Part Three: With Spotlight Faded, Parents Sit in Silence
Jackie, Mark and James Barden listen to Natalie Barden tell a story at the dinner table. The Bardens’ youngest son, Daniel, died in the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. (Washington Post - Linda Davidson)
Daniel Barden. (Family photograph)
At their home in Newtown, Conn., last month, Mark and Jackie Barden package rubber bracelets that have the slogan “What Would Daniel Do?” in an attempt to inspire people to share their kindness with others as their son did. (Washington Post - Linda Davidson)
Third of three parts.
Newtown, Conn. — Mark and Jackie Barden 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 state’s 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, like 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 OK,” 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.