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Published Wednesday, December 26, 2012
Six days after the funeral of six-year-old Noah Pozner, his family is taking stock of the gifts sent to them by strangers all over the world. There’s a stiff teddy bear in a brown overcoat and hat accompanied by a note from a woman who says the bear gave her great comfort when her mother passed away. There is a box filled with tiny stuffed animals. And a miniature cypress tree, which reminds Veronique, Noah’s mother, to think of life.
Noah’s maternal grandmother, Marie-Claude Duytschaever, pulls a brown bear with lanky arms and legs from a cardboard box. It’s meant for Noah’s twin, Arielle, and his 7-year-old sister, Sophia. Veronique takes the stuffed animal — the family will later name it “Noah Bear” — in her arms and gives it a long squeeze before surrendering it to the living room where the toys are quickly piling up. The gifts seem to comfort the family, but they also highlight the absence of the boy who would have reveled in them.
Noah was the youngest child massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, when 20-year-old gunman Adam Lanza first killed his mother, Nancy Lanza, and then shot his way into the school and slayed 20 first grade students and six staff members, including the principal. Noah was hit multiple times. He was the first child to be buried, on December 17 in a funeral overseen by Rabbi Shaul Praver of Congregation Adath Israel of Newtown.
For the following six nights, the family sat shiva at a friend’s house, which could better accommodate the dozens of visitors than their smaller home. Today, Sunday, with the official Jewish mourning period over, the Pozners have invited friends and family to a large white two-story home they have rented on the outskirts of Newtown. (Noah’s father Lenny is not present. After the shiva period, he went to be with family in Florida.) In preparation, the family clears the stuffed animals off the kitchen island and replaces them with bowls of dried fruit, chips, candied nuts, carrot sticks and a roast turkey.
This is how the nation’s most famous Jewish grieving family grieves.
At 1:00 pm, the guests arrive: the grief counselor who held Veronique’s hand at the funeral, the family friend who purchased a tiny tie for Noah to be buried in, high school friends of Danielle Vabner, Noah’s 18-year-old half sister. Children race in and out of every room; they play Monopoly on the living room floor, jump on piles of pillows and sit on the couch, drawing quietly. Noah and Arielle were born within months of two other cousins, Ethan and Laura. Now, Ethan sits alone at the kitchen counter, eating a bowl of macaroni and cheese with green peas. When his mother, Victoria Haller, told him that they would travel from Seattle to Connecticut to visit the cousins after Noah’s death, he sheepishly asked her, “But one less?”
At the center of everything is Veronique. On her right wrist is a tattoo she and Danielle both got the day after Noah died: a small pink rose flanked by two angel wings with Noah’s name spanning the space between them, and his birth and death dates beneath. A torn black ribbon is pinned to her shirt, a Jewish mourning custom. She is wearing purplish pink lipstick and her short black hair is combed into puffy curls around her face.
“I hope it doesn’t look callous to some people, but I have to keep taking care of myself physically,” she says, “That is what Noah would want. He would want his mom to be the way she always is.”
She has the air of a person in deep, almost studious concentration; she speaks in a quick, deliberate clip. Some details — the order of events after the killing — seem out of grasp; she can’t remember which door leads to which room in the unfamiliar house.
The past week has been a “waking nightmare,” she says, sitting on a beige couch in the living room before the guests arrive. Daytime brings activity, and occasional numb relief. But at night, “I wake up at two or three in the morning and that is when I start to wrestle with the demons of the why, and the how. Did he suffer? Where is he now? Is he at peace? Is he happy? Or is he lost?” At these moments Veronique thinks of Noah as a child lost in a crowded mall, searching hopelessly for his family.
Veronique was born in Switzerland to French parents who raised her in Scarsdale, N.Y. She converted to Judaism in 1992 when she married her first husband, Reuben Vabner. Her second husband, Lenny, is also Jewish; he is originally from Brooklyn and works in information technology. In 2005, Lenny and Veronique relocated to Newtown from nearby Bethel. (They had previously lived in Westchester.) They had three children in tow: Sophia, an infant, and Danielle and Michael, from Veronique’s first marriage. Sometime in 2013, Veronique says, she plans to move her family again, this time to the Seattle area where much of her extended family lives. They will be taking Noah’s body with them.
Veronique conceived Noah and Arielle through the help of fertility treatments, and gave birth to the healthy pair in 2006 after a difficult, diabetic pregnancy. She was 39. From the beginning, the twins were inseparable.
“It was almost like they were a continuum rather than two different human beings,” she says. Together with Sophia, who is 22 months older, they formed a “fearsome threesome, like a tripod on a camera.”
Noah was the energetic leg of the tripod, an animated boy with big blue eyes. He loved unusual foods for a child: pickles, broccoli, salmon, cheese. And tacos — he often talked about wanting to manage a taco factory when he grew up, in addition to being an astronaut and a doctor. He already knew how to read; he had a vocabulary well beyond his years, using words like “DNA” and “dynamic.”
“He excelled academically,” says Danielle. “His teachers said he was really, really, smart.”
He was on a constant path of discovery. “It was always, ‘How does this work? Why does this happen?’ He wanted to understand cause and effect,” says Veronique.
Noah also wondered about God, asking his mother, “If God exists then who created God?” He wanted to know what happens after death. “I would always tell him, ‘You are not going to die until you are a very old man, Noah.’ He was afraid of death, I know he was. He feared the unknown,” Veronique says. “Sometimes I wonder whether he had some foretelling, some prescience about it. Of course I will never know for sure, maybe it was just the random fears of a child.”
On the morning of December 14, Veronique was at the medical center where she works as an oncology nurse when she received an automated text message alerting her that there was a reported shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. At first, she thought it might have been a false alarm, like a fake bomb threat. But then a patient following the events on her iPhone urged her to go.
Veronique drove at 80 miles per hour to the school, praying that her car’s faulty engine would hold up. The streets near Sandy Hook Elementary were so congested that she parked at a nearby Subway sandwich shop and ran to the firehouse, where other parents had gathered. She quickly located Arielle and Sophia and Lenny. But Noah was nowhere to be found.
For hours, she sat in the firehouse, waiting. Her stomach clenched; she vomited in the bathroom. When she came out there was pizza and donuts, but she couldn’t eat. Soon, nuns, priests, ministers and a rabbi arrived. “When I saw all those clergy people I knew in my gut of guts and my heart of hearts that they were dead,” she recalls. “I knew there was absolutely no way they would dispatch this multi-denominational fan of clergy people were it not the case that the news would be absolutely catastrophic.”
Finally, an official announcement was made: 20 child fatalities. “That is when, for me, my whole world shifted on its axis,” she says. “It was like you are sitting in a room, and everything, including you, is turned upside down and you are sitting on the ceiling instead of the floor. You have this surreal sense of void, like all the air has been sucked out of the room.” Veronique wanted to place a blanket on Noah. “They told us, ‘No, it is a crime scene.’ They would not let us go.”
That night, Lenny took the younger children to a friend’s house. Veronique barely slept, but when she did she dreamed she was inside an abandoned house on an island covered in brown grass, walking the hallways and knocking on doors looking for Noah. She would wake from the dream screaming, and Danielle, sleeping beside her would comfort her.
Two days later, Veronique met President Obama at a vigil at the local high school, and she told him about the dream. “He whispered to me, ‘If you listen closely he is answering you,’” says Veronique. “And it really, really helped me.”
Veronique asked the medical examiners not to autopsy her son; she felt that his body had suffered too many indignities. At his funeral, Noah was dressed in a suit and tie. A Jewish friend of Veronique’s at work enjoined Rabbi Praver to allow him to be wrapped in a blue tallis, even though he had not yet had a bar mitzvah.
The family placed stuffed animals, a blanket and letters to Noah into the casket. Lastly, Veronique put a clear plastic rock with a white angel inside — an “angel stone” — in his right hand. She asked the funeral director to place an identical one in his left, which was badly mangled.
Just before the ceremony, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy came to the funeral home to pay his respects. Veronique took him by the arm and brought him to the casket. Noah’s famously long eyelashes — which she spoke about in her eulogy — rested lightly on his cheeks and a cloth covered the place where the lower half of his face had been. “I just needed it to be real for [the governor],” she says. “This was a live, warm, energetic little boy whose life was snuffed out in a fraction of a second because our schools are so defenseless.”
Veronique says that she doesn’t know the best path to stop school shootings. “If Adam [Lanza] had shown up at Sandy Hook with a knife or a less powerful weapon, he may have harmed some people but it would not have been the mass carnage we saw,” she says. She has never considered herself an activist, but the death of her son planted a seed within her: “This topic has wings for me. It has got to take flight.”
Like some Sandy Hook parents who have spoken to the media, Veronique has shied away from portraying Lanza as evil or diabolical. “If we describe him as a demonic force or as a beast with the sign of the beast on his forehead, that is a mistake,” she says. “Because then we are making him apart from humanity when in fact he is part of what is possible in humanity. How do we help these people so this doesn’t happen again, so they never sink so low, so they never have to go to a place so dark where they can take out small children in a fit of rage?”
Veronique’s mother, Marie-Claude, says she feels nothing about Adam Lanza or his mother. “They don’t exist,” she says. “They don’t register as people. For me, I am numb. I don’t have forgiveness because I am not angry.”
Marie-Claude says that her energy is focused on her family at the moment. In the past week, she has been chronicling all the ways in which Noah’s presence is still felt in the world on her blog. A twitching of the curtains, a sudden chirping of a bird ornament on the Christmas tree, a succulent plant burst into flower — all evidence of mischievous Noah at play.
Just this morning, Veronique and Marie-Claude were sitting downstairs when Veronique noticed a blue jay outside the window. “To me it was a sign of Noah,” says Marie-Claude. She wrote about the occurrence soon after: “We looked at each other: Noah had loved blue, he had [been] buried with a blue and white Jewish prayer shawl, he always said he wanted wings so that he could fly.”
It is moments like these, the affection of family members, the love of friends, the cards and stuffed animals from strangers and the human tears shed by public officials that have constituted a life raft for the Pozners, and, no doubt, for the 19 other Newtown families.
“At the end of the day,” says Veronique, “the equation is in favor of what is good and what is human and what is giving instead of what takes away.”
Naomi Zeveloff is the deputy culture editor of the Forward. She can be reached at Zeveloff@forward.com or on Twitter @NaomiZeveloff.
To donate to the family’s fund for grief counseling and education for the children, visit noahpozner.org.
This article was adjusted on December 4, 2013 to reflect documentary information made available to The Forward. The article originally reported that Noah Pozner was shot 11 times. We have since learned that the actual number is less than 11. In deference to the family’s wishes to keep the number private, we changed the text to read “multiple” gun shots.