Part Two: For Newtown Parents, Advocacy Fails to Fill Void
Second of three parts.
Newtown, Conn. — It had always seemed to Mark and Jackie Barden that there’s was the perfect house, in the perfect neighborhood, in the perfect town. They had often wondered: How did they get so lucky that life delivered them here? Mark had given up a touring career in Nashville, and Jackie had decided she could drive 45 minutes each way to her teaching job in Pawling, N.Y. They had borrowed money from both sides of the family and bought an unpretentious country house on a dead-end road, with an acre of wooded land where the kids could play freeze tag and leave out leftover food for hungry raccoons.
But lately everything about the house reminded them of Daniel, comfort and affliction all at once. Up there, on the ceiling, was the sticky toy he had bought in a vending machine and accidentally thrown too high. In the kitchen was the blender Mark had used to make him a smoothie each afternoon, always with four gummy vitamins at the bottom of the glass, always, in Daniel’s words, “the best one yet!” Out front was the dead-end road where he had waited for the school bus in a sprinter’s crouch each morning, so he could run alongside it for a block before climbing on board. Out back was the wooden play structure where he had knocked his head and bled for the first time, which sometimes made Mark and Jackie wonder about the last time. Had it been quick? Had he been scared? Had anybody held him?
“Let’s get out of here,” Mark said. “Let’s go get breakfast.”
“Someplace new,” Jackie agreed.
They drove nine miles outside of town to a small diner that a friend had once recommended. They had never been before. There were no memories here. A waitress led them to a booth by the window and handed over menus. “Perfect,” Mark said. The coffee tasted good. The restaurant was empty. They were the first customers of the day. The campy decor reminded Mark of a place he had liked in Nashville. “Pretty fun vibe,” he said. “I’m thinking about treating myself to the eggs benedict,” Jackie said. “Yum,” Mark said.
Now another car pulled into the restaurant lot, carrying the second customers of the day, and out of all the people in Central Connecticut, and all of the possible places and times for them to eat, these were two whom the Bardens recognized: a mother and her young son, who had been Daniel’s classmate in kindergarten.
“Do you remember the Bardens?” the mother asked her son, bringing him over to their booth.
“Hi!” the boy said, sitting down at the table next to them.
“Let’s let them enjoy their breakfast,” the mother told her son, sensing the awkwardness of the moment, pointing him to another table in the corner of the restaurant. She turned back to the Bardens: “I’m sorry. He’s excited. It’s his birthday.”
“Oh wow,” Jackie said.
“So nice,” Mark said.
“Seven,” the mother said, following her son to the other table.
“Should we leave?” Jackie said, whispering to Mark, once the mother was out of earshot. “Would it be easier?”
“It might be,” Mark said.
But instead they sat at the table and watched as the waiter brought the boy a gigantic waffle covered in powdered sugar, berries and whipped cream. They watched as the waiter stuck a candle into the center of that waffle, and as the mother sang “Happy Birthday” and took a picture with her phone. They watched as the boy swept his fingers through the whipped cream, smearing it across his mouth and face while his mother laughed. “You’re so silly,” she said.
This boy, who had ended up in the other first-grade class at Sandy Hook Elementary.
This boy, who had hidden in the other bathroom.
“Oh God,” Jackie said, shoulders trembling, questions and doubts tumbling out as she tried to catch her breath. “Why did we wait to enroll him in school?” she said. “He could have started a year earlier. He could have been in second grade. He was old enough.”
“We were thinking about what was best for him,” Mark said, knowing the cycle that was starting, the blame, the need for absolution. “We wanted him to be one of the oldest.”
“So he would be a leader and not a follower,” Jackie said, nodding.
“So he would be confident,” Mark said.
“So he wouldn’t be last to get his driver’s license,” she said.
They sat at the booth and thought about Daniel at 16. The coffee had gone cold. The eggs sat on their plates. The boy and his mother stood up to leave, walking past their table. “We had to eat in a hurry today,” the mother said. She explained that her son’s name and birth date were going to be read over the loudspeaker during the morning announcements at school, and he wanted to be there in time to hear it.
“Take care,” the mother told them.
“Bye!” the boy said, and Mark and Jackie watched as he ran to the parking lot.
A few days later, Mark and Jackie decided to go to Delaware. “Who even cares about Delaware?” Natalie had asked as they began to pack, and so they had explained to their daughter what political advisers had explained to them: that momentum for gun laws had stalled in Washington, and that the best remaining chance was to build momentum state by state, one incremental law at a time.
In Delaware that meant House Bill 58, championed by Democratic Gov. Jack Markell, who had called it “a historic and sweeping measure.” But when Mark began researching the bill on his computer in the days before the trip, what he mostly noticed was the addendum of exceptions. The bill proposed to make it illegal to possess high-capacity magazines of 10 bullets or more in the country’s second-smallest state — unless you only possessed those magazines at your house, which was okay; or on private property, which was also okay; or at a shooting range, which was fine; or if you were carrying a high-capacity magazine separately from a firearm, which would still be permitted; or if you were law enforcement or retired law enforcement or active military or a licensed firearms dealer, in which cases you were exempt. First-time violators would face a misdemeanor charge and a $75 fine. “Like a traffic ticket,” Mark told Jackie.
The NRA had dispatched two lobbyists to the state Capitol in opposition of the bill. Markell did not want to schedule a vote until he knew he had the 21 votes necessary to pass it, and he was still three or four short.
“Your heartfelt, personal stories might still help us make history,” one of the governor’s aides had written in an e-mail invitation to Sandy Hook families.
At the moment, it was the only history there was to make, and the best invitation they had, so Mark and Jackie traveled with a group that included a public relations specialist, the director of Sandy Hook Promise and the parents of two other victims: Nicole Hockley, mother of Dylan; and Nelba Marquez-Greene, mother of Ana. They took a car to a train to another car to a hotel located alongside a commercial highway on the outskirts of Dover. “What brings you to Delaware?” asked a cheery 18-year-old at the front desk, and for a few seconds the parents stared back at him in awkward silence. “Life, I guess,” Mark said, finally. “Bad luck,” Hockley said, with a slight smile. “Is this personal travel or business?” the hotel employee said, looking at his computer. “Both. It is personal business travel,” Mark said, and the parents laughed.
They went to the Capitol the next morning for a meeting with the governor’s staff to discuss their trip. “Basically, we want to make sure to maximize this visit,” the lieutenant governor told them, explaining that there would be a news conference, a lunch with lawmakers and dinner at the governor’s residence. One of the governor’s aides handed out head shots of all 41 state lawmakers, divided into categories of soft noes and soft yeses. The parents’ mission, he explained, was to walk the halls of the Capitol and give their children’s photos to anyone who would take them. A survivor of the Virginia Tech shooting already had come to Delaware to lobby. Gabby Giffords’ husband already had come. “We think you all are the extra difference,” the aide said.
He said a last-minute opportunity had arisen for the parents to be recognized during a moment of silence on the House floor. Were they interested?
“We don’t love those,” Hockley said. “It is a little like being the exhibit in a museum.”
“I understand,” the staffer said. “We just want every one of these lawmakers to see you. We want them to feel your loss and understand what’s at stake.”
“Will they read off the victims’ names?” Mark asked, dreading that.
“And the ages?” he asked, dreading that, too.
Mark looked across the table at Hockley. She grimaced and shrugged. He looked over at Jackie. She nodded.
“Okay then,” Mark said.
They were led to seats in the House chamber, where a junior lawmaker recited the Pledge of Allegiance. “Today we have some special guests,” she said, and 41 lawmakers turned to look. “Will our guests please stand,” she said, and the parents stood. “Please come up here,” she said, and they did that, too. The room went quiet as she began reading the names.
Daniel Barden. Seven. Dylan Hockley. Six. Ana Marquez-Greene. Six. Six. Six. Six. Seven. Six. How long could one minute last? Mark looked at the lawmakers and tried to pick out the three who already had refused to meet with the Newtown parents. Could he barge into their offices? Wait at their cars? Jackie counted the seconds in her head — “breathe, breathe,” she told herself — believing she was holding it together until a lawmaker handed her a box of tissues. Hockley saw the tissues and thought about how she rarely cried anymore except for alone at night, unconscious in her sleep, awakening to a damp pillow. Marquez-Greene listened to the names and pictured her daughter dressed for school that last day: pudgy cheeks, curly hair and a T-shirt decorated with a sequined purple peace sign — a peace Marquez-Greene was still promising to deliver to her daughter every night when she prayed to her memory and whispered, “Love wins.”
The gavel banged. The moment of silence ended. The parents sat back in their chairs.
“Next is a motion to recognize National Nurses Week,” the House speaker said. “All in favor?”
“A motion to recognize women’s clubs for the important role they play.”
“A motion to honor a champion among us, one of our own, the winner of the state peach pie eating contest . . .”
“A motion to recognize another special guest, here on her vacation, the mother of one of our lawmakers . . .”
“Let’s go,” Mark said, standing up in the middle of the session, motioning for the other parents to follow. They walked upstairs into a private conference room. “This gets more surreal every day,” Hockley said. “Crazy,” Mark said. How was it, they wondered, that government could roll through its inconsequential daily agenda but then stall for months on an issue like gun control? They had seen polls that showed 80 percent of Delaware residents favored a ban on high-capacity magazines. Ninety percent of Americans wanted universal background checks. But in the months since the shooting in Newtown, only a handful of states with already-stringent gun laws had managed to pass stricter laws. Most states had done nothing, and the U.S. Senate had postponed another vote.
“Some of those lawmakers in there didn’t want to look at us,” Mark said.
“Just squirming,” Hockley said.
“It’s exhausting,” Jackie said, rubbing her eyes.
They drove back to the hotel, where the same teenage employee was waiting for them at the front desk. “How’d it go today?” he asked. He explained that some of the hotel staff had been watching the local TV news, and they had learned the exact nature of this group’s personal business. One of the employees, a bartender in the restaurant, had stayed up all night creating a tribute. She had scoured the Internet for pictures of Dylan Hockley and Daniel Barden and placed a rushed order for customized frames. “Please follow me to the bar,” the front desk employee said now. The parents walked with him into a corner of the restaurant that was dark except for the glow of 26 candles, which had been placed on a table next to framed photos of their children. “Our Angel Dylan,” one frame read. “Our Angel Daniel,” read the other. The table was secluded behind velvet rope, and the bartender came over with a bottle of whiskey.
“Please sit,” the bartender said, and the only thing the parents could think to do was to thank her, fill their glasses and drink fast before going upstairs to bed.