Remembering the Boy Who Was Brave

The grieving mother of a victim of the Sandy Hook shooting finds solace in her son's last courageous act.

By Scarlett Lewis excerpted from Nurturing Healing Love
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine December 2013

newtown mom kids

Courtesy of Scarlett Lewis

Then the screaming started. One of the parents at the opposite side of the room made a sound that cut my heart in two, expressing a loss that words can’t define. The sounds of human anguish echoed through the hall. Hearing them, J.T. winced, as though he’d been struck, so I got up and ushered him outside to the back of the firehouse. This is where Neil had been most of the day, talking to officials and trying to get updates.

He came over to us and pulled me aside. “Scarlett, my mother died five years ago on this very day. Jesse was asking me about her last week. He was worried about how he’d recognize her in heaven if he died. I told him that I’d be in heaven well before him and that I’d meet him and introduce him to her. Scarlett, if Jesse is dead, what does all that mean?”

“I guess it means … it was a gift for you, Neil—a message from your mother that she would be in heaven to meet him.”

Another scream rose up behind us. It was too much; I had to get J.T. as far away from the trauma as I could. By then, most of my family members who lived nearby had joined us at the firehouse.

“Please, guys, let’s move,” I said. “I want peace. Whatever is going to happen, I want peace around us.”

I looked into my heart and began to accept the possibility that Jesse might be gone. I said to myself that if—and that was only if—something bad had happened, if Jesse had been “taken” from us, then he’d been taken while he was doing something courageous.

I clutched my grandmother’s cross. The family moved their chairs into a circle. An hour passed, maybe two.

In the late afternoon, an elderly doctor crossed the parking lot and headed in our direction. It was our turn. The doctor walked straight to me and knelt down beside my chair.

“There is no easy way to say this. Your son is dead.”

I stared at him and said nothing; I couldn’t. At that moment, I couldn’t feel, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t cry. Not until J.T. began sobbing, and then I threw my arms around him and hugged him as hard as I could.

The next morning in the predawn dark, I instinctively reached out to stroke Jesse’s hair in case he’d slipped into bed next to me. I whispered the first words of my morning prayer to thank God for all my blessings. A few seconds later, I realized I was not at home but at my mother’s house, and Jesse was not beside me.

Reality hit me like a kick in the stomach. My gut twisted into knots so painful that my knees jerked to my chest and I rolled into the fetal position. For a few desperate seconds, my mind clutched at hope—I didn’t see his body … it’s just a big mistake … he’s still hiding in the woods …

But my gut knew; the intense pain in my stomach wasn’t letting up—it was a forever kind of pain.

Newspaper reporters were asking for interviews and photos of Jesse. Someone said an obituary had to be prepared right away and asked if I wanted to write it. I knew I was the only one who could. I wanted the world to see Jesse through the loving eyes of his mama. I lay in bed and thought how actually writing my sweet Jesse’s name next to the words Taken from us suddenly on December 14, 2012 would make it official: Jesse was dead.

Suddenly the lamp on the bedside table next to me flickered.


The bulb flickered again, in a rapid, steady, staccato rhythm.

Jesse was born brave. Maybe if he hadn’t been quite so brave, I might still be singing my wake-up song to my precious six-year-old each morning. And maybe if he hadn’t been quite so courageous, he would be here to blow out the seven candles I’ll be lighting on his next birthday cake.

But Jesse was who he was—a first grader with a happy, ever-ready grin whom God had given a warrior’s heart. He was only four feet tall, but he feared very little and never backed away from a challenge, be it climbing into the saddle of a horse that towered over him or stepping up to help someone in danger.

So I wasn’t surprised to learn from police investigators that when the first blasts of automatic gunfire echoed through the hallways of the school, Jesse didn’t run. And when Miss Soto, the first-grade teacher he loved so dearly, tried to hide the children in the bathroom and in different areas of the classroom, Jesse remained by her side.

Jesse stayed by his teacher even when the gunman walked into the classroom and opened fire. No one is entirely certain of what happened, but it is likely that a bullet fragment from one of the shots that killed Miss Soto grazed the side of Jesse’s head.

The kids who survived reported that even with this head wound, Jesse stayed on his feet and faced the gunman. And it was then that Jesse did what I am now certain that he was put on this earth to do: He saved lives. When the shooter was forced to stop for a moment, either to fix his gun or to reload, Jesse yelled to his classmates to run, to run as fast as they could, to run now! And they did. Nine terrified first graders managed to run from the classroom to safety as the gunman took aim at Jesse.

On the day of Jesse’s funeral, my family and I were escorted to the cemetery by a police motorcade; mounted police greeted us at the cemetery gates, saluting Jesse from atop their huge, beautiful horses. When Jesse’s casket arrived, I felt his spirit all around us. My friend Kelley handed out 20 brightly colored balloons—one balloon for each lost child. I took J.T.’s hand in mine, and we all walked together to a clearing and set the balloons free, watching them rise upward on the wind as they slowly drifted toward town. A moment later, someone shouted, “Look, the balloons have formed a heart!”

Sure enough, the balloons had come together and were floating directly above Sandy Hook Elementary in the shape of a heart. For several minutes, the heart hovered above the school. Then the wind picked up, and the beautiful heart floated up to heaven.

Courtesy of Scarlett Lewis

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