A message from beyond: Peace in Newtown

Posted at 10:45 AM, Dec 23, 2012
and last updated 2012-12-23 12:45:16-05

By Wayne Drash

NEWTOWN, Connecticut (CNN) — Grace McDonnell would write messages for her mother in the bathroom window.

On the first day without Grace, the bathroom fogged up and mom glanced at the window. And right there was a message from beyond the grave.

The little girl had drawn the peace sign, her favorite symbol. Above it was a heart with the words: “Grace, Mom.”

“She was all about peace and gentleness and kindness,” said Lynn McDonnell.

Amazing, Grace. A girl who lived by the family’s mottos: “Live for the moment” and “Soak it in.”

The McDonnells are now part of a community bound together by the tragedy of what transpired at a Connecticut elementary school, joined by a nation that has grieved with them.

Yet amid the memories of that awful day in Newtown, signs of hope have emerged.

Gene Rosen won’t forget his connection. It’s touched his soul and made him believe more in God and angels again.

Rosen went out back to feed two of his cats shortly after 9:15 a.m. on December 14. His home sits on an acre of land on Riverside Road, with his backyard on a hill overlooking Sandy Hook Elementary.

That day, he heard staccato gunfire — Boom! Boom! Boom! — coming from the vicinity of the school. The retired psychologist convinced himself it was fireworks.

Andrei Nikitchyuk was working in his home office that morning. He received a robocall from the school that it was in lockdown. He didn’t think much of it — the school recently had two lockdowns for false alarms: a suspicious car and bank robbery.

Inside the school, his son, Bear, walked down the hall with a friend toward the main office. Gunshots whizzed by.

Teacher Janet Vollmer huddled with her children away from doors and windows. Someone turned on the intercom system. The sound of gunfire and a woman crying was piped into every classroom.

Vollmer told her kids she loved them and began reading out loud.

A loss of innocence

It shattered a town and brought a president to tears. Twenty children — all aged 6 and 7 — were gunned down in the safest place they had ever known, their home away from home. Six educators died, too, hailed as heroes.

Never had an act of violence seemed so heinous, so horrifying in America. An attack on pure innocence at a school that symbolized peace and love.

Since then, residents of Newtown have been dealing with the arc of life in unimaginable ways — of death and loss, of pain and suffering, of shock and horror, of beginning to heal.

Couples who settled here years ago had grown close to one another through their children and their schools. Teens in middle school had babysat the first-graders slain at Sandy Hook. Some teens had played on sports teams with siblings of the slain children; others attended dance class with sisters of girls killed at the school. College students, home for the holiday, saw the school they loved desecrated.

“I can’t even tell you how hard it is for these kids,” said Lillian Bittman, former chairwoman of the Newtown Board of Education. “A lot of these kids have been here their whole lives. That’s why these connections are so strong.

“They’ve lost their childhood.”

Newtown’s Pastor Rocky Veach had been a preacher in Littleton, Colorado, when the Columbine shooting occurred. He said the biggest lesson he learned from the 1999 massacre was “that a lot of things are going to pan out over the next months here, even years, and you will see God’s hand was in this, but you can’t see it now.”

Maybe it’s too soon, too difficult to imagine another reality further in the future. Right now, residents can only think of the town they once knew and how everything changed that Friday.

For most, the pain is just too fresh, the attack too senseless to comprehend.

In the wake of the massacre, Americans have begun looking at gun control and mental health issues. It’s also forced our society to take a deep introspective look: Have we become too polarized? What can we learn from those children?

Is there meaning to be drawn from Grace’s message on that window?

Journey into hell

Gene Rosen had blocked out the sounds of whatever he heard coming from the school. How obnoxious, he thought, that somebody would shoot off fireworks so early in the day.

“I wanted to think that,” he said, “because I know the school is over there.”

He fed his two cats in a loft above his garage and walked back toward his home. He spotted something odd toward the end of his driveway.

There were six children — four girls and two boys — sitting on his lawn. A woman sat in the middle with them. A tall, skinny man stood over them and spoke in a loud voice: “IT’S GOING TO BE ALL RIGHT! IT’S GOING TO BE ALL RIGHT!”

Rosen thought they were practicing a school skit. When he got closer, he could see the children were out of breath and crying.

“There’s been an incident at the school,” said the woman, a Sandy Hook bus driver.

Rosen’s not sure how the bus driver ended up with the children on his lawn. Nor does he know the identity of the man, who later walked off.

But Rosen knows this: It was the start of a “journey into hell.”

He once had worked as a psychologist with the chronically mentally ill at a state psychiatric hospital. But nothing had prepared him for what would transpire next. Instead, at 69, his grandfatherly instincts kicked in.

He invited the children into his home. He ran upstairs and grabbed as many stuffed animals as possible. They calmed the children briefly.

One of the girls stared out his living room window. “I want my mommy,” she said. “I want my mommy.”

The two boys sat on the floor, crying uncontrollably and shouting, “We can’t go back to school! We can’t go back to school! We don’t have a teacher!”

Then they said the name of their 27-year-old teacher, Victoria Soto.

“Mrs. Soto! Mrs. Soto! She’s gone,” they said in unison.

One of the girls said she watched the teacher fall to the ground.

Without prompting, one of the boys added, “He had a big gun and he had a little gun.”

The other boy said, “Yeah, yeah, he had a big gun and a little gun.”

Then they both began anew their chilling cry. “We can’t go back to school. We can’t go back to school …”

Blowing Mom a kiss

Grace McDonnell, 7, enjoyed Sandy Hook Elementary School with its loving teachers and inviting learning environment. Earlier in the week she had a stomachache, and her mother suggested she stay home.

“No way,” the girl said. “I have too much fun there, and I don’t want to miss anything.”

Eager to learn, Grace would pack her bag the night before school and skip to the bus stop when it was time to leave.

The night before the tragedy, Mom and Dad tucked their only daughter in bed. “See you in the morning,” Chris McDonnell told her. “Don’t let the bed bugs bite.”

Mom often joked that her daughter was so full of life “she would talk from the minute she woke up until the minute she went to bed. We were always, ‘It’s time for bed, Grace. It’s time for bed, Grace.'”

That Friday morning was like any other school day, a whirlwind of activity before heading out the door. She skipped down the road and boarded the school bus.

Grace blew her mother a kiss, as she always did. An endearing final image.

‘Luckiest guy in the room’

Bear was one of two third-graders chosen by their teacher for the important job of class helper. The pair headed out of the room that morning to deliver an attendance report to the office.

As they neared the office, gunshots rang out. Bear said he could see bullets flying by. Smoke filled the air.

The two children froze, like deer in headlights. A second-grade teacher saw the children were in harm’s way, raced toward them and grabbed them. She pulled them into a bathroom with other children and barricaded the door.

“If she didn’t do that, I don’t know,” said Bear’s father, Andrei Nikitchyuk.

Nikitchyuk and his wife were filled with anxiety when they realized the robocall was real. Rumors were rampant. Parents were panicked. Police were everywhere.

A Ukrainian native, Nikitchyuk came to the United States in 1992 shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He had always felt safe here and had been fortunate enough to live the American dream.

He settled in Newtown eight years ago. His two oldest children, ages 13 and 14, had attended Sandy Hook.

“It’s just horrific,” Nikitchyuk said. “I don’t know how our little ones are going to be affected by all this, but our older ones, I think, matured in just a few days.”

The father was spurred to action: “This horrific event woke me up.” He traveled to the White House to speak up for gun control. He was the Sandy Hook representative for a Newtown United delegation that was joined by families who had lost loved ones to gun violence in the mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado, Columbine and Virginia Tech, as well as random shootings in Chicago.

“I was the luckiest guy in the room because my kid survived and theirs didn’t.”

The group met with Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Obama.

Nikitchyuk’s message: “This is unacceptable in our society. We have to do better.”

Emergency plans and instinct

Kindergarten teacher Janet Vollmer heard what she believed were gunshots. Then, the intercom system piped in the sounds of gunfire into her room. The teachers were well-schooled on drills; their principal made sure of that.

Vollmer immediately began putting her emergency planning to use. She knew the drill was to get kids outside and to the nearby firehouse. But it seemed too dangerous. She had 19 children she needed to protect.

“There was no announcement of what was going on,” she said. “My instinct was it wasn’t good.”

The teacher of 18 years gathered her kindergartners in a cubby area away from the door. Teaching assistants closed the blinds.

“We read a story and we kept them calm,” she said. “We do this as teachers. We are trained. We have drills. We talk to the kids and in case something were to happen, this is what we do.”

After about 30 minutes, she said, police knocked on the door. The children were told to close their eyes and walk in a line outside. She told the kids to look straight at the walls and nothing else until they got outside. They headed to the Sandy Hook firehouse, the school’s emergency gathering point.

It would be hours before she learned the awful magnitude. She had taught 10 of the slain children just last year.

‘The gift of these children’

Gene Rosen’s home sits right next to the firehouse. Inside his house, the kids continued to wail.

“We can’t go back to school!”

At one point, one of the boys broke through his tears with a note of levity. He sat up, held his finger in the air and said, “Just saying, your house is very small.”

“In that moment, he brought into the home peace and light,” Rosen recalled. “I felt like an angel descended upon us and this boy, and we laughed.”

“God sent a respite from hell — just a moment of recess.” He paused, then added: “They saw their teacher assassinated.”

He and the school bus driver tried to call the children’s parents, but they got answering machines. They notified the driver’s supervisor who relayed the information to authorities. Some of the parents soon arrived. The parents, Rosen and the six kids walked to the neighboring firehouse.

The children and their teachers huddled in bay areas where firetrucks are typically kept so they could be counted.

Two hours later, after Rosen had returned home, a woman knocked on his door. She said she was the mother of 6-year-old Jesse Lewis.

“Her face looked frozen in fear. She said to me, ‘I heard there were six kids here. Is he here?'”

Rosen knew the names of the six children who he helped. His heart sank. “No, he’s not here,” Rosen told her.

As he recalled that encounter, Rosen wept. “She was just looking for a miracle, and I wanted to deliver her son to her — and I couldn’t.”

Initial reports had indicated two adults were dead, but by late Friday afternoon parents of the slain children were told of their loss at a private room in the firehouse.

Back at the firehouse, Rosen looked at a list posted later and wept again when he saw two of the names: Victoria Soto and Jesse Lewis.

Before the tragedy, Rosen often read children’s books to an elementary school in a neighboring town.

He’d recently come across a kid’s book about a girl whose dog died in a fire. For weeks afterward, the girl smelled soot in her dreams and couldn’t sleep. Then, one night a one-eyed cat jumped into her bed, cuddled with her and purred. The cat’s soothing purr helped her sleep for the first time.

“The book doesn’t end with a rainbow,” he said. “It ends with hope in the sense of the continuity of her healing.”

He couldn’t help but wonder: What will be Newtown’s one-eyed cat?

“The one-eyed cat is here,” he said. “I don’t know what it is yet.”

The son of Orthodox Jews from Ukraine, Rosen hasn’t been to synagogue in more than 40 years. But he said God delivered six angels to him that day. “This experience has made me spiritual,” he said. “I want to show those children that there is light.

“Let the goodness of the children, their essential innocence and goodness and energy — let them provide us with a pathway,” he said. “That’s what I want the gift of these children to be.”

‘So many angels’

The McDonnells were overcome when they first saw Grace’s white casket at the funeral home. “You felt like the floor was falling out beneath you and your breath was taken away,” her mother said.

But then, they pulled out Sharpies of all colors and began drawing: peace signs, ice cream cones, lighthouses, sea gulls. The family said it looked like it was covered in graffiti by the time they were done.

“We had to take great joy in knowing that when we walked in there it was so white, and our breath was taken away,” Lynn McDonnell said. “But when we walked out of there, it was like we had joy again. It had so much color.”

The family also brought Grace’s favorite pocketbook, seashells, hair bows and flip-flops, as well as her sunglasses and a frying pan. Her father placed his New York Yankees cap with her. Grace loved Taylor Swift and Kenny Chesney — the family gave her music from both.

“When we left, we were like: She’s fully stocked,” her mom recalled.

Her father said that “thinking of her smile, her spark, her brightness” helped guide the family through this most difficult time. Telling Grace’s 12-year-old brother Jack what had happened, he said, was the “toughest thing to do.”

The McDonnells, like the other grieving families, met privately with President Obama when he visited Newtown last Sunday. Lynn McDonnell said his visit brought reassurance. “He’s just a dad coming in to meet a dad and a mom and a son — and we really felt that.”

Grace was a budding artist. The family gave the president a painting of an owl she had drawn. He told the family he would treasure it.

The parents say they’re comforted by the fact Grace died with her friends. “She was at a place that she loved,” her mother said.

“We have so many angels and so many bright stars shining over all of us in this town right now,” the father said. “They will teach us how to go on and how to live through them.”

They have no hatred toward the shooter, a point they’ve emphasized to their surviving son.

“The thing that Grace taught us is that you’ve got to live for the future,” her father said. “You’ve got to live for happiness, peace, and to not divert your energies to hate, anger. That wasn’t her. It’s not us.”

That, they say, is their daughter’s lasting legacy.

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