Anniversaries are normally a time for joyous celebration. However, this year Dec. 14 will be a day for solemn contemplation. It is the 10th anniversary of the tragic murder of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
It’s hard to believe a decade of time has passed. I recall like a fresh memory the sheer horror and disbelief due to the jarring emotional and moral absurdity of it all. In a society like ours oppressed by chronic gun violence, the massacre of young school children using a weapon of war still seems egregiously horrific and out of scale — so brutally merciless and callous — and no one can explain the “why” with reasonable cause.
It is an incomprehensible act of terror and, as we’ve seen, an endless sorrow — one that will not let you go.
My home is only an hour or so from Newtown, so the loss seems quite personal, even though it’s not. I’ve been to Sandy Hook several times out of curiosity to explore the context for my unresolved anger and grief. Somehow, by attempting to become familiar with this community and setting, it has allowed me to feel a bond with those for whom this is home — those who must relive that dark December day in the ordinary activities of daily life.
For residents of the village of Sandy Hook, it’s uniquely personal and cruel, and even more so for the parents who still are harassed by the demonic mockery and threats from deniers. I drive through the narrow roads of this small Connecticut town and try to empathize with their pain, but I know their burden is beyond my experience, nor is it mine to carry.
In early December, I visited the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial which recently opened to the public. On a cold, wind-swept morning, I arrived at the empty parking lot a few hundred yards from the new Sandy Hook school — itself constructed by necessity and by redemptive choice on the site of its fateful predecessor. I was hushed by the gravitas of this sacred space and grateful that I was able to process it alone without requisite company or conversation. The landscape is stunning and provocative with understated symbolism and meaning. It will be an enduring place of memory for those who lost so much and for those who still seek answers.
The memorial itself is simply designed, but profoundly so, beckoning reflection. Visually this happens with the circular pool of water cradled in ringed granite stone with the names of each life lost engraved around the circumference. In the center island is a London planetree, a sycamore hybrid that will rise with strength and resilience and foliage that will burst forth in one season to eventually die in another. It is, like the circle itself, a symbol of life, loss and rebirth — a generational hope meant for even the despairing.
With a stonemason’s skill, the names are memorialized with no reference to dates or age. Adults and children are presented without distinction, one from another. Perhaps it is to say there is no finality to these lives; the children and adults will be remembered as they were when they died or as they might be in the present. Some names I easily recognized due to their parents’ prominence in fighting the gun lobby; others were relatively unknown because their stories simply receded from public interest in ensuing years. Yet now they are enshrined together to defy time and the natural tendency to forget victims. As such, each memorialized name appears to lean in toward the cleansing pool of water as if to invite redemption, centered as everything is on a veritable Tree of Life.
As I slowly followed one of the several black-pebbled walkways leading into the memorial, I considered how this allows each visitor to pursue a path of their own choosing. People approach this memory of loss and love in their own way. This space allows for such, as it must.
Everyone who remembers Sandy Hook with sorrow and love will find their own entry point toward the hope for healing. There are 26 large boulders positioned throughout upon which visitors may sit to linger. It takes time to take it all in — to absorb all it represents, to grasp what it all means. It is a merciful and serene setting where one can, and perhaps must, return to fully explore the emotions that still perplex us to this day.
Doubtless, future generations will lack firsthand knowledge of what occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School, so the public value of this memorial may diminish over time. Yet, it may not; with the maddening tolerance for gun violence in this country, memorials like this are becoming as common as bronze statues in public parks.
They aren’t spaces marked for heroes or wartime victories; rather, they stand as a moral protest over our collective failure to curb this plague of hometown violence. Such as they are in their haunting beauty, those who come to remember will be left on their own to grieve, to pray and to ponder why.
Paul C. Hayes is a retired American Baptist and Alliance of Baptists pastor. He and his spouse, Wendy, reside in Madison, Conn.
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