It’s been almost six months since 26 people, including 20 children, were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. I have read countless pieces on what it was like for parents that day—rushing to the school, those desperate texts, the interminable wait at the firehouse—all of them grueling. I watched the gut-wrenching 60 Minutes interview, conducted four months after the tragedy, with the mothers and fathers of victims clutching pictures of their sons and daughters, somehow poised enough to deliver a gun-control pitch to the nation. But I still was not prepared for what I read in the Washington Post this weekend, an absolutely devastating, deeply intimate look at what life has been like since the shooting for the family of one Newtown victim, Daniel Barden.
Life has been horrible. Horrible in so many more ways than I’ll list here. You should go read the whole story, please—it is, among many other things, an amazing piece of writing by Eli Saslow, but also probably only scratches the surface of the Barden family’s grief. Daniel’s death has made nearly every interaction impossible for Mark and Jackie Barden, from the mundane (idle chit-chat with a hotel clerk) to the surreal (meeting with the governor of Delaware, who, in private, presses Daniel’s photo to his chest and says, “Look, the courage that you have shown to be here today … well, what can I even say?” And then does and says the exact same thing when the cameras are rolling, only better rehearsed the second time around). The death of Daniel has made working impossible, and although Saslow never says so explicitly in the piece, it has made raising their other kids nearly impossible, too.
But mornings are the worst. Mornings have become unbearable for the Bardens. It sounds like such a small thing—how the death of Daniel impacts the family’s morning routine? But imagine every morning hearing the patter of your children’s feet coming down the stairs, every morning a reminder that one of them is missing. Daniel isn’t just sleeping in. Daniel isn’t dawdling in the bathroom. He’s not coming down.
Daniel’s older sister Natalie has developed a fear of leaving the house, which means that mornings go like this:
“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.
And that’s all before what Saslow calls “the worst hour of the day”—the hour when Daniel had been home with his parents, waiting for his school 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.
We’re with the Bardens on one occasion when they try to pass the time by going out to breakfast, only to run into a child from Daniel’s kindergarten class, out for waffles with his mom to celebrate his birthday before school. “This boy, who had ended up in the other first-grade class at Sandy Hook Elementary,” Saslow writes. “This boy, who had hidden in the other bathroom.” Seeing this boy in the diner destroys the Bardens. They spiral into what-ifs—what if Daniel had been in a different class, what if they had enrolled him a year earlier? As horrible as this morning is, Saslow’s piece makes it pretty clear that every other morning is just as bad. You get the sense that it doesn’t really matter that this boy in the diner is someone Daniel knew. You get the sense that any boy eating waffles with his mom, birthday or just regular day, 7, 8, or 9 years old, smiling or sullen, would slay Jackie and Mark Barden. And you don’t get the sense that it’s getting any easier.