In the months after the shooting, the Parker family weighed their options: If they stayed in Newtown, they feared their family would be forever defined by the killings. But if they moved away, how could they create a new life without leaving Emilie behind?
On an autumn afternoon in Brush Prairie, Clark County, aspen trees drop golden leaves as a damp breeze pulls through the branches of tall cedars outside the home of Robbie and Alissa Parker. Painted pumpkins sit in the shade of their covered porch. A small fountain bubbles next to the front walk, where a child’s pail and shovel sit on a stone wall.
Inside, the picture is no less bucolic. Lines of hazy sunlight filter through the blinds in the family room where Robbie reads on a sofa with 9-year-old Madeline. Dressed in a long-sleeve turquoise shirt, stretchy black pants and baby pink socks, she curls up close to him. Robbie pulls her closer when she asks for help figuring out a word she doesn’t know.
“What’s a cul-de-sac?” she asks, her finger stopped on the unfamiliar word on the page.
Robbie leans over and explains it to her.
“Oh, like our street in Connecticut?” she asks, looking up at him.
“Sort of,” he replies.
The Parkers lived in Connecticut, in Newtown, when their oldest daughter Emilie was still alive. Sprinkled throughout their new home in Washington state are reminders of her life — a photo of the five Parkers surrounded by yellowing New England foliage, a frame Alissa made to display Emilie’s artwork. In the foyer hangs a small, framed poster of a playground in New London called “Emilie’s Shady Spot.”
Emilie Parker was one of the 20 first-graders killed by a gunman five years ago, on Dec. 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary School. A year after the shooting, Robbie, Alissa and their two younger daughters, Madeline and Samantha, drove to New London to dedicate the playground to Emilie. There, with about 100 volunteers, the Parkers helped build a pink, blue and black playground overlooking the Thames River.
In a concrete semicircle, volunteers carved “For You With Love Emilie” and Madeline and Samantha crouched to place their hands in the wet concrete, leaving their tiny handprints forever in Connecticut. It was one of the last things they’d do as a family in the state where Emilie was killed.
In the months after the shooting, as the family weighed whether to stay in Connecticut, the Parkers were forced to ask questions they never imagined they would have to consider:
If they stayed in Newtown, they feared their family would be forever defined by the killings. But if they moved away, how could they create a new life for their young family without leaving Emilie behind?
How could they be sure to remember Emilie, her creativity and joy and sense of wonder, without being overwhelmed by her death?
The Parkers moved to Newtown in January 2012 for Robbie’s job as a physician assistant in the neonatal intensive-care unit (NICU) at Danbury Hospital, falling in love with the town’s quaint center, its tall church steeple, the colonial houses, the general store. They bought a four-bedroom ranch on Country Squire Lane, a leafy cul-de-sac, thinking of all the milestones their daughters would hit in the home. It would be the house where they’d celebrate Emilie loosing her first tooth, getting a driver’s license, graduating from high school, leaving for college.
The Parkers quickly got to work making the home their own. Alissa and her father spent weeks tearing down walls and building closets. While the younger girls, 4-year-old Madeline and 3-year-old Samantha, would have rooms upstairs, Emilie’s bedroom would be in the finished basement, with an adjacent craft room for the budding artist.
The room became a special project for Alissa and her oldest daughter.
Emilie wanted to paint her room bright pink — her favorite color. Afraid it would be a bit too much, Alissa suggested a light gray for the walls to make her daughter’s pink accessories pop. Together they picked out a hot-pink bed and topped it with a white quilt covered in bright pink and baby-pink ruffles. Stuffed animals crowded the pillows. Emilie, artistically inclined and attentive to detail even at her young age, helped Alissa stencil black, blue and pink flowers on the walls of the room. Emilie chose pink curtains, and she and Alissa sewed matching pillows for the bed side-by-side on their sewing machines.
On the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, Alissa remembers how Emilie crawled into bed with her, put her face near Alissa and said a cheery “Hi, Mom.” They cuddled in the blankets. Alissa didn’t want the moment with her daughter to end and wished they could spend the day cuddled up inside.
But soon it was time to get ready for school. They went downstairs to Emilie’s bedroom to pick out her outfit for the day — an all-pink ensemble with a purple scarf Alissa’s mother had made tied round her neck. As they sat in her room, Emilie remarked that the large zinnia-like flowers painted across her bedroom wall were all separate, but also connected. Some had black petals and pink centers, while others had pink petals and black centers.
Alissa nodded her head and smiled.
They gathered up Madeline and Samantha and walked down to the bus stop at the end of street as a foursome. They had a routine. After a quick kiss, Emilie would wave from the bus as it pulled away.
That morning, Madeline had wandered off and gotten stuck on a hill while they waited for the bus. Alissa only had time to quickly hug Emilie before rushing off to help her younger daughter. Emilie didn’t wave from the bus that morning. Alissa remembers thinking: “It’s just this once.”
There are news photos of Robbie and Alissa from that day, pictures that capture the shock, the disbelief, but most of all the pain of learning the unthinkable had claimed the life of their little girl. In the days that followed, Alissa would wake up, look around the house and feel like throwing up.
“All of the love, the warmth I had felt there before was gone,” she said.
A few months later, the Parkers flew to Washington for a friend’s wedding. They had lived in the Pacific Northwest when Emilie was a toddler and Robbie was studying to be a physician assistant, spending their days going to picnics in the Portland Rose Garden, hiking the forests and playing together on the beaches.
There, the memories of Emilie were all happy ones: Emilie in a red dress and pink rain boots playing on the Oregon Coast. Emilie and Alissa sneaking up on seagulls. Emilie searching for sand dollars.
At the wedding, Robbie and Alissa found a moment of quiet together and were struck by how it felt to be 3,000 miles away from Newtown. They could breathe again. Robbie wondered out loud: Should they consider leaving Connecticut? They thought about it but wanted to make sure if they left Newtown they weren’t simply running away from their struggles. As part of their trip, Robbie visited with one of his old professors, who told him a position had opened up at a local NICU. She told Robbie if he were interested, she’d recommend him for the job.
Back home in Newtown, reminders of the shooting were everywhere. The town’s outpouring of grief took the form of green ribbons pinned to grocery store-clerk aprons; T-shirts with 12.14.12 emblazoned on them popped up at the gym. Trips to the grocery store became difficult. Robbie once went to Ikea 20 miles away and was hugged by three strangers.
“When I would drive anywhere, I knew the route the shooter had taken,” Alissa said. “I knew the route I had taken that day to the school and even if I went out of my way to not think about it or avoid these spots, I’d see people who had become a trigger for me.”
“It was for love and support, but for me, it was constantly reminding me of how my daughter lost her life,” Alissa said.
On the other hand, there were good reasons to stay.
“It might look like a no-brainer to some people on paper, but there was a lot of angst for us to leave the other families,” Robbie said. “They’d really been such a strong support, and we had built such a strong relationship with them as far as processing grief.
“To go rogue and come out here on our own and continue this process on our own. … That was something I really struggled with, and I had to convince myself that I was really capable of doing that on my own.”
In the end, the Parkers decided to move, to resettle in a place where they could control how much the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary defined their story. They decided they did not want to remember Emilie as a victim, and they didn’t want the way she died to eclipse the way she’d lived.
“It wasn’t something that was going to follow us, every moment of our lives,” Alissa said.
By the end of the summer, Robbie had been offered a job in Vancouver, Wash., about 10 miles north of Portland. But before they could move, they would have to sell the house in Newtown, the gray ranch tucked into the woods they’d so lovingly turned into a home. Alissa recoiled at the idea of strangers looking into Emilie’s room with the carefully stenciled flowers.
Robbie pulled out cans of paint and covered Emilie’s room in tarps while Alissa sat and watched. They took apart the pink bed and pulled down the curtains. The couple cried as they took down the physical reminders of Emilie’s life.
“I was rolling over this historic moment in our family’s history — this really sweet, fantastic moment between a mom and her daughter, and I’m just rolling over it with paint,” Robbie said.
But once the colorful walls became simply gray, they found a weight had been lifted off their shoulders.
“After the shooting, I didn’t have control over how people talked about her. I didn’t have control over what was said about her,” Alissa said. “There was a point where I wasn’t sure I would have control over the images of her from that day from the crime scene.”
“But this, I had preserved that just for us,” she said. “Nobody else would have that but our family.”
The day before Halloween, when Madeline and Samantha come home from school, the quiet house outside Vancouver fills with giggles, urgent questions and flashes of pink and turquoise as the girls fly from one room to another putting on jackets to play outside. Samantha puts on pink rain boots, swapping out the white unicorn-themed sneakers, complete with a purple horn sprouting out of the toecap, she’d worn to school.
When the family moved to the three-acre property nearly four years ago, they got chickens to keep outside. A coyote killed the chickens recently, but the coop now has new tenants — a pair of kittens named Pirate and Orion.
“Look, he likes pink, Sam,” Madeline says, pointing to one of the kittens climbing over Samantha’s boots.
The girls would play that way in Newtown, too, three sisters building cities out of blocks, Emilie performing tricks with her hula hoop. They’d have tea parties at the kitchen table and paint side-by-side in the craft room. When Robbie came home from work, Emilie would have her sisters in hiding spots around the house to jump out at him.
For Robbie and Alissa, the question of the girls was a delicate one. Their challenge was finding a way to create a happy childhood for their daughters, while also preserving the memory of their big sister.
“They were this rat pack of sisters,” Robbie sighs.
Madeline and Samantha have had to grow up learning how to talk about Emilie and how to manage the reaction of people who understand the magnitude of the tragedy far better than they might at 8 and 9. When they share their story, Samantha and Madeline wonder, why does everyone hug us? Are we famous?
No, Alissa and Robbie say. It just means what happened to your sister was very sad.
Back inside the house, through the evening meal preparation, conversations ebb and flow. Robbie and Alissa catch up with an occasional interruption from Madeline or Samantha. They discuss “Fun Fridays” — a tradition they’ve created where each family members gets to plan an activity to start off the weekend. Whoever’s turn it is picks what they’ll eat and what they’ll do. Sometimes it’s a movie night at home, other times it’s a trip to Salt and Straw, Portland’s iconic, quirky ice cream parlor. Samantha often picks creating an elaborate baking project to serve to her family.
“For our children, it was incredibly motivating to us, as parents. My girls have control over their own narration,” Alissa said. “It has given them a chance to feel normal.”
As the family prepares individual pizzas, Emilie comes up in conversation.
“I pulled out the Halloween book today, and I was looking through it and saw all the things we’d done with Emilie,” Alissa says, pulling up photos on her iPhone from Halloween five years ago of all three girls doing a craft project at their home in Connecticut.
And in a refurbished woodshed behind the Brush Prairie house, Emilie’s creativity is still very much a part of their lives. When the Parkers moved in, they converted the previous owner’s unfinished wood shop into what they jokingly call a “multipurpose crafting facility.” They poured hours into insulating the shed, installing lights and wood flooring so that Alissa would have a place to work on craft projects.
On a ledge inside the shed, Emilie’s star from the Sandy Hook firehouse leans against a window. Floor to ceiling shelves hold boxes of her craft supplies and her painter’s palette is framed above her easel, sandwiched between her own creations and drawings that children in Minneapolis sent the family after her death. A painting of all 20 children leans against the wall.
“‘We’ve been really cognizant with Madeline and Samantha, we didn’t want Emilie to be this shrine,” Robbie said. “We don’t want them to feel less than or to grow up thinking they’re not as good.”
Whenever Robbie and Alissa introduce themselves in Washington, they face a series of choices. How much do we share? Are we prepared for their reaction?
“I say, I have three daughters. My oldest would be 11 in May, and I have an 8- and 9-year-old,” he says, looking down. “I’ll always feel good about acknowledging her.”
The couple jokes that if they’re somewhere together, like one of the girl’s music concerts or the gym, they can always tell when the other has told someone else about Emilie.
“I’ll see Alissa getting a hug across the auditorium and think ‘Oh, she just told them,’” Robbie said.
If moving to Washington was a way to protect the memory of how Emilie lived, when Alissa is on the road talking about school safety she is brutally frank about how her 6-year-old died.
Just after 9:30 a.m. on Dec. 14, 2012, Adam Lanza shot through the front door of Sandy Hook Elementary School with a Bushmaster AR-15. After he killed Principal Dawn Hochsprung and school psychologist Mary Sherlach, Lanza paced for several minutes in the front office of Sandy Hook Elementary School before continuing his spree, going from one classroom to the next. Alissa tells the crowds that come to hear her speak how Emilie was still alive as the first police officers were arriving at the scene, hiding in a bathroom with her classmates.
Alissa started doing speaking engagements after co-founding Safe and Sound Schools, the nonprofit she runs with Michele Gay. Gay’s daughter Josephine was also killed in the shooting. The nonprofit has pooled security, mental-health and law-enforcement expertise to help school districts address safety flaws and prevent events like Sandy Hook.
Standing in front of a crowd of 500 at the Delaware Country District Attorney’s Safe Schools Summit in Philadelphia on Oct. 10, Alissa is calm and collected as she recounts the horrifying details of her daughter’s final hour. She wears a blouse of bright orange, the color associated with safety.
Alissa’s voice doesn’t shake. She doesn’t stop to choke back a tear, though nearly everyone in the audience has been silently crying from the moment she started speaking. The crowd in the banquet hall goes silent. Alissa’s measured, soft voice echoes through the cavernous room.
When she shows a picture of the plane that brought Emilie’s body to Utah for her funeral, Alissa retreats and takes a deep breath before describing what happened. How the pilot asked everyone to remain seated on the plane until Emilie’s body was off. How airport staff lined up for Emilie. That well-wishers lined up stuffed animals and flowers to welcome back Emilie to the state where she’d been born.
As soon as the slide clicks away from the picture of the plane, she reassures the audience.
“Take a deep breath, I promise you the next section is lighter,” she says.
After she explains safety strategies — doors that lock from the inside, panic buttons, streamlined law-enforcement response to incidents at schools — Alissa’s voice lowers and she implores the audience to take action.
“My prayers are with you to do what you need to do,” she says. “Nobody else should be me.”
On the last day of October, there’s a wintry bite in the Brush Prairie air. The morning sun was struggling to cut through a cold fog that hangs low in the cedar-lined valleys, putting a damper on Robbie and Alissa’s plans to go for a run after dropping the girls at school. But by noon, the air has warmed enough, and they take off on a six-mile run along a creek in a local park.
Robbie and Alissa have been close since they met in middle school in Ogden, Utah, and that’s one way the couple hasn’t changed. When Alissa is home from her speaking engagements and Robbie is off duty at the hospital, they take time to be together. Running. Picking up the girls from school. Just catching up.
The pain of tragedies can pull people apart. But Robbie and Alissa have come out of it stronger.
“My marriage is stronger because of the things Robbie and I suffered together,” Alissa wrote in her book, “An Unseen Angel.” “We both had to find a way to speak our anger and frustration without hurting each other. We had to resist becoming bitter. We had to put each other’s needs first, striving to understand before demanding to be understood. We still work at it constantly.”
It’s Halloween evening in Brush Prairie and even though Madeline and Samantha have just returned from school the house is quiet. The girls are playing with their kittens outside before the sun goes down and it’s time to head into the neighborhood in search of treats, Madeline as Rey from “Star Wars” and Samantha as Elphaba from “Wicked.”
“She’s been traveling so much, we haven’t had any time to hang out and talk. I’m kind of using this as a time to talk,” Robbie says, smiling at his wife.
“Isn’t this exciting, we get to talk about this stuff?” Alissa says sarcastically.
“Just to be next to you is exciting,” Robbie says leaning in closer and putting his arms around her. “You’ve been gone so much and when you’re home … ”
“You’ve had to work,” she finishes his sentence.
Above the couple, a gallery of framed pictures of their three daughters hangs in uniform squares. The photos capture candid, happy moments in the family’s life. A younger Alissa and Robbie grinning into the camera, baby photos of all three girls. The girls at waterfalls and playing on the misty beaches of the Oregon Coast.
“I didn’t realize how much it was weighing me down until I came to a place that was full of fresh memories that I hadn’t thought of for so long, that were all tied to the life she led, not the way her life was taken,” Alissa said.
From the new family traditions to the anonymity Washington offers, they’ve carved out a place where they feel they can just be the Parkers. They aren’t bombarded with news articles about Sandy Hook or the sight of green ribbons pulling them back to that day. People aren’t asking them to react to the news. They get to decide how to remember and how to mourn.
“When I hear people say ‘What happened to your family is my worst nightmare’ and I realized they were thinking ‘I would never trade places with you.’ And that was heartbreaking. That they think that act tainted the rest of my life,” Alissa said.
“But we have a choice to make. Yes, he took my daughter’s life, but I refuse to give him that power over us.”
“I feel the same way when people look at me or that people think they wouldn’t want to trade places with me or what happened to me was just so horrible and it’s not that there isn’t some truth to that,” Robbie said. “But just spend a day with my wife. Spend a day with my kids. Then try to tell me I’m not one of the most blessed human beings around.”
“And what people don’t know that we have seen,” Alissa said. “Yes we’ve seen the worst of humanity, but we’ve also seen the best. And we’ve also been a witness to the generosity, not just from people of our own country, but people all over the world and so we’ve also been a witness to just see how incredibly powerful and good people can be.”