“You pass the houses that should have a child playing in the driveway,” says one mother in Newtown, Conn., “and you say the names.”
Newtown, Conn., mother Erin Nikitchyuk, like many in her small town, lives in a world still shaped by the morning of Dec. 14, 2012.
It’s the small things that stir her emotions, the subtle reminders of what happened after a heavily armed madman parked his car outside the Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Just sitting behind the wheel as she drives from her house off Route 34 to the interstate is a frequent trigger.
“You pass the houses that should have a child playing in the driveway,” she says, “and you say the names.”
There were 20 slain kids, each with a promising past that belied the heartbreak of their lost future: Avielle Rose Richman, age 6, whose family made a new home in Newtown after moving from California.
Six-year-old Noah Pozner — with his tousled hair and bright smile, the youngest of all the victims — was buried the same day as classmate Jack Pinto, a sports fanatic who loved the New York Giants and Victor Cruz.
Josephine Grace Gay, whose family celebrated her seventh birthday only three days earlier. She would have turned 12 this month.
“Sometimes it feels like yesterday,” said Nikitchyuk, whose son Bear emerged intact after bullets whizzed past his head and killed his classmates. “Sometimes it seems like it was us — but it was a long time ago.
“Sometimes it seems like it was somebody else and I just read about it.”
As the fifth anniversary of the mass shooting approaches, a dark cloud descending on the suburban town of 27,000, the totems of that terrible day linger amid the central Connecticut landscape: Unseasonably warm December weather. Two frisky shelter cats named Catalina and Sandy. Purple balloons floating above local mailboxes. Framed photos harking back to happier times. The altar inside the St. Rose of Lima church.
“It’s still very real,” said the Rev. Robert Weiss, who presided over funeral upon funeral that endless winter. “I think about it a lot. I have a lot of flashbacks.”
Pictures of Lauren Rousseau are spread through her father Gilles’ house on the outskirts of Newtown. The 30-year-old substitute teacher, one of six school staffers killed that day, tried unsuccessfully to lock the shooter out of her first-grade classroom, giving her life in hopes of saving her students.
“I like looking at photos of her,” the dad said about his daughter’s continued presence in his home. “She makes me happy. When I look at her picture, it just makes me smile. She loved the beach.”
Rousseau tries not to think about the what-ifs: “I don’t try to imagine what it would be like. Maybe she’d be married by now?”
But Rousseau can’t shake the sound of his ringing phone inside a movie theater where he had gone to see the new Steven Spielberg-Daniel Day Lewis movie “Lincoln.”
His brother was calling. There was a shooting at the school. Had Rousseau heard anything? He rushed to Sandy Hook to find something beyond a nightmare.
“It was chaotic, crazy,” he recalled. “Too many policemen, too many people in the crime scene.”
The rescue cats belong to the Barden family, whose son Daniel picked out the pets on Thanksgiving Day 2012. Dad Mark Barden recalled his son’s instinctive kinship with all living creatures.
“Daniel would pick up the worms off the sidewalk and would put them on the grass so they wouldn’t burn on the sidewalk,” the father recalled with a bittersweet smile. “That’s the way he thought. He was just a very compassionate little boy.
“He just had a sweet, beautiful way about him.”
Daniel never lived long enough to see the cats in the Barden home. The local animal shelter conducted a background check on the family, interviewing their neighbors before releasing the animals for adoption. By the time they were approved, Daniel, 7, was gone.
“So here we go through this elaborate verification process to adopt a shelter kitten,” said Barden, stung by the incongruity of what he’s about to say.
“And yet, I can make an arrangement with someone on the internet to legally purchase an AR-15. So it is a flawed system for sure.”
With each passing year, Barden hopes for a respite from the pain that he carries — only to find no relief.
“Somehow you keep hoping that it gets easier,” he reflects. “But it just doesn’t.”
He’s not alone.
The Newtown Bee ran a series of anniversary pieces written by the parents of the slain children. None was more heartbreaking than the submission by Pozner’s mother, Veronique.
“I live my life under water,” she wrote. “Murky water. I want to die a thousand deaths like the coward that I am for simply not having known that day.
“Remember the fifth anniversary of your death? … For me, time is irrelevant when it comes to loss. There are no milestones. What is lost remains so.”
Mark Barden, sits in his home on Nov. 29 as he reflects on the tragedy.
For many, the day remains an indelible and inescapable line of demarcation in their lives.
“Time is a funny thing,” said Nikitchyuk. “Like in the Bible, there’s definitely now a before and an after. It’s our own B.C. and A.D.”
Father Weiss hopes to renovate the altar in his church, hopeful of removing one reminder of what happened. But he wonders how much his gesture can help.
“There is no one answer,” he declared. “You realize how, still, how broken, how their families have just been ripped apart … It’s like yesterday for many of them. I heard one of the dads say, ‘I don’t know why I let my child get on the bus that day.’ ”
One question remains unanswered: Why did it happen?
The recent release of 1,500 pages of FBI documents shed no real light on the gloom that engulfed Adam Lanza, the mentally troubled 20-year-old shooter. Lanza killed his mother before driving to the school where he was once a student.
The victim’s families remain focused on a different question: How can we stop this from happening again? Many turned their agony into altruism, launching a variety of organizations in the names of their murdered children, good rising out of the ultimate evil.
The Newtown Action Alliance fights directly to end gun violence through changes in gun laws and the broader national culture.
A foundation named for Avielle Rose Richman is dedicated to funding research into the link between the brain and violent behavior. The family of Jack Pinto teamed with Kids in the Game, a nonprofit that assists low-income kids with the resources for after-school sports programs.
The Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement was launched three months after the attack, intent on fostering “a more peaceful world by raising awareness that everyone can choose love.”
The family of Josephine Gray, the youngest of three girls, will raise thousands of dollars to help kids with autism — like their daughter. In what’s become a local tradition, mailboxes around town will be festooned with purple balloons on her birthday Monday.
The lack of a political response to the slaughter of 20 first-graders and six educators remains inexplicable to many in Newtown, even as the litany of mass shootings grows by the year: 58 dead at a country music concert in Las Vegas, another 49 killed in an Orlando nightclub, and, most recently, 26 inside a rural church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
“It’s hard not to get numb, but these aren’t just numbers,” said Nikitchyuk. “These are lives. These are ripples that go through our communities and our countries.
“People say, ‘It won’t happen in my backyard.’ Well, I’d like to invite them to my backyard.”