He never showed up.
That, for some reason, is where it became real to me.
Somewhere between the piles of flowers, makeshift memorials, and barrage of funerals at St. Rose of Lima church, it hit me hard in a Sandy Hook hair salon on my last day of reporting from the Connecticut town.
Marci Benitez, a hair dresser at Fun Kuts, planned to cut 6-year-old James Mattioli’s hair on Saturday.
The appointment came and went. Benitez thought the young boy’s mother had forgotten, until she saw his name on a list released Saturday.
It’s a list none of us will ever forget — a list of names, mostly 6- and 7-year-olds, who had perished when 20-year-old Adam Lanza entered their elementary school on Dec. 14 and filled their classrooms with bullets.
The truth is … I hadn’t been paying much attention to the news that day.
Instead, I sat at my desk in the York Daily Record newsroom racking my brain to think up business stories for the upcoming holiday.
Before I knew it, managing editor Randy Parker pulled me into a conference room.
He asked me if I’d go to Connecticut with photographer Chris Dunn to help the New Haven Register and Digital First Media’s Thunderdome team cover the Connecticut massacre.
“When am I leaving?” I recall asking.
“As soon as you can pack and get back here,” he said.
I went home, packed my bags (and every electronic device in my possession) and Chris and I were on our way within an hour.
During the trip, we put 943 miles on Chris’ car, driving circles around tiny Sandy Hook trying to avoid the media mob scene and mine stories on the periphery.
On Saturday, I wrote about one of the adult victims, school psychologist Mary Sherlach, and profiled the small New England town, focusing on its traditions and how they had been threatened by what happened the day before.
We went to Everything Newtown, where owner Teri Brunelli’s souvenirs bearing the “Sandy Hook” and “Newtown” names were suddenly in demand across the country.
We visited a Christmas tree farm.
On Sunday, our assignment took a macabre twist. We were assigned to find the “gravedigger” angle, the harsh reality that a small town of 28,000 with just one funeral home was about to bury 26 of their own.
We drove to neighboring Monroe and found a flower shop making funeral sprays. We went to the Newtown Village Cemetery and saw a man preparing his backhoe.
We talked to the Honan Funeral Home, the town’s only funeral home, where the owner’s wife told me that they are usually involved with about 100 funerals a year. A YEAR.
Monday, we found a religious shop’s owner collecting donations in a jar on her checkout tables, a church collecting teddy bears, and a first selectman who, in spite of this charity, said that Newtown would rather be left alone.
Tuesday we found businesses trying to help their customers. That’s when I came across Marci. She made us feel human again.
We put our notepads down and listened, despite a pressing deadline.
She told us she moved to Sandy Hook so her children could have a backyard. When they got older, she decided to specialize in cutting children’s hair.
Children bring her joy, she said.
Then, she gave us something I still can’t believe amid the strong anti-media sentiment that’s built up over the last several days.
She gave us both a hug.
We left Newtown on Wednesday, stopping first at the Blue Colony Diner for breakfast.
Then, we returned to Everything Newtown.
Brunelli called us out. She said she watched Chris’ video and read my story. She liked our approach.
“I’m surprised you remembered us,” I said. After all, the store had been crushed with reporters all weekend.
“How could I forget you?” Brunelli said. “You were so nice.”
And that’s the biggest thing I learned.
All too often, I take the “get-in, get-out” approach to journalism.
I get it done, crank out the story, and move onto the next thing.
I don’t ask people about their days or their plans for the holidays.
But you have to in a situation like this. You have to be kind, be human.
You have to show a genuine interest in the things people are saying and put the notepad away. Tell them you wish it never happened.
In a town filled with people just trying to get a story, it’s the only thing that’s going to set you apart.
Since we’ve gotten back, people have asked me about my own emotional state.
I’m fine. I’m OK. This post is not about that.
In fact, I find it selfish to think of myself as I imagine those people who live in Newtown – the hell that surrounds those 26 deaths.
I met a fabulous group of journalists I hope to stay in touch with. One of
them, Frank Otto of the Pottstown Mercury, reflected on his experience here.
For us, Newtown’s tiny shops, historic charm, and friendly faces will one day be a distant memory.
(Though Chris and I have discussed visiting again one day under happier circumstances. Read her blog here.)
Me? I’ll go home to Hershey next week. I’ll spend Christmas with my family. I’ll return to my job, my life, my friends.
Journalists – we have it easy. We can return to everything we knew before.
I cry for those people who can’t.