Michele Gay apologizes for the unfinished look of the house, but her family only moved in three weeks earlier. And even after the boxes are unpacked, the books put away, and the curtains hung, the house, in a quiet suburb west of Boston, will have an empty feel.
Missing is the little girl who loved peanut butter by the spoonful, the color purple, and the two older sisters and parents who doted on her. Michele and Bob Gay’s youngest child was among the 20 first-graders massacred in December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Bob Gay had already started a new job in the Boston area, and the family was just weeks away from relocating when the shootings took place.
“We have an extra bedroom here and we still refer to it as Joey’s room,” says her mother. The bedroom has Joey’s furniture, her floral bedding and curtains, her books and her dollhouse, and lots of photos.
The Gays recently agreed to talk about Joey, who loved Barbies and the Baltimore Ravens, and whose death they are still struggling to comprehend. They say their faith in God is sustaining them through their devastating loss, and they are heartened by a fund they have created in Joey’s memory, in connection with the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism.They asked not to have their new hometown named in this story to protect their family’s privacy; they have two other daughters who are 9 and 11.
Josephine Grace Gay — “Joey” to family and friends — turned 7 three days before she was killed. Her birthday party was set for the next day. It was going to be a pool party; Joey loved to swim. The purple cupcakes were already in the refrigerator, the T-shirt her friends signed waiting to be worn.
Most of those children were killed along with Joey and six adults when 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary, and two first-grade classrooms, before turning a gun on himself.
On Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden and the parents of another little girl killed that day spoke in favor of gun control at a conference on gun violence held a few miles from Newtown. Biden said the shootings had altered the national debate on the issue.
“I say it’s unacceptable not to take this on. It’s just simply unacceptable,” Biden said at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury. “I say to my colleagues, if you’re concerned about your political survival, you should be concerned about the survival of our children.”
For their part, the Gays refuse to talk politics, preferring to focus on their daughter’s memory and helping other children who face the challenges of autism.
Just weeks before the shootings, on Nov. 1, Bob Gay had taken a job as senior vice president at Maguire Associates, an educational consulting firm in Concord. He stayed at a local inn during the week and commuted back to Newtown on weekends while he and Michele searched for a school system with services for autistic children like Joey. They found a school and a house. Tragically, the move to Massachusetts came too late for their daughter.
Four days after Joey died, the Gays signed the purchase and sales agreement on their new home here, picked out Joey’s cemetery plot in a neighboring town, and met with the executive director of the Flutie Foundation.
“I was on this adrenaline-driven tear,” explains Bob Gay, 52, one recent afternoon.
He’s sitting on the couch next to Michele in their new living room, with its handsome mantel and fireplace. There are floor-to-ceiling bookcases, and the couple notes that they’ve been able to put books in the lowest shelves for the first time in years. Their Newtown home had been “Joey-proofed.”
“Josephine would decide she’d take things off the shelves and put them on the floor,” said Bob with a wry smile. Sometimes Bob refers to his daughter as Josephine, the name he chose for her at birth. Sometimes it’s Joey. But most often, she was “Joey Bear” to him, or “Lollipop.”
It was Joey who took up the most room in the family of five. She was autistic and did not speak. She had apraxia, a central nervous system disorder that impaired her movement. She sometimes struggled with balance, and would often trip and fall. But she was affectionate, sweet, and funny, and communicated in her own way.
“She had her own language, and she understood it,” says her dad, a pensive man who often reaches for his wife’s hand. “We relied on sounds, gestures, and her communicative program on her iPad.” The program allowed her to construct phrases and sentences so the iPad could then “speak” them aloud for her.
Adds Michele, 40: “She was very persistent, thank God.”
When her daughters came along, Michele quit her job as an elementary school teacher. Eventually, Joey’s needs alone became a full-time job. There were all the therapies: occupational, speech, physical, behavioral, aquatic. Joey was on a gluten-free, dairy-free diet, which took extra time to shop for and prepare.
Then there were the vitamins and supplements and new therapies to try, such as hyperbaric oxygen, which is used to help heal the brains of autistic and apraxic children. The Gays were planning to rent a hyperbaric chamber for Joey.
“It’s full-time . . . going to all the therapies, advocating for your child at school, with the insurance company, researching new treatments,” said Michele. “And potty training for five years.”
Their family life was far from typical, but they were happy and close. They couldn’t do some things, like go on a bike ride together, or to the movies, with one exception. Joey loved Alvin and the Chipmunks and they all went to see “Chipwrecked” in 2011.
“She actually sat through it, which was a huge thing,” Bob recalls.
“We changed our lifestyle to accommodate Joey — her sisters sometimes grudgingly,” Michele says. “But they loved her so much.”
When the American Red Cross donated $1,000 for each of the Newtown victims’ families for Christmas expenses, Joey’s sisters spent the entire amount on her favorite things — including lots of Barbie dolls — and donated it all to their church, for needy children.
The family is devoutly Catholic and their faith is helping them through the unimaginable.
“I am able to get out of bed in the morning because of it,” says Bob. “You can’t make sense of it otherwise.”
Michele nods. “It’s crucial for us to know that she’s in heaven. It makes it possible for us to breathe, to put one foot in front of the other, and to carry on with her work on this earth. She was all about love. She was all about generosity.”
During the interview, the Gays’ oldest daughter enters the room and whispers in her mother’s ear. Michele repeats her words aloud: “Joey is a secret undercover angel from God. She was not allowed to speak. And God told her she could only be here seven years.”
Joey was born in Maryland. The family moved to Newtown when she was 2 months old, after her father became vice president of enrollment at The New School in Manhattan. Joey’s parents are from Baltimore, and the girls grew up huge Ravens fans.
Joey rarely left the house without wearing Ravens purple. Indeed, she was buried in a purple and white casket. Many at her funeral wore purple, and her sisters and cousins released purple balloons with messages of love to her.
Two days after the shootings, the Ravens hung a banner in her honor at M&T Bank Stadium and made “Joey” pins for team employees. Cornerback Chris Johnson painted “Joey” on his cleats and sent the family a jersey with her name and the number “7” on it, for her age. Ray Lewis sent a personal note and urged them to read Psalm 91, known as the Psalm of Protection.
Joey is buried in a cemetery near the family’s new home. Her tombstone isn’t yet in, and the small grave is set off a ways from others. Eventually, the family will all be buried in adjacent plots. The Gays plan to install her stone and a bench and do some planting in the spring.
For now, there’s a small American flag and a little sign bearing her name and dates on it: Dec. 11, 2005-Dec. 14, 2012. Every day, her father visits her grave and tells her he loves her and misses her.
The Gays return to Newtown every couple of weeks for a support group with the other parents. “To be with the parents of Joey’s friends is really therapeutic," says Michele. “Nobody else quite understands the pain you’re in.”
But they say they love their new town, where some neighbors and those at their daughters’ school know about Joey. “People have been extra gentle and welcoming with our girls,” says Michele. Bob adds that people here have been “very respectful.”
One of the most difficult things for Michele to accept is that she was not with her daughter in her final moments. But it helps her to know that Rachel D’Avino, 29, Joey’s classroom therapist, was with her.
“Rachel was Joey’s right-hand person,” says Michele. “She stayed with her at recess, helped with her backpack, her work, the bathroom, helped her communicate with friends. Joey loved her and she loved Joey.”
D’Avino died shielding her students in the mayhem. Police have called her a hero. When she was found, she had her arms wrapped around several children, including Joey.
After Joey died, hundreds of people asked how they could help, and her parents thought of establishing a fund for autistic children. They feel lucky that they could afford the various therapies, special foods, and expensive camp to improve their daughter’s life, and they want the same for others.
Jack Maguire, founder of Maguire Associates, put Bob Gay in touch with the Flutie Foundation. When he was director of admissions for Boston College, Maguire had admitted Doug Flutie.
“We share a similar mission to what their goals are,” says Lisa Borges, executive director of the foundation. “Insurance will cover some basic therapies, but so little of what people really need. We try to fill that gap . . . It might be a music therapy class, a summer camp, or a theater program.”
So far, the Joey Gay Fund has raised $85,000 with “more coming in each day,” says Borges. Parents can apply for grants to help their child, and Michele Gay plans to volunteer at the foundation.
The Gays don’t want to talk about gun control, but Michele is concerned with school safety and hopes somehow to work on the issue.
“We’ve done a great job of making schools fire-safe,” she says. “We can’t have front entrances to schools be all glass. We basically have to secure our schools. We need to send our loved ones to school and know that they’re going to come back.”
The Gays know that their family will never be the same, that there is a hole at the heart of it. Her father says he can still feel Joey’s hug at night, and both parents say they must find a way to continue on.
“We have two other kids who made a lot of sacrifices for their sister,” Bob says, as one of them brings “Pancake,” the pet hamster, into the room. “Especially now, they deserve all the love and attention we have.”
Still, he marvels at the impact Joey made on others, about how he’d go to the grocery store in Newtown, where no one knew him but everyone knew — and greeted — Joey.
“I’m 52 years old, and my daughter has a better legacy than I do in seven years, without speaking,” he says. “It’s pretty humbling.”Bella English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.