In the dream, Joey was happy and free. She clung to her mother’s back as they roamed around a candy-laden mall. They visited all kinds of sweet shops with no concerns about the restrictive gluten-free, casein-free diet she'd been on for years to help her with her severe autism and global apraxia. "We don’t have to worry about that anymore," Michele Gay, Joey's mom, remembers thinking.
When Michele woke up, she felt "different." She'd had other dreams about her 7-year-old daughter since her violent death, but this one was so real, it was as if they had just spent the day together. She awoke feeling as if Joey was still in her arms. "It was as if she was giving me a message: Don’t worry. I’m fine. And I’m having a great time."
Joey has now been gone almost a year. She died on December 14, 2012, three days after her seventh birthday, which she celebrated in a pink flowered tutu. Joey attended Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
That day had started off like any other.
Michele was a stay-at-home mom who dedicated most of her time to being the full-time caretaker of Joey, who was mostly nonverbal and needed help doing basic tasks. She and her husband, Bob, had two older daughters too, who she saw off to school before returning to her youngest. She wasn't sure she was going to send Joey in as the girl was still recovering from a concussion she had received after falling on the playground.
Michele had slept with Joey that night just to "err on the side of safety." In the morning, she had snuggled up with her and let her sleep longer. She felt, strangely, deep in her bones, that something was "not quite right."
But soon the feeling dissipated as Joey began to indicate that she was ready for school. So Michele fixed Joey breakfast -- scrambled eggs and toast, along with a vitamin B supplement -- then she drove her to school one last time. She was only home a few minutes before she got the call that there had been a shooting at her daughters' school.
"The rug gets pulled out from under you in a matter of minutes," Michele says.
Since then, Michele, Bob, and their two daughters, now 10 and 12, the youngest of which survived the massacre by hiding in a closet with her teacher and schoolmates, have struggled to piece together their lives in the aftermath of unimaginable agony.
Michele takes comfort in things like her faith, and her activism on behalf of autistic children and parents ( Joey’s Fund in conjunction with the Doug Flutie Foundation) and to help educate schools on how they can help prevent another Sandy Hook (Safe and Sound Schools). "We didn’t choose what happened that day," Michele says. "But we do choose how we move forward."
But how does a mother really go on after something this unimaginable?
The days that have passed since have been a blur of pain and a desperate call for resilience. "There are days when I don't get out of bed," Michele admits. "But I get my strength from her. It’s nothing imagined I would have, yet it's here it's driving me."
She's also able to find some solace in the fact that Joey didn’t die alone. Her school caretaker, Rachel D'Avino, died holding her, shielding her. "She died with her protector, someone who loved her," she says. "She was surrounded by her friends who loved her too."
Michele is happy to admit that she and Bob got into therapy right away after the tragedy, and have had to learn to let each other grieve in their own ways. Their daughters, too, are in therapy. Somewhat surprisingly, neither of the girls is scared of attending school. Michele says they gain comfort from their friends and teachers. And although the family has since moved to Massachusetts -- which was planned before the tragedy -- they still visit Newtown, which the girls see as "home."
As for Adam Lanza, Michele says her girls have shown little interest in him -- or why he did what he did. "I'm sure it will come up in different ways as they learn more, but right now they don't think of him as anything but someone who was overtaken by evil." And perhaps that is really all we will ever really know about him.
Michele, for her part, miraculously manages to sound compassionate about the Lanzas. "It's unimaginable to me their family situation, it's absolutely mind boggling to me,” she says. “I can't fathom how they got to that place. It's hard to imagine that they had no family no friends, no one who would support them. He certainly had mental illness. It's very likely she [his mother] did on her part as well -- to enable that kind of isolation and dysfunction."
And she is relieved that her dealings with Lanza, who committed suicide after his killing spree, are over. "I am glad to not have to be the judge of him, and to not have to deal with him ever again in this life -- that is a gift."
The Gay family now have a "Joey room" in their new home -- the room she would have had. In it are all of her things, many of which are purple, her favorite color. It's where her sisters go to play with her toys. And where Michele spends time, feeling Joey's presence: "I feel surrounded by her, close enough to touch her."
As the first anniversary of Joey's death approaches, on Saturday, Michele says it's like "a countdown to losing your child all over again.” Recently the slate-gray winter sky, the first snow flurries, and the Christmas decorations led to a panic attack for her. It was all just like it was last December, yet so very different.
"It’s like walking back in time," she says. Her children feel it approaching too. The youngest mostly seems "nervous," but Michele’s 12-year-old is beginning to verbalize her feelings. Michele lets her talk, and then tells her that she feels the same way. She reassures both of her daughters that they are safe ... and she hopes they are.
Images via Michele Gay