NEWTOWN, Conn. – When I first stood before the stacks of teddy bears, wreaths, handwritten signs, candles, toys, clothing and other items left in memoriam at the intersection of Churchill Road and Washington Street, what struck me most was the quiet.
Here, just a short walk to Sandy Hook Elementary School, there are dozens of people, and most are not saying a word. They walk among the growing memorials to the 26 people who lost their lives there, a look of profound sadness on their faces. Some weep, but they weep silently.
Although I am not from this community, I felt that sadness. If I am feeling only a tiny bit of what the residents here feel, then I don’t understand how they bear this burden.
I’m here in Connecticut to help my colleagues at four area newspapers owned by Hearst Corp., which also owns the Houston Chronicle, my employer. I arrived on Wednesday night and most of the time I’ve been working in the offices of the Connecticut Post in Bridgeport, about a 20-mile drive to this intersection. At the urging of one of Hearst’s executives, I made the trip.
I was reluctant to go. I told a colleague who accompanied me that I didn’t want to feel like a morbid tourist. I’m also very much aware that the people who live in the area are tired of and even angry with the members of the media, who are clogging their narrow roads and pointing cameras at them during their most intense moments of grief. But I was told that, to understand the community and its tragedy, I needed to see the town for myself.
My co-worker and I had breakfast at the King’s Breakfast and Lunch, a locally owned diner on Main Street. The mood in the place was normal, the food excellent, the waitress exceptionally friendly – but we were clearly not from the area (my rental car has, strangely enough, Louisiana plates ) and she didn’t ask us anything about where we were from or what brought us into town, the standard conversation you’d expect to have in a place like this. I suspect she may have been burned out on strangers.
We drove into Sandy Hook, the small community near the elementary school, and parked across the street from a church. There was a sign at the entrance to its driveway that said, “No media.” We saw those words in several shop windows.
It was cold and windy, though light flurries that had filled the air had stopped. We walked down Churchill Road to the intersection, where the street leading toward the school had been turned into a one-way road. You can only walk up there.
On three of the four corners are the memorial piles. As I approached them, I was flooded with sadness. My face, I’m sure, looked like those of the crowd around me.
I have two grown children in their 20s, but as I read the notes and watched the candles flicker in the wind and stepped around people who were overcome and rendered immobile, I thought of them as they were when they were 6 and 7 years old. I wanted desperately to hug that version of them, and then I wanted to hug them as they are now. The parent in me overcame the journalist. I am not from Newtown, but suddenly I was of Newtown.
We walked up the road toward the firehouse where anxious parents had waited just over a week earlier to learn the fate of their children. There were more memorials, and 26 Christmas trees, one for each of the victims at the school. There were fewer people here, but they were also respectfully silent. I watched as one woman knelt next to her dog and crossed herself. She was kneeling before an elaborate relief of the Crucifixion.
I couldn’t bear it. I walked back toward the town and called my wife. I just needed to touch base with my family, to make contact, even over the distance. I thanked the Lord for cell phones.
I wish I had made the trek to Newtown sooner, when I first got here. I’ve been pushing out information, photos and stories through the four papers’ Twitter and Facebook feeds, and I think I could have done a better job if I’d visited earlier.
If you’re in the area, you should come see this. Not as a tourist, mind you, but it will help you understand what this horrific thing has done to this beautiful, placid community.
And if you can’t come, please do this: Go find your child, your grandchild, your niece or nephew, or anyone you care about with all your heart. Hug them and tell them how much you love them, and as you do, think of the children and teachers at Sandy Hook. If you do that, you will have made the same journey that I did, and you may understand, just a little, what the people of Newtown must now endure.