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In the Heart of Heartbreak

Stepping into the family home of Newtown's youngest victim

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NEWTOWN, Conn. — Six days after the funeral of 6-year-old Noah Pozner, his family is taking stock of the gifts sent to them by strangers all over the world. There's a stiff teddy bear in a overcoat and hat accompanied by a note from a woman who says the bear gave her great comfort when her mother passed away. There is a box filled with tiny stuffed animals. And a miniature cypress tree, which reminds Veronique, Noah's mother, to think of life.

Noah's maternal grandmother, Marie-Claude Duytschaever, pulls a brown bear with lanky arms and legs from a box. It's meant for Noah's twin, Arielle, and his 7-year-old sister, Sophia. Veronique takes the stuffed animal and gives it a long squeeze before surrendering it to the living room where the toys are quickly piling up. The gifts seem to comfort the family, but they also highlight the absence of the boy who would have reveled in them.

Noah was the youngest child massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, when 20-year-old gunman Adam Lanza first killed his mother, Nancy Lanza, and then shot his way into the school and slayed 20 first grade students and six staff members before killing himself. Noah was hit 11 times. He was the first child to be buried, on Dec. 17 in a funeral overseen by Rabbi Shaul Praver of Newtown.

For the following six nights, the family sat shiva at a friend's house, which could better accommodate the dozens of visitors than their smaller home. When I visit Dec. 23, the official Jewish mourning period is over, and the Pozners have invited friends and family to a large house they have rented on the outskirts of Newtown. In preparation, they clear the stuffed animals off the kitchen island and replace them with bowls of dried fruit, chips, candied nuts, carrot sticks and a roast turkey.

'If God exists ...'

At 1 p.m., the guests arrive: the grief counselor who held Veronique's hand at the funeral, the family friend who purchased a tiny tie for Noah to be buried in, high school friends of Danielle Vabner, Noah's 18-year-old half sister. Children race in and out of every room.

Noah and Arielle were born within months of two other cousins, Ethan and Laura. Now, Ethan sits alone at the kitchen counter. When his mother, Victoria Haller, told him that they would travel from Seattle to Connecticut to visit the cousins after Noah's death, he sheepishly asked her, "But one less?"

At the center of everything is Veronique. On her right wrist is a tattoo she and Danielle both got the day after Noah died: a small pink rose flanked by two angel wings with Noah's name spanning the space between them, and his birth and death dates beneath. A torn black ribbon is pinned to her shirt, a Jewish mourning custom. She is wearing purplish pink lipstick and her short black hair is combed into puffy curls around her face.

"I hope it doesn't look callous to some people, but I have to keep taking care of myself physically," she says. "That is what Noah would want. He would want his mom to be the way she always is."

She has the air of a person in deep, almost studious concentration. The past week has been a "waking nightmare," she says. Daytime brings activity, and occasional numb relief. But at night, "I wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning, and that is when I start to wrestle with the demons of the why, and the how. Did he suffer? Where is he now? Is he at peace? Is he happy? Or is he lost?" At these moments Veronique thinks of Noah as a child lost in a crowded mall, searching hopelessly for his family.

Veronique and her current husband Lenny, both raised in New York, came to Newtown in 2005. They had three children in tow: Sophia, an infant, and Danielle and Michael, from Veronique's first marriage.

Veronique conceived Noah and Arielle through the help of fertility treatments, and gave birth to the healthy pair in 2006 after a difficult, diabetic pregnancy. She was 39. From the beginning, the twins were inseparable.

"It was almost like they were a continuum rather than two different human beings," she says. Together with Sophia, who is 22 months older, they formed a "fearsome threesome, like a tripod on a camera."

Noah was energetic and animated, with big blue eyes. He loved unusual foods for a child: pickles, broccoli, salmon. And tacos — he often talked about wanting to manage a taco factory when he grew up, in addition to being an astronaut and a doctor.

He excelled academically and was on a constant path of discovery. "It was always, 'How does this work? Why does this happen?' He wanted to understand cause and effect," says Veronique.

Noah also wondered about God, asking his mother, "If God exists, then who created God?" He wanted to know what happens after death.

"I would always tell him, 'You are not going to die until you are a very old man, Noah.' He was afraid of death, I know he was. He feared the unknown," Veronique says. "Sometimes I wonder whether he had some foretelling, some prescience about it. Of course I will never know for sure, maybe it was just the random fears of a child."

Obama's words

On the morning of Dec. 14, Veronique was at the medical center where she works as an oncology nurse when she received an automated text message alerting her of a reported shooting at Sandy Hook. At first, she thought it might have been a false alarm. But then a patient following the events on her iPhone urged her to go.

The streets near the school were so congested that Veronique parked at a nearby Subway sandwich shop and ran to the firehouse, where other parents had gathered. She quickly located Arielle and Sophia and Lenny. But Noah was nowhere to be found.

For hours, she sat in the firehouse, waiting. Her stomach clenched; she vomited in the bathroom.

Soon, nuns, priests, ministers and a rabbi arrived. "When I saw all those clergy people I knew in my gut of guts and my heart of hearts that they were dead," she recalls. "I knew there was absolutely no way they would dispatch this multi-denominational fan of clergy people were it not the case that the news would be absolutely catastrophic."

Finally, an official announcement was made: 20 child fatalities. "That is when, for me, my whole world shifted on its axis," she says. "You have this surreal sense of void, like all the air has been sucked out of the room."

Veronique wanted to place a blanket on Noah. "They told us, 'No, it is a crime scene.' They would not let us go."

That night, Veronique barely slept, but when she did she dreamed she was inside an abandoned house on an island covered in brown grass, walking the hallways and knocking on doors looking for Noah. Two days later, Veronique met President Obama at a local vigil, and she told him about the dream. "He whispered to me, 'If you listen closely he is answering you,'" says Veronique. "And it really, really helped me."

At his funeral, Noah was dressed in a suit and tie. A friend of Veronique's at work enjoined Rabbi Praver to allow him to be wrapped in a blue tallis, even though he had not yet had a bar mitzvah.

Just before the ceremony, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy came to the funeral home to pay his respects. Veronique took him by the arm and brought him to the casket. Noah's famously long eyelashes — which she spoke about in her eulogy — rested lightly on his cheeks, and a cloth covered the place where the lower half of his face had been. "I just needed it to be real for [the governor]," she says. "This was a live, warm, energetic little boy whose life was snuffed out in a fraction of a second because our schools are so defenseless."

The blue jay

Veronique says that she doesn't know the best path to stop school shootings. But, she says "If Adam [Lanza] had shown up at Sandy Hook with a knife or a less powerful weapon, he may have harmed some people but it would not have been the mass carnage we saw."

She has never considered herself an activist, but the death of her son planted a seed within her: "This topic has wings for me. It has got to take flight."

Like some Sandy Hook parents who have spoken to the media, Veronique has shied away from portraying Lanza as evil or diabolical. "If we describe him as a demonic force or as a beast with the sign of the beast on his forehead, that is a mistake," she says. "Because then we are making him apart from humanity when in fact he is part of what is possible in humanity. How do we help these people so this doesn't happen again, so they never sink so low, so they never have to go to a place so dark where they can take out small children in a fit of rage?"

Veronique's mother, Marie-Claude, says that her energy is focused on her family at the moment. In the past week, she has been chronicling all the ways in which Noah's presence is still felt in the world on her blog. A twitching of the curtains, a sudden chirping of a bird ornament on the Christmas tree, a succulent plant burst into flower — all evidence of mischievous Noah at play.

Earlier in the day, Veronique and Marie-Claude were sitting downstairs when Veronique noticed a blue jay outside the window. "To me it was a sign of Noah," says Marie-Claude. She wrote about the occurrence soon after: "We looked at each other: Noah had loved blue, he had [been] buried with a blue and white Jewish prayer shawl, he always said he wanted wings so that he could fly."

It is moments like these, the affection of family members, the love of friends, the cards and stuffed animals from strangers and the human tears shed by public officials that have constituted a life raft for the Pozners, and, no doubt, for the 19 other Newtown families.

"At the end of the day," says Veronique, "the equation is in favor of what is good and what is human and what is giving instead of what takes away."

To see this story as it originally appeared, visit forward.com.

Editor's note: Naomi Zeveloff worked as a reporter at the Independent from 2006-07, following her graduation from Colorado College. Now deputy culture editor for the Jewish Daily Forward in New York City, she interviewed the family of 6-year-old Noah Pozner just nine days after Noah was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. Here is a shortened version of the story she wrote afterward.

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