Darien native, mother of Sandy Hook victim finds healing in son's life

Scarlett Lewis never set out to meet President Barack Obama, especially with a broken heart in her hands. But there was a distinct comfort in his presence at Newtown High School, a visible and visceral affirmation of her 6-year-old son's life.

Just two days earlier, Jesse McCord Lewis had been shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The little boy was one of 20 first-graders and six staff members who died the morning of Dec. 14.

"I really didn't know what to expect," Lewis, a Darien native, said of the president's meeting. "He asked for a picture, and I showed him a picture of Jesse, the one everyone has of him in his soccer uniform. I told him, 'I just want you to know he died a hero. He ran into harm's way.'

"He took the picture and he looked at it. He was quiet for a while, and he finally said, `He looks like a very brave boy and I bet this didn't surprise you at all.' I said, `You're right.' I thought it was very prescient and perceptive of him to realize that."

But the soft edges between perception and reality didn't last long. Within hours, the president was back in Washington, and Lewis was left to face another night without her son.

For nearly three weeks after the shooting, Scarlett Lewis couldn't go home to the Sandy Hook farm she loves. Not by herself, anyway.

It was too hard to look at Jesse's rubber ducks waiting for him in the bathtub. It was too hard to find one of his toy soldiers on patrol underneath the coffee table.

And it was too hard to look at Jesse's beautiful face, the one Lewis painted so perfectly on a big square canvas that sits in the living room next to the equally gorgeous painting of Jesse's 12-year-old brother, JT.

For Lewis and the other Sandy Hook School families who mourn their children and their loved ones, the heartache is constant and consuming, a burden no one should ever have to carry.

But, somehow, Lewis is pushing through this unrelenting grief -- for herself, certainly, but even more so for JT. Together, they feel Jesse running, laughing and skinning his knees in their hearts. And quietly, it comforts them.

While Lewis doesn't recognize the world anymore, she recognizes her Jesse everywhere she looks, from the little easel he set up next to hers, to his last handwritten Christmas list, which rests on the fireplace mantel now.

A prayer for Jesse

"I feel like his light is so strong," Lewis said Thursday from her 1740s farmhouse with the stone walls, the hay barn, the ample paddock and the huge maple tree that generations of folks have tapped for syrup and solace. "Every night I would cuddle up next to him and I'd put my hand up his shirt, over his heart, and I would say the same prayer: 'Dear Jesus, thank you for this warm body, this heartbeat. He's such a gift. I know you could take him from me at any time, but please don't.'

"I used to say it every single night," Lewis said. "And now, I know why I said it. Things become clearer in hindsight because I believe my spirit knew it, too. This happened for a reason. Jesse is here and he's in heaven. He's in both places."

More than ever, Scarlett Lewis is grateful for the six years she spent with Jesse, the little boy who loved her back, times infinity.

"I remember seeing Jesse sleeping in bed with his little cheek exposed and thinking, 'I have to make a call.' But then I would remind myself not to pass up a moment to kiss his cheek. And I wouldn't. I would always kiss that cheek," Lewis said, her words trailing off into tears. "Never pass up an opportunity like that. Those are gifts. You never know when you won't get another opportunity to kiss that little cheek."

Even now, Scarlett Lewis remembers how soft those cheeks were and how delicious they smelled.

After staying with her mother and stepfather over the holidays Lewis is back home with JT and their menagerie of horses, dogs, chickens and the rest of God's creatures on Wild Rose Farm, the sanctuary for the soul she bought in 1998.

There are still animals to feed here, including a pair of dinosaur-sized dogs -- an Old English Mastiff and a St. Bernard -- and a miniature Jack Russell Terrier named Siren.

"Slobber is love in this house," Lewis tells a visitor with a damp hand to prove it.

Even as she holds it together with remarkable grace Scarlett Lewis still hasn't made sense of this tragedy or its oppressive loss. No one has. And maybe the absence of answers is the hardest part of this tragedy.

"It's really hard for me to come back here because my boys were my life. I'm a single parent, and I did everything with them," said Lewis, finding a way to get out the words. "Everybody used to laugh at me because I would say, 'OK, we're getting up. We're doing a hike this morning. We're going horseback riding this afternoon and we're going to a movie tonight.' It was all these jam-packed days with my boys. And now they're gone."

A school's Sacred glass

Lewis stops talking to lift her glasses and wipe her eyes. The grief, just like the tears, seems to come in waves.

A moment later, she reaches into a plastic sandwich bag and pulls out a small piece of glass. It almost looks like a quartz crystal. Lewis retrieved the glass fragment from Jesse's classroom on Christmas Day.

The relic from a shot-out window comforts her and gives her strength. Just as importantly, it connects her to Jesse, just like all those rubber ducks and toy soldiers he left behind.

In the days after the shooting, a particularly astute grief counselor told Lewis that Native Americans consider the place where the dead are slain to be sacred ground.

"That really resonated with me," said the 44-year-old Lewis, an executive assistant for a telecommunications company in Orange. "It made sense to me. The place where my son died was sacred ground."

So when police approached her and asked if she wanted to return to Sandy Hook School, Lewis agreed almost on the spot, even though she knew how much it was going to hurt.

"I went because Jesse lived that. He was there. I wanted to honor him and be at the place where he lost his life," explained Lewis, who went to the school with her family. "It was devastating, the destruction and damage. I've been going to that school for 12 years. The front doors and the side glass were completely blown out and gone and covered with plywood, but you knew what was under it.

"And then, the first two classrooms were completely gone. The windows were all blown out. The only other family who had been there was Miss Soto's family," Lewis said of Jesse's teacher, Victoria Soto. "So we took a piece of glass because there was glass scattered all over and we had a little ceremony. We said we're going to carry around a piece of glass and we're going to remember Jesse's bravery.

"Whenever we feel like we can't do something, we're going to think about our piece of glass and think about what Jesse did running into harm's way," Lewis said, the words getting harder and harder to speak. "Whenever you're facing something you think is so hard -- me, sitting here trying to mourn the loss of my son, just sitting here talking, trying to get on with my life or whatever -- it just seems so insignificant compared to what he did, doesn't it?"

Bingo, Bango, Bongo Drum

Scarlett Lewis didn't just call Jesse by his given name. More often than not, Lewis said with a grin, she called him by a silly nickname. Two of her favorites were "Fifi Consuelo" and "Bingo, Bango, Bongo Drum."

The giggle-inducing monikers were another expression of a mother's love in this wonderful house with the wide-plank wood floors, low ceilings and pen marks in the kitchen that reflected so much more than a growth chart.

Lewis ran a pen across the top of Jesse's head for the last time on Nov. 17. He had grown about an inch since the last time he pressed his shoulder blades against the wall on Oct. 4.

But to Jesse, a first-grader who was already growing up too fast, the nicknames were off-limits at school. His friends could never hear his mother call him "Fifi Consuelo" of all things.

Unless Jesse was home, of course. Then all rules were suspended, and he answered to whatever creative nectar came out of his mother's mouth.

"Jesse was loud, a real force. He was all boy, just like JT," said Lewis, who grew up in Darien with three brothers. "He loved to run around the farm and play in the hayloft with his friends.

"He loved to jump down off the hay bales. My whole philosophy about being a mother is, if they come in with dirty fingernails at night, they've had a good time. And the more dirt and mud that comes off them in the shower, the better."

A few feet away from the kitchen growth chart, Lewis has a narrow blackboard wall with chalk for the taking. At the top, Lewis recently wrote a quote by Abraham Lincoln: "People are about as happy as they make up their minds to be."

Lewis reads that quote a lot these days. The words are as profound now as they were 150 years ago.

Below Lincoln's quote, in the handwriting of a 6-year-old boy waiting for his spelling to catch up with his vocabulary, are three carefully chosen words: "Norurting, Heling, Love."

It doesn't take long to figure out Jesse was trying to spell nurturing, healing, love, a boy's simple prescription for his family's heartache.

"Nobody saw him write this, but he clearly did," Lewis said, pointing to the cherished scrawl. "It's his handwriting. He wrote this for us."

And the rest of the world.

"I don't believe in coincidences or ironies. It's all divine providence," Lewis said. "I know that his spirit knew what was ahead of him, and I can see how my life with him has been preparing me for that. I feel like that day was his mission.

"Now, it's what I do with it moving forward. I've been handed this incredibly powerful gauntlet of Jesse's memory and presence and bravery and strength and power -- qualities JT has a lot of, too -- and I want to do something with it moving forward. What exactly it is, I'm not so sure yet."

The worst and longest day

Like Jesse's father, Neil Heslin, Lewis raced to Sandy Hook School from her job in Orange the moment she heard the news. A text message from a friend started the worst and longest day of her life.

"I got there from work right about the time all the kids came out to their parents," Lewis said. "I'm running around searching and somebody said, 'Oh, I think they took Jesse to the house next door with six other kids.' So I ran to the house next door, but he wasn't there.

"Neil and I were texting the whole time. And then somebody else said, 'They took him to the Children's Adventure Center,' which is on the other side of the school. So we were both running all over the place.

"Finally, we were just sitting there at the firehouse. They couldn't tell us anything and you could see people just falling to the ground and crying," Lewis said. "All the other kids had gone home with their parents. Suddenly, this slow realization was coming over us. We already knew the truth. But you held onto hope because you still had it."

It wasn't until later that police told Lewis that Jesse died running toward the shooter, apparently trying to lead his classmates to safety. Jesse was given a commander-in-chief's funeral for his actions, an honor usually reserved for heads of state and soldiers who have fallen in the act of valor, Lewis said.

"We were in the limo following the hearse, and there were two motorcycles on each side of us with their sirens on. And there were 10 police cars in front of us and 10 behind," Lewis said.

On the front of Jesse's memorial card, there's a picture of him wearing his soccer uniform, the same photo his mother showed the president last month at Newtown High.

"I don't know how this is all going to end. I just know I'm going to make it my journey and I'm going to experience things the way I experience them," Lewis said. "I broke down the other day because I saw a nutcracker and Jesse had asked for a nutcracker on his Christmas list. It's weird sometimes, the things that hit you.

"I was crying and crying, and then JT said, 'You know mom, time isn't the same on earth as it is in heaven. In heaven, a lifetime is a second, so Jesse won't have to wait very long to be with us again.' "And I was like, 'Oh my God, thank you, thank you. You're right.'"

Someday, Scarlett Lewis hopes to see a memorial on the sacred ground where Jesse and the 25 other members of the Sandy Hook School family were killed.

"I'd like the memorial to be a place where kids can go and play, a place where they can laugh and run and jump, all the things that Jesse loved to do," Lewis said. "I choose to remember all the good in these children, not the events of that day."

bkoonz@newstimes.com; 203-394-2957; @briankoonz