Bardens Work To Keep Daniel's Compassion Alive

A family photo of Daniel Barden, right, one of the 20 children killed in the Sandy Hook School tragedy, with his brother James and sister Natalie. (Courtesy the Barden Family)

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.