“I sent three children to school this morning. Only two returned.”
That was our friend Lenny Pozner’s unimaginably heartbreaking text to us last December 14, after we’d called and texted repeatedly to ask if he and his family, who lived in Newtown, Connecticut, were safe.
“He was a perfect child,” says Pozner, a soft-spoken man in his mid 40s whose only son, six-year-old Noah, was one of 26 people, including 20 children, murdered by a madman who shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School that mild December day. “He was kind, smart, and full of life—just perfect in every way. He was my son—we had a special connection.”
Noah’s cherubic face—with his huge hazel eyes, long eyelashes, and heart-melting smile—quickly became one of the most recognizable images associated with the tragedy. He was the youngest child murdered, having recently turned 6, and, like all the children killed, was a first-grader. “He was in school; he was where he was supposed to be, at his desk,” says Pozner, “and somebody decided, ‘You don’t get to live anymore.’”
Pozner and his wife, Veronique, still relive that day, and Pozner remembers clearly the “regular” night before. “I was ‘Mr. Mom,’ for half the week, because my wife and I were separated at the time and we shared childcare. It was a typical Thursday night. We did homework, I cooked dinner, the kids played, Veronique dropped in on her way home from work to watch them take turns lighting the Hanukkah candles. Then I bathed them, and Noah fell asleep on my arm.” Earlier that evening, Pozner recalls, “I was working at my desk, and Noah, who had been playing video games, stopped playing, and, out of nowhere, ran over and jumped in my lap, kissed me on the cheek, and said, ‘I love you, Dad.’ It was almost as if he knew we wouldn’t be seeing each other again.”
The next morning, “like most days, the kids didn’t want to get out of bed, and I had to rush them along. On the drive to school, we listened to Noah’s favorite song, ‘Gangnam Style,’ and we were a few minutes late.” Pozner told his children to “have a fun day” and watched as they made their way into school. It was the last time he’d ever see Noah’s beautiful eyes, which were so much like his own. “He got out of the car, kind of juggling his jacket and his backpack. That’s the last image I have of Noah: walking along the path, juggling to get his brown jacket on.”
Pozner was at the gym when he got the call. “I finished at about 10:30. When I got my stuff out of the locker, I saw a couple of automated messages from school, voicemails from Veronique, voicemails from friends.” All the Pozners knew at this time was that the school was on lockdown, and Veronique, who was at work 45 minutes away, and Lenny, who was 20 minutes away, raced to the school, amid the sounds of sirens and the sight of rescue vehicles.
“It took maybe five minutes to locate both of my girls,” Pozner recalls, “but it felt like a lot longer.” Still, there was no sign of Noah. Pozner’s older daughter told him that all the children were asked to close their eyes as they exited their classroom, but she “peeked.”
As they continued to search for Noah to no avail, the Pozners were instructed to go to a back room in the firehouse. The mood there was somber and, as religious leaders, including a rabbi, priests, and other clergy, began to gather in the room along with the governor, fear turned to dread and then to despair. “There was the sound of continuous crying,” Pozner remembers, “like a long, continuous wail.” For hours, he recalls, “we were kept in the dark by authorities about the true nature of the horror we would all have to face. At one point, I remember Veronique saying to the governor, ‘You have to level with us! Is it a morgue up there? If my son is in there, I want to cover him.’” Soon, the room was filled with state troopers, FBI, and other law-enforcement personnel. “Then we were asked for details about him so they could identify him.”
A year later, Pozner, a one-time Dobbs Ferry resident, and his family—his wife (with whom he reconciled shortly after Noah’s death) and two young daughters, including Noah’s twin—have yet to truly grieve, let alone try to begin healing.
It’s not that they don’t cry, that they’re not devastated, that they’re not often still numb, still hoping it’s somehow all a nightmare from which they’ll awaken. In fact, the shock and horror of Noah’s death, and the day-to-day challenge of living without him, have so traumatized Pozner, an IT specialist, and his wife, a registered nurse, that they both had to take extended time off from work. “I kind of go in and out of time,” is how Pozner explains the surreal nature of it all. Though he is thankful that his two daughters survived the mas-sacre, one of the things that haunts him is the idea that “we could have lost all three children; their classrooms were near each other, all in the same corridor.”
Among the things hindering their grief and taking an emotional toll are various forms of “victimizing the victims” that seem to be part of tragedies of thismagnitude. Members of Veronique’s own family, for instance, almost immediately “acted to take ownership of our child’s death.” According to Pozner, his wife’s brother, among other things, quickly registered several domain names containing Noah’s name and appeared on TV and in other media “as a self-appointed spokesperson” for the family when, in fact, “he was not part of our lives and we were not part of his. He met our children only a handful of times.” The stress of all of this “has added another layer of pain to the loss of our child,” Pozner says. “Part of healing is having family to lean on, and we don’t have that from Veronique’s family.”
Within hours of the shooting, there were people setting up fraudulent websites “on behalf” of the victims. One, Nouel Alba, a 37-year-old Bronx mother of two, posed as Noah’s aunt and set up a page soliciting donations to help with Noah’s funeral expenses. She was arrested, indicted, and pleaded guilty to wire fraud and lying to federal agents. In October, she was sentenced to eight months in prison.
Alba is just one of scores of people who have tried to make money and/or gain notoriety from the Newtown shootings. But it’s not just fame or money they seek. “It’s almost like this sick celebrity thing,” says Pozner. There are people who want a “piece” of the event, a macabre memento or souvenir. Soon after Noah’s death, his dad says, someone “took his yellow metal pedal car” from the family’s yard. “We had a nice mezuzah on the door that said ‘Noah’s Ark,’ and it was taken right off the door.”
There are also Newtown “deniers,” almost cult-like groups of people who propagate the notion that the massacre was a hoax, that the victims aren’t really dead, that the parents are “actors,” and they post “evidence” all over the Internet. “We’ve had people drive by to take pictures of our house,” Pozner says. “We didn’t feel safe.”
Because of incidents like these, their complete lack of privacy, the relentless media spotlight, and the constant everyday reminders of the tragedy, the family has moved out of Connecticut to an undisclosed location.
Pozner’s children are in a new school, with new teachers and new friends. Their classmates, so far, are unaware that their brother was one of the Newtown victims. “The teachers, the principal, and the school psychologist know” who they are, says Pozner, “and they have been great in welcoming us.” They’ve also been extremely astute and sensitive to his daughters’ needs. For instance, “There was a ‘code red’ drill, a lockdown drill, recently, and they called us beforehand.” Pozner took his children to school after the drill.
Their relocation has given them a little relief, but they still have a long way to go before they can begin the reality of life without their son. “We’re still in survival mode.” And, as any parent would be, Pozner is occasionally plagued by “What if’s,” though he knows they are not really logical. “I think that if I had kept them home, or if they had been sick that day, my life would be completely different.”
The Pozners also deal with a particular type of aloneness that most people will never have to face. And then there’s the terrible uniqueness of their loss. “Who are my peers?” Noah’s father asks rhetorically.
Since Noah was a twin, the family will now celebrate his sister’s November birthday—without him. And as the one-year anniversary looms, “We’re dreading December,” says Pozner. “The anniversary, the holidays.”
As for Noah’s sisters, “they have a lot of challenges,” Pozner says. “For most small kids, the little challenges are always there about wanting to keep the light on at night, not wanting to be in a room by themselves. But now, the idea of monsters is real to them. They’ve lived through it. It’s not something we can brush off.”
Despite his family’s suffering, Pozner is still able to see the goodness in most human beings. “There are definitely more good people than bad people,” he says. “We’ve received thousands and thousands of letters. People have told us that they have a picture of Noah. We get mail from grandmothers, retired schoolteachers, crayon drawings from small children, condolence letters from prisoners, religious leaders, students, law enforcement, various organizations. Most of them are handwritten.” Though he and Veronique “can only read a few a day, because it is so emotionally draining,” Pozner says, “that love from all over the world is very comforting to us.”