"How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world."
The last time I saw Ben Wheeler, he and his big brother Nate were eating chocolate-chip pancakes and being terribly silly. Benny's raison d'etre that day and every day was an insouciant and delightful silliness. That was in April of last year, at the Cloud 9 diner downstairs from my apartment in Midtown Manhattan, when they were visiting the city from Connecticut with their mom, one of my oldest and dearest friends. Francine and I used to practice our Academy Award acceptance speeches in her bedroom mirror with a hairbrush "microphone." We were terribly gracious about all the acclaim. The boys, Francine and her husband David had moved from Sunnyside, Queens, up to Sandy Hook, Conn., a couple of years earlier. Both talented actors and singers, these parents had made sizable sacrifices to offer their kids the best childhood possible, with trees and ponds and excellent public schools. I recall them telling me about the financial squeeze of car payments and heating oil bills, and I remember thinking, "Boy, they really live in America!" with all its benefits and challenges. It was a very different life from that of a neurotic, single, professional gay man in New York.
One morning in December, nine months after the pancake breakfast, I got a strange voicemail from a mutual friend in Los Angeles asking me to call her immediately. When Mary and I spoke, she told me that there had been another school shooting, this time in Connecticut. Her usually upbeat and fizzy demeanor was subdued, her voice leaden. She let me know that the shooting had been at the boys' school, that information was very sketchy, but that Francine had asked her to call me, and that it looked like Ben had been in the path of the shooter.
Tomorrow, Dec. 14, marks one year since 20-year-old Adam Lanza, after shooting and killing his mother at their home in Newtown, killed 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School before committing suicide as police arrived.
Shock is a strange and terrible thing, a protective mechanism that throws the circuit breakers to prevent the whole bloody system from shorting out. Even on 9/11, running uptown from an appointment that morning next to the Woolworth Building, I didn't have that bizarre experience that I would have that day in December 2013, and for weeks after, frankly, where I just couldn't believe what had happened in Sandy Hook. Did this truly occur? Is this some sort of test or some horrible joke?
I'm a psychotherapist. Every day I deal with the aftershocks of trauma and its sneaky, lingering symptoms in the bodies, minds and behaviors of people I care deeply about. But I just couldn't shake the sense of unreality when it came to Sandy Hook and what had happened to the children and the educators and the entire community there.
When I was getting ready to drive up to Connecticut in a rental car for Benny's funeral, a dear friend offered to accompany me. We were running late, and Hertz had had no compact cars, so we wound up getting lost on the way in a gigantic white pimpmobile of an SUV. My pal was by turns irascible and hysterically funny, singing songs and smoking cigarettes and doing his best to distract me from my own thoughts and feelings, God bless him.
When we finally arrived, it was a circus, a solemn, misty morning circus, with lines of vehicles moving slowly through the streets, somberly following the balletic arm gestures of state troopers, who had been in town for days and days and days of funerals. When we finally made it to the Gothic stone church and walked up, the far side of the street had a phalanx, as they say, of cameras and reporters, dozens and dozens of them. Like a firing range, I grimly thought.
We were too late to get inside the church (it was packed to the rafters), so we stood silently outside, in vigil. I'll never forget the Boy Scout troop also waiting outside in their knotted red kerchiefs, speaking softly, no roughhousing, no preteen humor. When the family finally came out and made their way to the long, black limousines waiting to take them to the private burial at the cemetery, the Boy Scouts cracked into ramrod straight postures and saluted the family. That's what they had come to do. Only that.
Later, at the reception in the church basement, I hugged Francine and David, not saying anything but "love you" and tousling Nate's hair. That's what I had come to do. We drove home.
Benny loved lighthouses for some reason. Since he's been gone, lighthouses have become a symbol and a metaphor for him and his martyrdom. His spirit and his memory shine a strong and penetrating beam of light through clear nights and stormy ones to confer upon us awareness, and to bring us safely home.
Ben's Lighthouse is an organization that "was created in honor of Ben Wheeler and his Sandy Hook classmates to promote the long-term health of the children and families in the region while nurturing an environment of non-violence and caring." For more information about Ben's Lighthouse, please go to benslighthouse.org.
Christopher Murray is a psychotherapist in private practice in Manhattan. He can be reached at christophermurray.org.