By MATTHEW KAUFFMAN, email@example.com
The Hartford Courant
9:30 PM EST, March 6, 2013
Daniel Barden had woken up early on the last day of his life.
So after a game of foosball and a bowl of oatmeal, his father sat him down at the piano and taught him to play "Jingle Bells."
Mark Barden, a professional musician, nestled close to his 7-year-old son on the piano bench, and looked down at the tiny fingers pressing on the keys.
"I just remember looking at his little hands and just thought his little hands were so cute and so beautiful," Barden said.
It is a frozen memory from his last morning with Daniel, one of his last chances to touch those beautiful hands, before rage and violence burst through the doors of Sandy Hook Elementary School and threw a shroud of grief over every corner of the Bardens' lives.
Months later, Mark and Jackie Barden are waiting for time to move the way it's supposed to, waiting for the world to make sense again. But even as they grasp at normalcy and crave the past, the Bardens are focused on the future, and on building a legacy of good out of a life cut short.
"We have to do something," Jackie said, sitting with her husband in a living room ringed with photographs of their children and extended family. "We feel like we have to make some good of this."
'Isn't That Beautiful?'
The Bardens, like so many of their neighbors, were drawn to Newtown by the schools. They moved to town in December 2007, when Daniel was 2, and older siblings James and Natalie were 7 and 5. The couple would walk through their neighborhood, reminding each other of their good fortune.
Even as a first-grader, Daniel exhibited a remarkable capacity for compassion and thoughtfulness. He never failed to turn off a light. He sought out kids sitting alone in school. His parents would leave a store, make it halfway across the parking lot, and turn around to see Daniel still holding the door for shoppers.
The Barden kids were in three different schools with three different bus schedules. Daniel's was the latest, and he typically slept in while Mark walked his oldest son down the road for a 6:30 a.m. pickup.
But on Dec. 14, as Mark and James made their way down the driveway in the dark, they heard footsteps behind them, and there was Daniel, in his pajamas and flip flops, awake before dawn to kiss his older brother goodbye. In the 3 1/2 months since school started, Mark said, it was the only time that had happened.
Daniel had a keen sense of the world around him. He noticed flowers and bugs and a pretty sky. And on the morning of Dec. 14, he pointed at the sun rising through the living room window, with the family's twinkling Christmas tree reflected in the glass.
"Isn't that beautiful?" he said.
"And it was beautiful," Mark said. "So I went and got the camera and took a picture of it. So we have this picture of that window with that Dec. 14th sunrise and just a few little lights of a Christmas tree."
An hour after sending James off to school, Daniel kissed Natalie goodbye. And after breakfast, Mark made his way down the driveway a third time for the daily school bus ritual. Mark and Daniel typically turned the walk into a game of tag, but Mark wasn't up for it. "Can we just hold hands today?" he asked his son.
So Daniel Barden, with bright red hair and freckles on his nose and missing his two front teeth, held his dad's hand as they walked to the school bus stop, where Mr. Wheeler picked up Daniel for the 5-mile drive along Berkshire Road to Sandy Hook Elementary.
Within the hour, Adam Lanza would be driving his mother's car in the same direction.
'Is Daniel OK?'
Mark was working in his studio when a Reverse 911 call reported that town schools were in lockdown. It's happened before, and it's usually nothing. Then he heard that there had been a shooting somewhere.
"And then we got the news that there had been a report of a shooting at Sandy Hook School," Mark said. "And I ran out the door."
Mark regularly volunteered at Sandy Hook and knew it as a "quaint, bucolic, little down-a-country-road school." But on Dec. 14 it was a chaotic, overwhelming scene, with scores of police cars and ambulances and SWAT teams and helicopters whirring above a growing number of crying students and anxious mothers and fathers.
Parents had been directed to a firehouse near the school to collect their children, and as Mark moved through the crowd looking for Daniel, rumors swirled that Principal Dawn Hochsprung had been shot.
"Man, this is serious," he thought to himself and began trying to figure out how he would explain to Daniel what had happened.
But where was Daniel?
Officials asked parents who had not been reunited with their children to gather in one room, cut off from the joyous reunions outside the firehouse. James, the oldest son, borrowed a friend's cellphone and sent a text to his father. "Dad, we're in lockdown," he wrote. "Is Daniel OK?"
Jackie works 40 minutes away at a school in Pawling, N.Y. But she had arrived by the time a state trooper came into the room and broke the devastating news that 20 children had been killed.
But not Daniel, the Bardens told themselves, unwilling and unable to consider the alternative.
Earlier, the police had asked the relatives still missing someone to sign in, so Jackie returned to the sheet and counted the names. Eighteen. Nineteen. Twenty. Twenty-one. Twenty-two. Twenty-three. Twenty-four.
She forced herself to be optimistic. Twenty victims. But 24 families in the room. Four children were missing but safe, she concluded.
"Daniel's still OK," she told herself. "He's still OK."
More rumors bubbled up that two children had been taken to the hospital, and the Bardens crafted new narratives of a miraculous reunion.
"We still had hope," Jackie said. "We still were thinking it's OK. He has to be the one."
But there were no miracles for any of the panicked relatives in the room. Jackie didn't realize it at the time, but the four extra names on the sign-in sheet were connected to the four teachers killed in the classrooms.
It was Gov. Dannel P. Malloy who finally delivered the grim news, telling those in the room that there were no more survivors.
A neighbor had collected James and Natalie earlier in the day and brought them to her house. On any other Friday, the two families would be gathering for their standard end-of-the-week pizza night, and James and Natalie waited for their parents and Daniel to show up. When Mark and Jackie arrived alone, the kids knew something was horribly wrong.
At first, there was only numbness, and as the fog lifted and the grief took hold, the Bardens were buoyed by relatives — dozens were camped out at the house — and then by each other.
"We were alternating our meltdowns," Mark said. "So I could hold Jackie when she was falling apart and she could hold me when I was falling apart."
Neighbors — the whole town, really — chipped in, setting up a meal train and emailing constant offers of assistance. And condolences came in from around the world: The U.K. France. Germany. Afghanistan.
One day, Jackie's sister walked into the room holding a phone and calmly announced that Vice President Joe Biden was on the line. He and Mark spoke for more than an hour, bound by a common grief; Biden's wife and daughter were killed in a car accident in 1972.
"We shared our feelings on that and he shared some insight into what to expect as time goes on," Mark said.
But time has been a cruel companion. "It seems like time is either going very quickly or very, very slowly," Mark said. "It just doesn't seem to be going at its normal pace anymore."
Mark has tried to use the concept of time to conquer the anguish.
"I've been kind of using a mechanism, I guess subconsciously, where I have this feeling like Daniel's not around right now," he said. "Because there were plenty of times where Daniel wasn't around. So this is one of those times where he's just not around right now."
"And then," Jackie said, finishing the thought, "it all hits you like a ton of bricks."
It is not the only way that time has been an adversary. Mark is haunted by the sense that every passing moment in time is as close as he will ever be to his son.
"I keep having this feeling of this distance that keeps increasing. Like in another minute, I'm going to be another minute farther away from my existence with Daniel in my life," he said. "And that's kind of hard to deal with."
Jackie also worries about the passage of time. One of the Bardens' nieces was repeating a story a few weeks ago about Daniel's learning that a favorite cousin named Carl was coming to visit around the time of Daniel's birthday.
"That means I'm going to get another present for my birthday," Daniel had said, leading his older brother James to explain that Carl probably didn't know it was Daniel's birthday and likely wouldn't be bringing a present.
Daniel looked at his older brother. "Carl is my present," Daniel corrected. "Just him being here is a present."
It was a classic Daniel story, and it both thrilled Jackie to hear, and terrified her — because the tale had slipped her mind.
"I thought, oh gosh, am I going to forget others?" she said.
"We'd hate to forget one little thing about him," Jackie said. "So it kind of frightened me to think that was such a great memory, but it would never have come up again if she hadn't reminded me."
The same niece bought the Bardens a journal, and they are setting time aside to capture every anecdote they can think of.
"So we can have them forever," Mark said.
That's not the only legacy they want to preserve. "I feel like we've been forced onto a platform," Mark said. "We feel a sense of responsibility and feel an obligation, a sense of obligation now to do whatever we can."
Neither of the Bardens are political by nature, but they're reading up on complicated issues like guns and mental health, and might one day be ready to tackle those topics. For now, they're focused simply on spreading what was good and pure about Daniel — his love of family and his instinct for selflessness.
There are photographs of Daniel throughout the house, and in many he is clinging to, or climbing on, a relative. To the extent that they have a soapbox, the Bardens want to urge parents to find time for their children, and if other obligations make that difficult, to at least make the most of the time they do have.
That's why dinner at the table has always been mandatory in the Barden house. For now, that table has been filled with extended family, and Mark is bracing for that to end. "We haven't had to visit the dinner table with just the four of us minus Daniel yet," he said. "I don't know when the time will be right but at some point we'll have to do that."
Mark's music gigs were typically at night, allowing him to spend precious after-school hours at home with the kids. Then late at night, after work, he'd check on them while they slept.
The night of Dec. 13, he crept toward Daniel's bed and watched his youngest son, asleep on his left side, mouth open. "I can remember exactly how I kissed his little cheek," Mark said.
They also want to promote kindness and launched a Facebook page titled "What Would Daniel Do?" at http://www.facebook.com/WhatWouldDanielDo. In addition to tributes to their son — the eulogy that Mr. Wheeler, the school bus driver, delivered at his funeral; a video of the firefighters who heard that Daniel wanted to join their ranks and came by the hundreds to form an honor guard as his hearse drove past — the Bardens use the site to encourage small acts of compassion at the most basic human level.
The page has more than 16,000 likes, and people from throughout the country have posted stories about kind acts performed and discovered: The woman who bought coffee and doughnuts for a firehouse in New York state. The Missouri woman who helped restock a food pantry in Daniel's honor. The Illinois woman who paid for a stranger's meal, writing "Love from Daniel Barden" on the bill.
Starbucks bills have been paid and parking meters fed for the elderly. Quarters have been left in coin-operated washing machines along with notes memorializing Daniel. A woman and her son tucked dollar bills and crayon drawings in children's books at their local library. "I hope in that dollar they see that there is more good in this world than bad, more kindness than greed, more love than hate," the woman wrote.
The Bardens are also distributing pairs of green-and-white bracelets — the colors of Sandy Hook Elementary — with the message "In Memory of Daniel Barden" and the address of the Facebook page. The bracelets come with instructions to wear one after performing an act of kindness, and share the other after telling the recipient to do the same.
"He was such a kind little soul," Jackie said. "We feel we do have to spread that."
Back in their living room, the Bardens are, somehow, bearing the unbearable, leaning gently against each other as they watch a video clip on the Facebook page of a pint-sized Daniel singing "Mr. Sun" during an open-mike session at a local restaurant, then getting a big hug from Natalie and a bigger ovation from the audience.
It is an unforgettable memory from a son who taught them the power of compassion. Now, they want Daniel's power to live on, through simple acts of generosity that multiply from person to person to person.
"I hope that he's remembered," Jackie said, "as the kid that started a wave of kindness."
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