…a time for every purpose under heaven
Last night when I came home from work, I collapsed into bed and wept.
It hadn’t been an ordinary day at work. It hadn’t been an ordinary week at work.
Reporter Lauren and I had just worked four days reporting for The New Haven Register in Connecticut after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Arriving Friday night in New Haven and working Saturday through Tuesday in the Newtown area, we sought stories outside the big story, knocked on doors, found leads, lost leads, held back our own emotions and listened. Every day meant an exhausting stretch of shoe-leather journalism, and, always determined to come back with a story, we powered through.
Tuesday, we returned to York, where finally I could forget about work and cry for the lives lost.
…a time to gain, a time to lose
Like everyone else in the world, I started Friday, Dec. 14, normally. I got up, showered, ate breakfast. I heard about a school shooting somewhere in Connecticut, but didn’t realize how devastating it was until I was on my way to the newsroom and (at a red light) saw Jeff’s text that 27 people had been killed.
I almost cried then, but knew I had work to do. My assignments for Friday evening included a Penn State football recruit and a local teenager’s holiday light display. I had to hold it together and do my job.
Then, just before I planned to leave to photograph the Penn State recruit, my editor Eileen beckoned me over into the conference room.
Could I, if called upon, go to Newtown that night to help The New Haven Register (and our parent company Digital First Media) with their coverage?
I said yes. So did Lauren. Just over an hour later, we were on the road to Connecticut.
…a time to gather stones
During the four days we worked in Connecticut — four long days that seamlessly blended together amidst the confusion, the scope, the monumental sadness of the story — Lauren and I agreed to avoid the media circus as best we could. The people of Newtown and Sandy Hook were being bombarded by camera crews and reporters, and we wanted no part of that, mostly out of respect for those people in their time of sorrow.
So we spent the first three days reporting “on the fringe,” finding stories outside of the immediate area, talking to people who knew no victims but still grieved. We found a Christmas tree farm that opened on Saturday so area families could try to return to the holiday routine and to a sense of normalcy. We found a religious gift shop owner who kept her store open not just for business but for people who needed to come in and pray with her. We found a church whose mission was outreach and whose members somehow found the time and resources to organize a teddy bear drive, alongside their half-dozen other holiday-related charity programs.
The fourth day, I had no choice but to join the media circus when I was assigned to produce video of the back-to-back funerals of James Mattioli and Jessica Rekos at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church. Two or three people who drove past the media scrum on Church Hill Road yelled at us to “leave them alone” and “go home.” Even before that, though, I felt sick to my stomach about covering funerals, and had to remind myself that, more importantly, the families and friends on the other side of so many cameras and notepads must feel worse.
The fourth day, it seemed, would be the worst day.
…a time to embrace
Then Lauren, on assignment for another story, found a hair stylist who was scheduled to cut James’s hair the day after the shooting. So after the funerals, we went to her salon, which was attached to a kids’ consignment store she also operated. We chatted with her husband about the three months of hard work he had put in to renovate the salon. Instead of interrupting her business for an interview, we waited as she gave a grown customer a haircut, even though I was under pressure to get the funeral video online quickly. We learned that she and her husband came from New York City — he from the Bronx, she from Brooklyn — so their children, now ages 20 and 24, could have a backyard.
Finally, we sat with her, and she told us, on-camera, about how she had so looked forward to seeing James on Saturday, the day after such a terrible tragedy. How he never arrived, and she thought his mother had forgotten and would reschedule. How horrified she was when she saw his name on the victim list. How, when they saw each other at James’s wake, his mother apologized for not calling to cancel the appointment.
When she was done, she gave us hugs. I think we all needed it. I did.
The fourth day ended better than it had begun: I noticed, as we left her salon, that the sun was starting to break through the clouds that had enshrouded the area since Saturday morning.
…a time to weep
I think, for the most part, I’m fairly capable of compartmentalizing emotion. I say, “I think” because I’m by no means a veteran of the industry, and who’s to say I’ve seen the worse that I’ll ever see in my career? But I’ve covered homicides, fatal car accidents, stories of loss. I’ve always maintained my professionalism, while still seeking to be a human in my reporting.
Lauren and I powered through our four days of reporting without shedding a tear, though I came close a few times. It wasn’t adrenaline. I hate to think it was desensitization.
So on Monday afternoon, as we were wrapping up reporting, I suggested that we go to the memorial near the school. None of our work had, thus far, brought us into Sandy Hook or near the school, and I felt it was important that we go pay our respects. We parked on a back road, left our cameras and notepads in the car and walked to the huge makeshift memorial site, which consisted of numerous Christmas trees drooping with ornaments and surrounded by hundreds of stuffed animals, notes and lit candles.
We did not cry. Maybe, if we had not been on deadline and had not been essentially putting off work at the time, we would have.
The tears came on Wednesday night when I was finally home again. It was then that I felt like a human again.
…a time to heal
I’ve been back in York for a full day now, and normalcy is not a thing yet. I went into work today to do some paperwork and participate in the holiday potluck and secret Santa gift exchange, but it all felt strange and foreign. Jeff and I are planning a weekend trip to Philadelphia — which had been our original plan for last weekend — and I mean to bake Christmas cookies, but it’s hard for me to focus on anything.
And yet, I was there for only four full days. I neither knew nor met any of the victims’ families. I never set foot inside a funeral service or wake, and I met only one person who personally knew a victim.
How or whether the people of Newtown and Sandy Hook will fully heal, I’m not sure. But I can say this: It is a strong, close-knit community, and even in a time of immense sorrow, the people are among the kindest, most polite I have ever met.
Many people, including the media ourselves, have noted media fatigue and even animosity toward the media. But Lauren and I encountered only one instance of animosity, which we knew not to take personally. Everyone else — and there were many whom we talked to — was so nice and helpful and friendly. We were astonished, and grateful.
…a time of peace
There’s no telling when the media frenzy will depart Newtown, but the news vans will swarm the streets again next year on the anniversary, and again, and again. The hair stylist who knew James Mattioli said she thinks many of the families will move away. There has already been talk of Newtown being defined by the tragedy, as has happened to Columbine.
It saddens me. Newtown is a lovely place. People in both directions of traffic will stop to let you make a left turn out of a driveway. There are no Walmarts, very few fast food restaurants and a lot of mom-and-pop shops. Everybody knows each other, and if they didn’t know you at first, they’ll at least remember your face and smile next time they see you.
Lauren and I have talked about going back to Newtown again sometime — not as media, but as people, just to say hi to those who greeted us so warmly and talked to us so candidly and treated us so warmly. It’s just a terrible shame that we encountered this wonderful community only by way of a horrific, senseless act of violence.
Another reporter with whom Lauren and I worked said it best:
We all are affected very deeply by this, we care very much for those it touched, and we truly wish that this all never happened.