A year ago today, Josephine Gay turned 7. She was thrilled about her upcoming birthday party; the invitations had been sent, and the cupcakes would have purple frosting,
Joey’s favorite color.
The party never happened. Joey was among the 20 students and 6 adults killed Dec. 14 in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, then killed himself.
Nearly a year after the Newtown tragedy, the agonizing work of carrying on continues for the victims’ families. For Michele and Bob Gay, the effort to stay afloat, to resist being dragged down by grief or anger, takes many forms.
Michele and another Newtown parent, Alissa Parker, launched a school safety initiative and in June traveled to Columbine High School to speak. Bob has turned to a less public role, setting up a fund for autistic children in Joey’s name.
More challenging is the day-to-day business of moving forward, of giving their two older daughters, now 10 and 12, and themselves as normal a home life as they can. To remember Joey without letting their lives be defined by her heartbreaking loss. To take “the journey from loss into hope,” as Michele puts it.
‘The healing happens. The shock dissipates. . . . we feel like she’s still our daughter.’
“It still hurts exactly the same,” says Michele, a warm woman who finds it both difficult and comforting to talk about her youngest.
The Gay family lives in a suburb of Boston, where they moved a month after the shootings. To protect their privacy, they don’t want to identify the town or release names and photos of their daughters, who have settled into new schools, with soccer and Girl Scouts and new friends.
“You still think about the events of that day every day,” Michele continues. “But the healing happens. The shock dissipates. At the end of the day, we feel like she’s still our daughter, and we’re still her family.”
Michele Gay heads back to Newtown about once a month, to the family’s old church, St. Rose of Lima, and to a support group of other parents. Some of the families also meet for dinner and visit one another’s homes. All 26 families have created a memorial website for their loved ones.
“It’s a touchstone,” she says. “We have unspoken camaraderie and find comfort in being together. It’s a very powerful thing.”
And yet, leaving Newtown has helped the healing process. The Gays have, in some ways, literally started over. The family has settled into their new community, which they had chosen mainly for Joey: the school system has good services for autistic children. Michele and Bob, Baltimore natives and longtime Orioles fans, have caught Fenway fever and loved the Sox’ World Series win.
“It’s really a great place for us to be,” says Michele. “It’s not at all unlike Newtown. It’s a small, New England town with good people. It’s a good place to put ourselves back together.”
Bob Gay, a senior vice president at Maguire Associates, an educational consulting firm in Concord, is a serious and intense man. He is happy not to be recognized around town, as the parents in Newtown are. Here, the Gays don’t have the constant greetings — the hugs, the pity — visited upon them by well-meaning neighbors and strangers.
“I just want to be normal,” is the way Bob puts it. “I don’t want to relive that day everyday. I do some of that, but I do it privately, usually at 4 in the morning.”
Last March, he had Joey’s newborn footprints, her name, and the number 2,560 — the number of days she lived — tattooed on his left arm.
“Joey was my third, and I delivered her with the coaching of a midwife,” he says. “When they took her footprints, I made an extra set to hopefully give her someday. When she died, I came across them and had them put on my arm.”
The number of days she lived? “Or the number I had her in my life. It seems so finite and short to me.”
A new family identity
As the Dec. 14 anniversary of the Newtown shootings approaches, Michele’s grief is raw.
“These were among our last moments with her,” she says, recalling these days last year. “It’s almost like walking back in time.”
Last year, the extended family had Thanksgiving dinner at the colonial Newtown Inn on Main Street. Joey, thrilled to be with her grandparents and cousins, was dressed in her favorite color, purple.
This year, the family went away to the Mohonk Mountain House resort in the Hudson River Valley of New York for Thanksgiving. They will spend Christmas with the grandparents and cousins in Delaware. There has been a trip to Turks and Caicos. The family now has a dog, a labradoodle named Dash, “a very calm, mellow dog, perfect for our family,” Bob says.
“We’re working really hard to put together a new family identity,” says Michele. At Thanksgiving, she says, “We focused on each other and shut everything else out.”
Joey remains central in family conversations. And at night, Michele has added a line to the prayer she says over her two older girls: “And may your sister Joey always watch over you.”
“Sometimes, it is more painful for me and Michele than for her sisters,” says Bob. “Having a sister like Joey really tuned them into special-needs kids. They learned to put her needs ahead of their own, not an easy lesson for young children.”
The couple feels they owe it to all three daughters to be a happy family again.
“We try to do a lot as a foursome and with our new dog to bring us closer and define another kind of ‘normal’ for our family,” says Michele. “We know how much Joey loves us and that she wants us to take care of each other and find happiness again.”
Josephine Grace Gay, forever 7, is buried not far from their new home. At first, her father visited her gravesite every day. Now, he goes a couple of times a week and sits with his coffee.
“I get through the days better,” Bob says. “But the nights are still hard, and I’m really angry.”
How does he handle it? How does any such parent press through the rage and shock?
“You just stay in the game of life,” he says. “We have two other kids, and we’re trying to hold our family together.”
Finding their new causes
For Joey’s sake, he is determined to channel his anger into something positive, focusing on Joey’s Fund, which the family created under the auspices of the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism, www.flutiefoundation.org. The fund gives grants to families with an autistic child for services not covered by insurance.
And for Michele Gay, from the ashes of the unthinkable has arisen a nonprofit dedicated to making schools safer. Michele and Parker, whose daughter, Emilie, was also killed, have named their project Safe and Sound, a Sandy Hook Initiative. Its purpose is to protect students and staff in schools against someone like Lanza, who fired his way into the locked Sandy Hook Elementary and shot up the two classrooms of first-graders who had just begun their school day.
“These are two ways to keep her positive, loving spirit going in this world,” Michele says. “And it helps to be able to use Joey’s name in conversation all the time, and to just feel that our relationship goes on.”
After the Newtown shootings, the national discussion focused on gun control, a topic that the Sandy Hook families have vocally disagreed on. For their part, the Gays don’t want to talk about gun control. “We’re not political,” Michele says. “School safety is a problem where a community can come together and act on now, rather than wait for the political process, which can take years.”
In June, Michele spoke at The Briefings, a school safety summit held annually at Columbine High School, which draws people from all over the country. It was her first speech, and she was nervous. She told the crowd she wasn’t sure she could get through it.
She talked about Dec. 14. She talked about Joey and her beloved teachers and friends at Sandy Hook. She talked about Safe and Sound and asked for their support.
She got a standing ovation.
A birthday to celebrate
On Saturday, the anniversary of the shootings, Bob and Michele plan to paint Joey’s room. The bedroom is set up just the way it was in Newtown, with Joey’s comforter, curtains, and beloved Barbie dolls. But they have decided it needs a bit of sprucing up.
“I think we are going to go with an off-white color with white trim,” says Bob. “There’s a pink rug in the room and some cool new lamps. She was very girly and would have loved it.”
They were looking forward to Joey’s eighth birthday today because “Joey’s Playground” will be dedicated in Bridgeport, Conn., and blessed by their Newtown pastor, Monsignor Robert Weiss, who performed eight funerals — including Joey’s — the week of the shootings.
The playground is a beachfront site that Michele happily displays on her cellphone, declaring it the perfect spot. Some of the equipment is purple and hot pink — Joey’s favorites — and there is a welcome panel with her words, art, and handprints on it.
It is one of 20 being dedicated to each child victim at Sandy Hook, in a project started by the New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association.
“I really think she goes on,” says Michele. “We feel her happy spirit, and we know she’s in heaven with her friends and teachers. I get a lot of peace from her. She’s in great hands.”