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The Best American Newspaper Narratives, Volume Two
By George Getschow
University of North Texas PressCopyright © 2015 George Getschow
All rights reserved.
Into the Lonely Quiet
The Washington Post
June 9, 2013
By Eli Saslow
In 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 lying 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 e-mails 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 seance 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 the parents of four other victims to California and New York, where they learned about the National Rifle Association and technological advances in gun safety. The governor of Connecticut sent them drafts of new legislation. Vice President Biden briefed them on congressional voting procedures. Four times 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 President Obama for a speech in the Rose Garden. "Let's go rip some bark off it," Obama 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 one another 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, as 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.
It had always seemed to them that this 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."
Excerpted from The Best American Newspaper Narratives, Volume Two by George Getschow. Copyright © 2015 George Getschow. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The Best American Newspaper Narratives, Volume Two George Getschow 1
Into the Lonely Quiet: The Washington Post Eli Saslow 25
Marathon Carjacking: The Boston Globe Eric Moskowitz 45
The Course of Their Lives: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Online Mark Johnson 53
The Manhunt: a Five-Part Series: Los Angeles Times: Written Christopher Goffard Reported Christopher Goffard Louis Sahagun Kurt Streeter Joel Rubin Phil Willon 93
A Mother Helps Son in His Struggle With Schizophrenia: The Washington Post Stephanie McCrummen 167
The Lobotomy Files / Forgotten Soldiers: When America Lobotomized Its Vets: The Wall Street Journal Michael M. Phillips 181
Taken Under: The Virginian-Pilot Aaron Applegate 215
A Mother, at Her Wits' End, Sets out to Find Help for Her Sick Son: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Online Meg Kissinger 265
Last Voyage of the Bounty. Tampa Bay Times Michael Krase 303
Alone on the Hill: The Arizona Republic Online Shaun McKinnon 369
Almost Justice: The Beau Zabel Murder: The Philadelphia Inquirer Mike Newall 443
Together Despite All: The Boston Globe Sarah Schweitzer 487