A very American tragedy warrants a very American way of mourning.
At least that’s how Gene Rosen sees it from a little house that has become a symbol of redemption in a town full of sorrow.
It was here that he shepherded six children into his home and gave them toys to keep their minds off the bloodshed they’d witnessed minutes earlier. It’s here he watches wave after wave of out-of-town mourners and reporters. And it’s here he tells the story over and over, breaking down in cathartic tears each time.
The rest of town is weary, not so much with grief – that’s a marathon that has only just begun – but with outsiders coming to leer at their grief.
Not Gene. He is ready to tell his story.
Every morning in Sandy Hook, Conn., he watches as a carnival roar builds around the fire hall next door. The satellite-truck generators kick on early for morning talk shows – enough wattage humming by noon to power the entire town centre.
Troopers bar entry to Riverside Road, one kilometre from the silent elementary school where madness visited on Friday. Here a memorial grows by the minute: 1,000 teddy bears; 1,000 candles; 10,000 floral bouquets, likely more.
Twenty-six Christmas trees representing the 26 school victims became so weighed down by hanging trinkets on Tuesday night that they began toppling, smashing all the ornaments. By noon on Wednesday, they were upright and restocked and – smash – the whole process began anew.
“It’s a circus,” said Jannette Southherd, who lives across from the fire hall where the children huddled after the massacre that killed 20 of their playmates. “I saw those kids come out. I saw them scream. And now I want to get past it, but how can you with all this.” She pointed across the street to the humming NBC truck and throngs of well-wishers surveying the memorial.
“My three-year-old wants to go outside and play, but I keep him in. It’s too crazy out there. He asks me why all the people are outside. I say, ‘They’re here for a picnic.’ Then he asks why there are so many teddy bears and I say, “Because there are some little kids in heaven.’ And then I tell him to stop with the questions. What am I supposed to say, that the kids he used play with on the playground were killed?”
Four other neighbours in houses overlooking the fire hall said the same: Give us some space.
But the din seems to quiet around the smallest house in the area, a 1,200-square-foot clapboard shack that shares a property line with the firemen. Gene’s place. He’s a retired psychologist and everyone wants to speak to him since he took a star turn on CNN a few nights ago. He’s only too happy to oblige.
“Please come in, come on in, everyone is welcome here,” he says to anyone walking by.
Okay, thank you for the invitation Mr. Rosen.
“Please call me Gene, I’m not a king.”
His Volkswagen bears a “Coexist” bumper sticker and his welcome mat is made up of a series of signs. On Friday morning, Mr. Rosen was about to fix himself a spinach omelette and peruse The New York Times on his iPad when his generous side got to him. He had two cats in the loft over his detached garage and it just wouldn’t be right to feed himself when they were going hungry.
He heard shots, probably one of the local deer hunters, he thought. When he emerged from the garage, he spotted six children sitting on his lawn. That’s curious, he thought, but not entirely out of the ordinary when you live this close to an elementary school. They were crying, out of breath. Maybe they are practising a school play, he told himself.
Then he stepped closer. Something was clearly wrong. So he did what he does with everyone who comes past his house. “I took the children into the house. I went upstairs and got some of my grandchildren’s toys.” There was a plush cartoon carrot, Sponge Bob Square Pants, a Mercer Mayer picture book.
He still didn’t know what was wrong. Then one boy began a terrible refrain: “We can’t go back to school, we can’t go back to school. Our teacher is gone, our teacher is gone. Mrs. Soto. He had a big gun and a little gun.”
Over and over.
A girl chimed in. “There was blood in her mouth, and she fell to the ground.”
Mr. Rosen has told this story a hundred times now, and it doesn’t get any easier. His throat clamps and his words get cut short.
“I refused to believe this boy, that something so horrible could have happened,” he said.
He and a school aid called the kids’ parents, but two children remained, their parents away at work, so Mr. Rosen walked them over to the fire hall where emergency officials conducted their grim accounting.
Three hours later, he was back in his empty home recovering when a knock came at the door. “It was a woman, frozen in fear. She asked if her son was inside.”
His face betrayed the answer, but he invited her inside all the same.
Now, five days on, he wants the children to come back. He wants the whole world inside his little house. He wants them sledding down the little hill in his yard, he wants them snickering at his painting of a cat on a latrine, he wants to hug the little boy who turned to him amid that horrible Friday and said to Mr. Rosen, “Just sayin’, but your house is really small.”
He’s heard talk of burning the school, of taking down the memorial and kicking out the media, of erasing this perpetual reminder of 20 dead kids and six dead school staff. You won’t hear such talk from his mouth.
“Our hearts our broken, but our soul must stay intact,” he said. “My soul lives here. The town’s soul lives here … We need the media here, the visitors here. Visit any time. I think it emboldens love, not hate.”
And who is an outsider to question Gene?