Gilles Rousseau keeps his daughter’s death certificate in a folder in his Connecticut home. The particulars, typed black on white, are as painful as they are powerfully shocking.
Place of Injury: School.
Manner of death: Homicide.
Cause of death: Multiple gunshot wounds.
The cold words, on a document embossed with the seal of the Connecticut Department of Public Health, barely hint at the horror of the story they tell.
It’s the story of Mr. Rousseau’s daughter, Lauren, a teacher killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School as she tried to protect the children in her care from a gunman. Twenty children and six educators died, Lauren among them.
Five months later, Mr. Rousseau is barely able to stop his tears at the mention of his 30-year-old girl, whose death spread ripples of grief across the U.S. and all the way to Mr. Rousseau’s birthplace in Quebec. Yet out of his dark well of loss, Mr. Rousseau has found the courage to try to take on American gun culture.
“I’ll do anything,” he says, “to make my daughter proud of me.”
One day this month, Mr. Rousseau drove nearly three hours to a town-hall meeting in New Hampshire to try to address a Republican senator, Kelly Ayotte, who voted against measures to tighten gun control with expanded background checks. Mr. Rousseau sat in the hall’s front row, Lauren’s death certificate on his lap. But he never got to put in a question, and when he tried to approach the senator after the meeting, a security guard physically stopped him, he said.
“She is disconnected from the situation. This,” he said, holding up the death certificate, “is reality.”
Working with a group called Sandy Hook Promise, he has also travelled to Washington, meeting President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden. He appeared in a television ad on behalf of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s gun-control group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Even while taping the ad, Mr. Rousseau couldn’t hold back his sobs.
“I’ll go wherever I’m needed, and do what I can,” Mr. Rousseau says in his home on a bucolic hillside outside of Newtown.
Newtown today bears little outward resemblance to the community that came under siege on that horrifying day in mid-December. The camera crews and satellite trucks have gone. Christmas lights have come down and trees have blossomed with spring flowers. The towering U.S. flag that rises in the middle of traffic on Main Street has returned to full mast.
Yet for all its New England charm, Newtown remains the home to grieving neighbours and shattered parents like Mr. Rousseau, a retired portrait photographer. He still has the text message his daughter sent him the day before she was killed, asking him whether he’d retouched the Christmas-card photo of her and her boyfriend. Mr. Rousseau says he spoke to his daughter every day. She was a vivacious and hard-working woman, who held down two other jobs as she pursued her dream of becoming a full-time teacher. She loved children and teaching so much that she would speak to her father constantly about her pupils, how they were behaving, even what books they were reading, and had started collecting posters for the day she would get her own classroom and full-time position.
“She would talk about each kid, even though I didn’t know them,” he says. “She was happy about life, gung-ho.”
The morning of Dec. 14, Lauren had been assigned a first-grade class as a substitute to replace a pregnant teacher who had a doctor’s appointment. When gunman Adam Lanza blasted his way into the school, Lauren tried to hide her pupils inside a tiny bathroom inside the classroom, Mr. Rousseau said. She and the children were found huddling in a corner, police told him.
It was after midnight when a police officer, a crisis-management worker and a minister appeared at Mr. Rousseau’s door and delivered the news he’d already known in his heart. He had texted his daughter after news of the shooting broke – “Are you OK?” – and never got a reply.
Mr. Rousseau asked to see Lauren’s body at the morgue. He was told it was too disfigured. Later, he retrieved his daughter’s Honda Civic that she had left parked at the school. The shots fired by the gunman’s semiautomatic rifle were so powerful, they travelled through the school building and pierced the car door, front seat and back seat before lodging in the trunk.
“It was such a powerful weapon,” Mr. Rousseau says. “He just sprayed it. Probably some bullets went through her to get to the kids behind her. She was the biggest person so she was the easiest target.”
Parents whose children are victim to mass shootings have found themselves thrust into advocacy roles before; after the 1989 École Polytechnique shooting in Montreal, parents of the 14 murdered women lobbied for tighter gun rules. They got a largely sympathetic hearing and political support in Canada. But the parents of Sandy Hook face a more hostile and treacherous landscape, marked by a powerful gun lobby and its political allies.
Mr. Rousseau left Quebec in 1965 for Connecticut but travels back twice a year to visit his many brothers and sisters, who still mostly live in and around the small town of Weedon in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. Lauren often went with him, speaking French to her aunts and uncles, many of whom drove down to Newtown to attend her funeral.
In August, she will make a final trip of sorts to Quebec. Her ashes now sit in a rectangular box on a table in Mr. Rousseau’s living room, wrapped inside a plain burgundy cloth bag. Mr. Rousseau plans to scatter some of them on the family farmstead in Weedon, where he grew up. He says Lauren was attached to the province. “Quebec was like her home,” he says.
Despite the shootings, Mr. Rousseau says he does not blame the gunman. “I feel sorry for him. Before the shooting, his life must have been a living hell.” Nor is he considering leaving the U.S., choosing to stay and fight for curbs on guns, trying to stop the tragedy from fading from America’s memory.
Last week, he drove back to New Hampshire with another Sandy Hook father to speak out for gun control again. He was there, he says, “because my daughter can’t be.”
“It’s a small window of opportunity that I have,” he says. “It would be selfish if I didn’t try to do something to try to change the system a little.” Even if it spares just one more father from a broken heart.