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Remembering Ben Wheeler

Published: October 13, 2017

The Newtown Bee

December 14, 2017 will mark five years without loved ones for families of children and educators killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The Newtown Bee will share remembrances of victims of 12/14 throughout the fall, written by family members or with the assistance of staff at The Newtown Bee. Not all families care to participate, and we respect that. David and Francine Wheeler share their remembrance of their son, Ben, in this article.

About twelve hours after he was born in early September 2006, I took the first video recording of our son Ben — Francine holding him, beaming into his sweetly sleeping face, wrapped in the ubiquitous cotton hospital blanket with its bands of pink and blue stripes. She stood with him near a large window high on an upper floor of the then Roosevelt Hospital and, in the video, the early morning flow of taxis and delivery trucks winds down Tenth Avenue out of focus behind his head cradled in her arms. We smiled, we cried, he slept. Soon we were home to introduce him to 3-year-old Nate, who was over the moon about his little brother.

When Benny was asleep it was the only time of the day he wasn’t in motion. Charging through his life with typical boy energy and exuberance, he rarely slowed down until he was sinking into his pillow, clutching Knuffle Bunny. Not long into his second year an exhilarating carom off our bed landed him at Danbury Hospital with a broken collarbone and a new nickname, “Crash,” which was amended over the next years to include every incident that sent us either to his pediatrician’s office or our first-aid kit. Crash-Hopalong-Hurt Himself-Jawbreaker-Shiner-Split Lip-Gash Eye-Face Plant-Nose Buster Wheeler. Hyperbolic, perhaps, but it certainly conveys his spirit. “Hopalong” because he could rarely be convinced that he actually needed two shoes — one was just fine, thanks.

As the youngest in the family, Ben often felt he had to work a little bit harder to get everyone’s attention and focus, which sometimes included both of his hands on either side of an adult’s head, physically turning your focus to his story, exclamation, or other important message to you.

He did have moments of calm and the shyness typical of a kid that age — still clinging to Mom’s legs and hiding a bit when in unfamiliar territory — and he was never too busy for a hug or a cuddle.

Francine was teaching him how to play the piano. He’d also had a few successful lessons with Jim Allyn. After a visit to his pediatrician’s office when he was five, he and Francine left the lobby of the building and he asked her, “Mommy, what’s that ‘C’ for?” She didn’t know what he meant. She thought perhaps he was confusing one of the buttons on the elevator panel. “There’s no ‘C’ in the elevator,” she said. “No,” he said, “this,” and he hummed the sound of an ambient tone from the elevator machinery.

When they returned home, she brought him over to the piano in her teaching studio, “Hum that for me again?” she asked him. He repeated the elevator tone and she found it on the piano; middle C. She then asked him to sing some other notes from memory and he got every one. His favorite song then was Loch Lomond and he played it, mostly with one finger, at his first piano recital five days before he was murdered.

In the last almost five years, our children and family members killed the morning of December 14, 2012, have been memorialized many times, in many ways, often without our input or consent. In the effort to control what amount of that we can, it seems as though we’ve distilled Ben’s character down to a number of commonly repeated traits; he loved lighthouses, he had a great sense of humor, he loved Cub Scouts, he’d never lost a tooth.

In the days immediately following the deaths of Ben and his classmates and teachers, a close friend asked us this: if we had been given the gift of this child knowing that we’d only have six years, three months, and two days with him, would we take that deal? Yes. Of course, yes. But it feels as though he didn’t live long enough to collect the life events to fill a profile like this. Six years isn’t enough time to take the pictures and videos necessary to comfort you in the loss of your child. Benny was a delight, a challenge, a sparkler, a warm, rushing force of loud joy and messy hair who hadn’t yet beaten his lisp, who was figuring out his place in the world. Who was just starting to understand that boundary where his parents stopped and he began. Figuring out how to be a brother and a best friend to Nate and still be himself. What it means to be a grandson, a nephew, a cousin, a friend.

It is inevitable, then, that this writing should become a profile of a family that has been ripped apart and had to learn to live with that visceral loss, and that should come as no surprise — other profiles in this space will doubtless do the same.

This kind of violent, traumatic grief doesn’t change you, it simply highlights who you already are. The pool is drained and whatever cast-off detritus sat unseen at the bottom is now visible to you and to the world in stark relief. Relationships end, friendships wither, family bonds that seemed unbreakable are shattered; tectonic changes to the very landscape you are struggling to traverse in the darkness of a splintered heart.

The support of many — most — in our community helped us out of bed in the morning and kept us upright and continues to. The selfless love and dedication of the band of friends and neighbors that built what became Ben’s Lighthouse stands as an example of the best in human nature and living a life of example and integrity. One lesson has been learned in the most significant possible way: we are only here for one reason. To take care of each other. Not to protect our stuff, not to keep others from finding joy, but to take care of each other. Only that. Everything else is a shallow distraction.

Every parent has nightmares about losing their children. Every parent has that chilling split-second where the worry crystalizes, “Will I get to keep you? What will happen to me if I don’t?”

We spend every minute of every day trying to answer that last question as best we can, and the rest of our lives trying to find a way to adequately say the meaningful goodbye we didn’t get.

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