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.

newtown mom child
Courtesy of Scarlett Lewis

My last morning with Jesse began like so many others; I woke him up with a song and kissed him until he giggled. It was a beautiful, sunny morning but so cold that my car was coated with a layer of frost.

Jesse’s father, Neil, arrived to take Jesse to school. We finalized plans to meet at Jesse’s elementary school the next afternoon.

When I turned to kiss Jesse goodbye, I saw that he’d written a note to me in the frost on the passenger-side window and door—I Love You. He stood there smiling up at me.

When Neil and Jesse got to school, Neil parked the car and walked with Jesse through the front doors and into the main hallway, where they hugged goodbye as usual.

Jesse put his hands on Neil’s shoulders. “I just want you to know it’s going to be OK. I love you and Mom.”

Then Jesse turned and walked away down the hall toward his first-grade classroom.

I’d been at work for about an hour when my colleague Tina sent me an instant message: “Did you hear about a shooting at a school in Newtown?”

The message startled me, but I remained calm. Even if the report were true, what were the odds that of all the schools in Newtown, something like that would happen at the school that Jesse or my older son, J.T., attended? Then my phone rang.

It was my friend and neighbor Diane. “Did you hear that a teacher got shot in the foot at Jesse’s school?” she asked. A second later, every electronic device around me was ringing, beeping, or vibrating, delivering a barrage of phone calls, texts, e-mails, and instant messages from family, friends, and colleagues. Everybody was either asking me what was going on or giving me fragments of information they’d heard. It was too much for my brain to assemble, but it seemed clear that there had been a shooting, and it had definitely happened at Sandy Hook Elementary—Jesse’s school.

I took a deep breath and told myself to stay calm. There’d been a false report about a school shooting in town before; maybe this was another one.

Then Neil called, worried. “Nothing really bad could have happened, Neil. This is Sandy Hook! Jesse is fine,” I said.

Neil was heading out to pick up Jesse at the Sandy Hook firehouse, which had been designated as the official meeting place for parents and students. I decided I would just go, as well, in case Jesse needed consoling.

En route I pulled up to my house, ran inside, grabbed my grandmother’s silver cross necklace, slipped it around my neck, and jumped back behind the wheel.

When I got to the firehouse, I was immediately stopped by an official. “If you haven’t found your child yet, go to the back corner.”

Inside, I scanned the faces for Jesse. When I didn’t see him, I began looking for one of his classmates, but I didn’t see any of them either. I stood in the fire truck bay for a few seconds, watching as relieved moms and dads found their sons and daughters and snatched them up into their arms.

“I can’t find my son; his name is Jesse,” I said to anyone who looked in the least bit official. Each one told me to wait in the back room.

Neil called, and I asked him to check day care, where someone told me several of the kids had run. I walked toward the school but didn’t make it more than 20 feet up the wooded drive before military personnel in fatigues turned me back.

Neil texted: “He’s not at the day-care center. Now what?” I told him I was going back to the firehouse. By that time, my mother, Maureen, her husband, Bob, and my friend Diane had arrived. When J.T. texted and asked if he could join us, I told him OK. I want the three of us together, I thought. Once we find Jesse, we can all go home, reunited, as a family.

The atmosphere in the firehouse had become increasingly tense. A state trooper moved from one group of parents to the next, trying to calm nerves.

“Some of the children went to hide in bathrooms and closets,” he said. “We are looking in every corner and crevice of the building to find them. Some kids may have even run out of the school and may be hiding in the woods. Our search teams are combing the woods right now.”

The trooper asked me for a description of the clothes Jesse was wearing that day and for a recent picture of him. I gave him the details. Another officer came to get Jesse’s full name to add him to the list of children who were missing.

At that point, all I could do was wait and huddle with my family. J.T. had arrived, and I hugged him as tightly as I could and told him the same words I’d been repeating all day—not to worry, Jesse was fine.

I had hope. At least, part of me did.

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.

“Jesse?”

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.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest

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