Aching reminders and an unsure path ahead
Parkland families struggle during the holidays
Like everything about their lives since Feb. 14, the holiday season is a complex time for the families of the 17 killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland. They feel overwhelming sadness, but allow themselves moments of happiness. Stabbing aches of absence are soothed with warm memories. Some won’t celebrate holidays, others will for the sake of other children. There is anger over missed signals and mistakes, the lack of change and accountability. Some are suing, others are not. Some have become activists, others have never made their voices heard.
All are trying to navigate a way forward.
Fred Guttenberg did not light menorah candles for Hanukkah this year: “I just couldn’t do it. I just didn’t feel like it.” Gena Hoyer has not hung Christmas decorations. Linda Beigel Schulman prepared a Thanksgiving feast, but not her murdered son’s favorite apple pie.
Tony Montalto and his family will have Christmas. “For our son we’re trying to keep it as normal as possible,” Montalto says. “He doesn’t deserve to have his life end just because his older sister lost hers.”
This is something victims’ relatives from horrific shootings past, at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut and Columbine High in Colorado, have counseled. There is no neat, linear path out of grief. Everyone’s journey will be different. And each will be at a different pace.
A week ago, Debbi Hixon said she would not decorate the small artificial tree she put up mainly for her son Corey, 23, who has Down syndrome. But at her Hollywood home this week, the tree had ornaments and wrapped presents below. Friends had given her the first decorations. She and Corey then hung ornaments they bought during a 19-day cross-country road trip this summer, a trip that her husband, Chris, the Stoneman Douglas athletic director, first proposed last Christmas.
“Corey insisted that we go,” Debbi says. “I cried a lot on that trip.”
A portrait of her late husband gazed down upon a Route 66 ornament on the tree.
The trip ended in Los Angeles, where Chris and two other slain coaches from Stoneman Douglas, Scott Beigel and Aaron Feis, were honored posthumously at ESPN’s annual ESPY awards. This week, on the eve of another trip to California, a Christmas visit to the Hixons’ oldest son, Tommy, Corey went around the house, showing off awards and honors that the family had accepted on Chris’ behalf.
One was from the Travis Manion Foundation. Manion was a U.S. Marine killed in Iraq after he volunteered for a second tour of duty by saying, “If not me, then who will go?” Chris Hixon, a Navy veteran, was killed when he ran into the 1200 building at Stoneman Douglas, trying to stop the shooter. He was 49.
Debbi told how she spent her birthday on Dec. 11 with a trip to her husband’s grave at the South Florida National Cemetery in Boynton Beach.
Written on Hixon’s headstone: “If not me, then who?”
Debbi says she feels a lot of anger this holiday season, and there are days she detaches from the world. “I watch HGTV,” she says. She returned to work in March at South Broward High, where she oversees the school’s magnet program. Some days she shuts the door to her office. Students and staffers understand. “Code Red drills are hard,” she says. “We had a real
Code Red in September [when police locked down the school while chasing robbery suspects]. I lost it.”
Every day, it seems, brings chilling new details and headlines, with documents released by prosecutors in the criminal case against shooter Nikolas Cruz, recommendations and reports issued by investigative commissions whose work is coming to an end, and court proceedings for ongoing lawsuits. The activism embraced by many families as a way to honor victims and bring change has led to a frenetic life of meetings, travel and mental exhaustion.
“It’s a daily nightmare you can’t escape,” says Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime died at the Parkland school. There are also unexpected reminders. Max Schachter, whose 14-year-old son Alex was killed, says photos of holidays and family trips with his son sometimes pop up unprompted on his smartphone. “All this technology today,” Schachter says. He has not tried to disable the feature. “It’s nice to see him smiling.”
“It’s an overwhelming time of year,” says Tony Montalto, whose
14-year-old daughter Gina was killed. “Losing a daughter is tough enough. But we have to deal with the violence of it, the suddenness of it, the reliving of it, and the incompetence at every level leading up to it.”
Says Mitch Dworet: “Our holidays are marked by absence. … Our son Nicholas is dead. Our son Alex was injured — he saw things he should have never seen. We are left to deal with it all, and the pain. The grief is so intense.”
Fourteen students and three educators were killed in Parkland. Most families did not know each other before Valentine’s Day. Now they share a terrible bond. That bond, in a way, is also beautiful.
Last Sunday, families gathered at the home of Tom and Gena Hoyer, whose 15-year-old son Luke was killed. It was not a holiday party, but rather the latest in an occasional series of meet-ups of what Max Schachter calls the “MSD 17 club.” Schachter tweeted photos, writing, “None of us ever wanted to be in MSD 17 club but it is so nice when we are together.” Fred Guttenberg wrote: “I hate that I know anyone in this group, but I love all of you and
spending time with you is always a good thing.”
The group photos show smiling men, some with arms draped over shoulders, and smiling women. The images offered hope and humanity, a message that people thrust together after tragedy can find affection despite differences.
Ten families gathered, including those with opposing views on politics and policies, including gun control, school-safety measures and the death penalty for the shooter. Andrew Pollack, whose 18-year-old daughter Meadow was killed and who supports President Trump and the NRA, was there. So was Manuel Oliver, a crusader for gun restrictions who has excoriated the NRA through activist art in the wake of his 17-year-old-son Joaquin’s murder.
“We’re the only ones who know what each other is going through,” says Montalto, who heads the victims’ family group Stand With Parkland. “We’re like a family. We can squabble and have differences, but we can still come together.”
The night before the gettogether, a Twitter spat erupted between Pollack, Schachter and Guttenberg
after Pollack chided Schachter for being the lone member of a state investigative commission to vote against a recommendation to arm teachers. “The one commissioner that didn’t watch [surveillance videos of the killings] voted against it,” Pollack wrote.
Schachter countered: “I did not need to see the video of the murder to decide that arming teachers is not the solution.”
Lori Alhadeff, elected to the Broward County School Board after the death of her 14-year-old daughter Alyssa, says, “This isn’t a show. This is our lives. It’s not always going to be ‘Kumbaya.’ We didn’t know each other before this but we’ll always have that connection. Everyone has to decide what’s best for them and their families.”
Alhadeff decided to channel her grief by running for office. She was sworn onto the school board last month. “I’m trying to be optimistic because I want to make change,” she says. “I bring a sense of urgency more than what was there. The people who have been slow to change are going to have to look me in the eye for the next four years.”
Linda Beigel Schulman, who lives in New York and comes to South Florida often, says she chooses to celebrate her son Scott Beigel’s life. She has become close with her son’s former geography students and cross-country runners. She welcomed Stoneman Douglas graduate and activist Cameron Kasky to her Long Island home for Thanksgiving. She honors her son’s legacy by campaigning for sensible gun reform and supporting the summer camp where he was a counselor. Scott Beigel was 35.
“I know nothing is going to bring him back, so I just have to keep moving forward,” she says. Yet, like many relatives, she has a hard time understanding why leaders such as Broward Sheriff Scott Israel and Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie still have jobs. “They say a fish rots from the head down, and all the heads are still there.”
Two families say they have had enough of Broward and are moving away. Andrew Pollack has bought an RV and says he’s “looking to go more rural” while pursuing multiple lawsuits that he hopes will bring answers and accountability.
“I don’t want to live around unethical Democrats anymore,” Pollack says. “The sheriff, the Broward School Board, the superintendent, the supervisor of elections – they’re all incompetent. I mean 70 percent of the people here voted for Andrew Gillum. I just can’t be around it. To me, it’s negative energy. … If it were Republicans, I’d call them out, too.”
April and Phil Schentrup, whose 16-year-old daughter Carmen was killed, have put their Parkland home on the market and this month moved to the Seattle area, where Phil’s employer is based. April, a former elementary principal, briefly took a job as a school safety administrator at school district headquarters. She is on leave and her younger daughter enrolled in online school after leaving Stoneman Douglas. “We need time to heal,” Schentrup says.
Debbi Hixon is also trying to heal. She says little things bother her, including polite words and wellmeant questions from friends and strangers. Questions such as “How are you doing?”
“It’s better to just say, ‘Been thinking of you, good to see you,’ ” Hixon says. She half-jokingly says she should write an etiquette book on speaking with people handling violent tragedy.
“People come up all the time and say, ‘Sorry for your loss,’ ” she says. “I know they have good intentions but hearing that makes me angry. I just nod and say, ‘Thanks.’ But in my head I’m thinking, ‘My husband wasn’t sick, he didn’t get into an accident. He was murdered.’ We didn’t lose him, he was taken by someone who should have been stopped.”
Debbi Hixon sits in the living room of her Hollywood home next to a Christmas tree with her youngest son, Corey.
One of the decorations on Debbi Hixon’s tree is a memorial card for her husband, Chris Hixon.
Debbi Hixon and mothers of slain Parkland students gather at the Hoyer house on Dec. 16. From left: Kelly Petty, Lori Alhadeff, Patricia Oliver, Jennifer Guttenberg, Gena Hoyer, Caryn DeSacial Schachter, Jennifer Montalto, Debbi Hixon and Annika Dworet.
Fathers and siblings of slain Parkland students gather at the Hoyer house on Dec. 16. From left: Mitch Dworet, Jake Hoyer (brother of Luke Hoyer), Andrew Pollack, Max Schachter, Ryan Petty, Tony Montalto, Tom Hoyer, Hunter Pollack (brother of Meadow Pollack), Fred Guttenberg and Manuel Oliver.