Part One: Newtown Parents Mourn as Gun Legislation Falters
Mark Barden comforts wife Jackie Barden at their home in Newtown, Conn., last month. Their son Daniel died in last December's shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. The family still gets condolence notes and gifts, such as this stuffed panda, from around the world. (Washington Post - Linda Davidson)
Mark and Jackie Barden hug daughter Natalie, 11, before she boards a school bus May 23, 2013 in Newtown, Conn. Mark and Jackie's son Daniel was 7 years old when he died in last December's shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. (Washington Post - Linda Davidson)
First of three parts.
Newtown, Conn. — They had promised to try everything, so Mark Barden went down into the basement to begin another project in memory of Daniel. The families of Sandy Hook Elementary were collaborating on a Mother’s Day card, which would be produced by a marketing firm and mailed to hundreds of politicians across the country. “A difference-maker,” the organizers had called it. Maybe if Mark could find the most arresting photo of his 7-year-old son, people would be compelled to act.
It hardly mattered that what Mark and his wife, Jackie, really wanted was to ignore Mother’s Day altogether, to stay in their pajamas with their two surviving children, turn off their phones and reward themselves for making it through another day with a glass of Irish whiskey neat.
“Our purpose now is to force people to remember,” Mark said, so down he went into his office to sift through 1,700 photos of the family they had been.
The Bardens had already tried to change America’s gun laws by studying the Second Amendment and meeting with President Obama in the Oval Office. They had spoken at Tea Party rallies, posed for People magazine and grieved on TV with Katie Couric. They had taken advice from a public relations firm, learning to say “magazine limits” and not “magazine bans,” to say “gun responsibility” and never “gun control.” When none of that worked, they had walked the halls of Congress with a bag of 200 glossy pictures and beseeched lawmakers to look at their son: his auburn hair curling at the ears, his front teeth sacrificed to a soccer collision, his arms wrapped around Ninja Cat, the stuffed animal that had traveled with him everywhere, including into the hearse and underground.
Almost six months now, and so little had gotten through. So maybe a Mother’s Day card. Maybe that.
Mark turned on his computer and began looking for the right picture. “Something lighthearted,” he said. “Something sweet.” He had been sitting in the same chair Dec. 14, when he received an automated call about a Code Red Alert, and much of the basement had been preserved in that moment. Nobody had touched the foosball table, because Daniel had been the last to play. His books and toy trains sat in their familiar piles, gathering dust. The basement had always been Daniel’s space, and some days Mark believed he could still smell him here, just in from playing outside, all grassy and muddy.
Now it was Daniel’s face staring back at him on the computer screen, alit in an orange glow as he blew out seven candles on a birthday cake in September.
“Oh God. His last birthday,” Mark said, rubbing his forehead, scanning to the next photo, knowing the chronology that came next.
Daniel dressed as an elf for Halloween. Daniel grinning after his hair was cut short on Dec. 4. Daniel in a video taken a week before his death, wearing reindeer horns and carrying cookies to the neighbor’s house. “Bye, dad,” he was saying.
Next came a photo Mark had taken early that last morning. He and Daniel had been laying on the couch, half asleep, after the rest of the family had left for school. Daniel had noticed how the sunrise and the Christmas lights were reflecting on the window, like a red-and-orange kaleidoscope. “Wow,” he had said. Mark had grabbed his camera and taken a picture of the window, and now he was searching that picture for a trace of Daniel’s reflection in the glass, zooming in, running his fingers against the screen.
“He has to be in here,” Mark said. Maybe he had taken another. He flipped to the next picture, but it was from four days later, of a police car parked in front of their house.
It sometimes felt to Mark in these moments like his grief was still deepening, like the worst was yet to come. After the gunfire, the funerals, the NRA protests and the congressional debates, they were finally coming into the lonely quiet. They were coming to the truth of what Newtown would become. Would it be the transformative moment in American gun policy that, in those first days, so many had promised? Or another Columbine, Virginia Tech, Gabby Giffords, Aurora — one more proper noun added to an ever-growing list? The FBI had closed its temporary Newtown office. Politicians in Washington were moving on to other issues. Scariest of all to Mark, he was starting to forget little things, too, losing pieces of Daniel to the recesses of his mind, so he had started a journal to log memories before they disappeared.
“I’m always one minute farther away from my life with Daniel,” he had written one day. “The gulf keeps getting bigger.”
He returned upstairs with four photos and brought them to Jackie in the living room. “For the Mother’s Day card,” he said. She looked at one that showed Daniel at 4, his freckled arms wrapped around her neck and his face buried into hers. She gasped. She touched her neck. “It physically hurts,” she said, reaching for Mark. “Stomach, arms, legs, chest.”
She had developed a habit in the last months of what her counselor called “defensive delusions,” when she would imagine for a few hours that Daniel was away at a friend’s house. Pretending helped her summon the energy to return a few emails or cook dinner, but the easiness of the mental game was starting to scare her. “Is it normal?” Jackie had asked the counselor at their last appointment. “Is this something other people do?”
“There is no normal,” the counselor had said. “There are only hard days to get through.”
So now, on this hard day, Jackie stared at the photo and considered whether to release another intimate moment to the world.
“Will it make a difference?” she asked Mark.
“I don’t know,” he said.
There were 26 of them in all — 26 victims, which meant 26 families left adrift, grasping for a way to continue on. Some found it in church, returning to the pews every Wednesday and Sunday with a Sandy Hook Bible group, lighting 26 candles each time they went. Others found it in the spiritual medium that contacted victims’ families on Facebook, offering to facilitate a private séance and “connect them with the other side.” Some started nonprofit foundations in their child’s name or escaped back into jobs in Manhattan or ordered wine by the case or planted 26 trees or considered moving out of state or installed blackout curtains for privacy. One mother took a job sorting corporate donations to the Newtown community fund, organizing 26,000 bottles of “Sandy Hook Green” nail polish and 2,600 wool blankets, because the magnitude of the donations helped reaffirm the magnitude of her loss.
What the Bardens chose to believe in during those first days was cause and effect, order and logic. America’s mental health system was broken, but they could fix it. Gun culture was extreme, but they could moderate it. This was the way they made sense of the world, which was why, less than a week after Daniel’s death, Mark and Jackie met with a start-up advocacy organization called Sandy Hook Promise and offered to help.
They had never owned or fired a gun, so they took trips with Sandy Hook Promise and parents of four other victims to California and New York, where they learned about the NRA and technological advances in gun safety. The governor of Connecticut sent them drafts of new legislation. Vice President Joe Biden briefed them on congressional voting procedures. Four times earlier this year, Mark and Jackie traveled to Washington with their photographs of Daniel and met with two dozen senators to discuss a bill requiring universal background checks on gun purchases. When the measure came up for a vote in April, all four of the Bardens watched from the gallery: the father, a professional jazz guitarist who rarely had the desire to play anymore; the wife, an elementary school reading teacher who couldn’t imagine stepping back into a classroom; the eldest son, 13, fiddling with a Rubik’s Cube to quiet his anxiety; the daughter, 11, suddenly afraid of big cities, and loud noises, and darkness, and strangers.
When the Senate vote failed, Mark was asked to introduce Obama for a speech in the Rose Garden. “Let’s go rip some bark off it,” the president told him. And yes, Mark was angry, too — angry enough that his hands balled into fists and trembled at the podium — but mostly he was unmoored. “So what does all of this add up to now?” he had asked a White House employee later that day, when the speeches ended.
Because if it amounted to nothing at all, what was the logic, the order, the meaning of their broken lives?
What was the meaning of the anger he felt lately while shopping at Costco, hoping one of the strangers in the aisles might be a gun nut who would recognize and approach him, so he had an excuse to shout back?
What was the meaning of the endless tributes? A song performed in concert for Daniel because he liked music. A 5K race for Daniel because he liked to run. A mud festival for Daniel because he liked mud. A Play Day for Daniel because he liked to play. Then there were the boxes of mementos that filled a room in their house, gifts created and mailed by strangers: magnets bearing Daniel’s picture, paintings of him, wood carvings, wind chimes, T-shirts, pins and blankets stitched with a 10-foot image of his face. “To Our Angel,” the packages read — or to “Dan,” “Danny” or, weirdest of all, “Daniel Barden,” so formal and unfamiliar, like the etching on a headstone.
And what was the meaning of their new nighttime routine? All four of them crammed into one room in a five-bedroom house, three on a queen bed and one on the futon so they could will each other through the night, Jackie up every few hours, Mark closing his eyes and thinking about Daniel, always hoping he might come to him in a dream, even though he never did.
And then it was morning.
Down the stairs into the kitchen came the son, James, carrying his backpack and soccer cleats, ready for the 6:20 bus to junior high. “How are you today?” Jackie asked him, like she did every morning. “Pretty good,” he said, which was mostly true. He was starring on a competitive soccer team, working as a referee, playing bass in the school orchestra. “Can you believe these Barden kids?” one of Biden’s aides had said a few months earlier, after spending a morning with James. So polite. So resilient. But sometimes Jackie watched him from the window while he played soccer alone in the yard, where he had always played with Daniel. She thought he looked lost. “Want to talk about it with someone?” she had asked him. “I guess,” he had said, so now he was seeing a counselor who let him lie down in her office and work his Rubik’s Cube.
Next down the stairs came the daughter, Natalie, Newtown’s fifth-grade student of the month — a pianist and a violin player, a master of grade school hand-clapping games, a performer in the school musical. “Natalie is a social and academic marvel in my class,” one teacher had written in Natalie’s spring evaluation, not knowing that just getting her to class each morning had become a battle, because her newfound fear made her reluctant to leave home.
“I’m sick,” she said now, rubbing her eyes. “I don’t think I should go to school.”
“Probably just allergies,” Mark said. “You’ll be fine.”
“I should stay home,” she said.
“How many times do we have to have this conversation?” Jackie said.
“I don’t want to go.”
“Please stop it,” Jackie said.
“You’re so lucky,” Natalie said.
“You get to stay home.”
“Do you even know what you’re saying?” Jackie said, her voice louder now. “You think I’m home because I want to be? You think I wouldn’t rather be going on with my life, going to work? Lucky? I’m not even having this conversation.”
Jackie started to cry, and then Natalie started to cry. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“Oh sweet pea,” Mark said, wrapping her into a hug, tearing up now, too.
All three of them sat down for breakfast and then walked together to the bus stop. “Love you,” Natalie told them, settling in a window seat next to a friend, beginning a clapping game against the window. The bus rolled up the hill, and Mark and Jackie walked back to the house. Just them now. Nobody left to come downstairs. They sat in the living room sipping coffee in silence.