change in our laws, change in our culture and change in ourselves.

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