Mark and Jackie Barden hug their 11-year-old daughter, Natalie, before… (Linda Davidson/The Washington…)
The Washington Post
Mark and Jackie Barden hug their 11-year-old daughter, Natalie, before she goes to school in Newtown, Conn., in May.
They had promised to try everything, so Mark Barden went down into the basement to begin another project in memory of Daniel. The families of Sandy Hook Elementary were collaborating on a Mother’s Day card, which would be produced by a marketing firm and mailed to hundreds of politicians across the country. “A difference-maker,” the organizers had called it. Maybe if Mark could find the most arresting photo of his 7-year-old son, people would be compelled to act.
It hardly mattered that what Mark and his wife, Jackie, really wanted was to ignore Mother’s Day altogether, to stay in their pajamas with their two surviving children, turn off their phones and reward themselves for making it through another day with a glass of Irish whiskey neat.
“Our purpose now is to force people to remember,” Mark said, so down he went into his office to sift through 1,700 photos of the family they had been.
The Bardens had already tried to change America’s gun laws by studying the Second Amendment and meeting with President Obama in the Oval Office. They had spoken at tea party rallies, posed for People magazine and grieved on TV with Katie Couric. They had taken advice from a public relations firm, learning to say “magazine limits” and not “magazine bans,” to say “gun responsibility” and never “gun control.” When none of that worked, they had walked the halls of Congress with a bag of 200 glossy pictures and beseeched lawmakers to look at their son: his auburn hair curling at the ears, his front teeth sacrificed to a soccer collision, his arms wrapped around Ninja Cat, the stuffed animal that had traveled with him everywhere, including into the hearse and underground.
Almost six months now, and so little had gotten through. So maybe a Mother’s Day card. Maybe that.
Mark turned on his computer and began looking for the right picture. “Something lighthearted,” he said. “Something sweet.” He had been sitting in the same chair Dec. 14, when he received an automated call about a Code Red Alert, and much of the basement had been preserved in that moment. Nobody had touched the foosball table, because Daniel had been the last to play. His books and toy trains sat in their familiar piles, gathering dust. The basement had always been Daniel’s space, and some days Mark believed he could still smell him here, just in from playing outside, all grassy and muddy.
Now it was Daniel’s face staring back at him on the computer screen, alit in an orange glow as he blew out seven candles on a birthday cake in September.
“Oh God. His last birthday,” Mark said, rubbing his forehead, scanning to the next photo, knowing the chronology that came next.
Daniel dressed as an elf for Halloween. Daniel grinning after his hair was cut short on Dec. 4. Daniel in a video taken a week before his death, wearing reindeer horns and carrying cookies to the neighbor’s house. “Bye, Dad,” he was saying.
Next came a photo Mark had taken early that last morning. He and Daniel had been lying on the couch, half asleep, after the rest of the family had left for school. Daniel had noticed how the sunrise and the Christmas lights were reflecting on the window, like a red-and-orange kaleidoscope. “Wow,” he had said. Mark had grabbed his camera and taken a picture of the window, and now he was searching that picture for a trace of Daniel’s reflection in the glass, zooming in, running his fingers against the screen.
“He has to be in here,” Mark said. Maybe he had taken another. He flipped to the next picture, but it was from four days later, of a police car parked in front of their house.
The Washington Post
Mark Barden, at home, thinking about Daniel.
The Washington Post
Jackie Barden stares into the yard where Daniel played.
It sometimes felt to Mark in these moments like his grief was still deepening, like the worst was yet to come. After the gunfire, the funerals, the NRA protests and the congressional debates, they were finally coming into the lonely quiet. They were coming to the truth of what Newtown would become. Would it be the transformative moment in American gun policy that, in those first days, so many had promised? Or another Columbine, Virginia Tech, Gabby Giffords, Aurora — one more proper noun added to an ever-growing list? The FBI had closed its temporary Newtown office. Politicians in Washington were moving on to other issues. Scariest of all to Mark, he was starting to forget little things, too, losing pieces of Daniel to the recesses of his mind, so he had started a journal to log memories before they disappeared.
“I’m always one minute farther away from my life with Daniel,” he had written one day. “The gulf keeps getting bigger.”