Since then, Francine and David—who moved to Newtown from Queens, New York, in 2007 for the "good public schools and a yard where our sons could run around and be safe"—have become advocates for what they call "common-sense gun responsibility reforms." Working with Sandy Hook Promise, a group dedicated to creating a new national dialogue around gun violence, mental health, school safety, and community, Francine and David have spoken before state legislators, members of Congress, even the president of the United States, and with unfailing candor have brought the most stolid lawmakers to tears. President Obama was so impressed that, after the Wheelers and other Sandy Hook families traveled to Washington last April to lobby on behalf of the proposed expanded-background-check amendment, he asked that Francine deliver his weekly presidential address; she is the first ordinary citizen so honored since Obama took office.
Indeed, the Wheelers feel blessed to have received many extraordinary and unexpected gestures of support: the dedication of the state trooper who protected them from the media onslaught that followed the tragedy and whose constant, calming presence earned him the nickname "Supertrooper Scott"; the renaming of the street in Queens where they lived when Ben was born to "Benjamin Wheeler Place"; the generosity of the 50 friends and neighbors who showed up one Saturday in early fall to plant trees and landscape their property. Buoyed by such kindness, Francine, a music teacher and singer, and David, a graphic designer, remain committed to seeing that Sandy Hook be remembered not for tragedy but as the place where real change began.
We've talked a lot in these pages about spirituality and how to live a life with courage and in your truth—and I'm here to tell you, these two walk the talk. I wanted to be in their presence, and to hear their story and share it with you, because this I know for sure: They are carriers of the light. So as Nate got cozy inside, immersed in his Skylanders books, his parents and I sat in my backyard under a canopy of eucalyptus trees and talked about Ben, the power of community, and the guiding force that we could all use a lot more of: love.
Read Oprah's interview with the Wheelers
David: Ben was full of energy—there was nothing on his dial between 1 and 11. He would wake up in the morning at full speed, and he stayed at full speed until he finally decided to close his eyes and hit the pillow. It was astonishing. I've seen him fall asleep midsentence.
Francine: It's true. I don't think you could meet someone who loved life more than Ben. My father always said, "Ben lives ten years for every year."
David: You always knew when Ben was around. If there was a conversation happening and he had something to say, he would pitch his voice higher and louder than everybody else's in the room, so he could be heard. And if for some reason he felt you weren't paying close enough attention, he would put his hands on either side of your face and turn your head till you were looking directly at him.
Francine: Ben was incredibly smart. And he loved lighthouses. They were his favorite things in the world.
David: Oh, yes.
Francine: Since the tragedy, I've asked myself, Did God set that up? Did he purposely show Ben lighthouses early on? Because think of what a lighthouse does: It shows the light so that we can find our way. Now Benny has become our light.
Oprah: Let's talk about the morning of December 14, 2012. Was it just an ordinary Friday morning for your family?
Francine: It was. And it wasn't. We had forgotten that Nate had book club at 8 in the morning, which meant I had to drive him to school early. So I said, "All right, guys, we've got to hurry up and get the dishes in the dishwasher because I've got to get Nate to school." I asked Ben, "Do you want me to drive you back home to catch the bus, or do you want to go get a treat with me at Starbucks?" Of course, he said get a treat. But before we left, as we were rushing to load the dishwasher, Ben asked, out of the blue, "Hey, Mom, what does forgiveness mean?" And I said, "Well, it's kind of like when somebody does something wrong to you, and you forget about it." He just said, "Oh," and that was it. I didn't think anything more about it.
Later, as we sat in Starbucks, Ben said, "Mama, I'm going to be an architect." I said, "That's great!" And then he said, "But I have to be a paleontologist, too." "Why?" "Because Nate is going to be a paleontologist, and I have to do everything Nate does."
Francine: I told him: "You know, you're your own person. You don't have to do what Nate does." He said, "No, I want to." As we sat there, I told him, "It's so nice to be with you, Ben."
After he died, I started to question if that conversation was as special as I remembered it. I began to think maybe I had made it up. But then I was at a Sandy Hook function about a month later—it was the first time I was out publicly among our friends—and this woman came up to me and said: "Excuse me. I work at the school, and I was at Starbucks the morning you were there with Ben. I'm not in the business of listening to people's conversations, but I happened to hear what a beautiful conversation you had with your son that day, and I feel like I just had to tell you that." So it really happened.
Oprah: A stranger just comes up to you and tells you this?
Francine: [Nodding] I have a notebook filled with experiences like that. I've been writing them down.
Oprah: All the strange things that have occurred since that day.
David: A friend of ours calls them "postcards." She says she still gets postcards from her grandfather who passed away years ago.
Oprah: So you mean messages. Messages from Ben.
Next: What it means to forgive
Francine: He was in the gym with his class.
Oprah: How do you explain what happened? How do you help him remember Ben without putting too much of a burden on him?
Francine: Nate is a boy who needs to talk about the elephant in the room. He has to talk about Ben. And we do, too. We listen to whatever Nate wants to say about him. He's very open with us about it.
David: It's been hard helping him navigate his way through all of it. He doesn't yet understand the many layers of emotions he's feeling. But he's going to be dealing with this the rest of his life, and as things come up, we will have to be ready to help him through it.
Oprah: Going back to Ben's question about forgiveness...Francine, at the time, did you think it was just another question in the long line of 6-year-old questions?
Francine: Well, I thought maybe it was a subject they were talking about at Sunday school, because he loved Sunday school and because I had never spoken to him about forgiveness before. As far as that question goes...the answer seems simple, but it's not. Like, I can't lie to you now and say, Oh yes, I've forgiven everybody, or myself.
Oprah: Why do you need to forgive yourself?
Francine: For the feelings of guilt that have come up. I know it's natural after something so horrific, but I also know there's no room for it.
Oprah: By guilt, do you mean the what-ifs?
Francine: Yes. Because we had signs not to send Ben to school that day.
David:D That morning, Ben had a sniffle, and Francine had asked me if we should send him to school. I said, "He'll be fine. Send him. It's not a problem." I now have to own that.
Francine: And I was musical director of a show at the time, and my original thought was to take Ben and Nate out of school on Friday and bring them to the afternoon show. But then I decided, no, they should go to school. So I took them to the performance the night before instead.
Oprah: Did you ask Ben if he wanted to go to school?
Francine: I did. And he wanted to go. He loved school.
David: When something like this happens, it's very hard to look back and say to yourself, with confidence, I did everything I was supposed to do, and I did it right.
Oprah: Well, you certainly did everything that you knew how to do at the time.
Oprah: I've heard you say, David, that your job now is to protect Ben's spirit. Tell me about that. What does that mean?
David: That I'm not done being Ben's father. I am still the father of two boys. And while Ben and his classmates have been memorialized in many kind and loving ways, I've come to understand that there's only one memorial that matters to me as Ben's father, and that's how I live my life from here on out. And part of that is sharing our story, and talking about how I think we, as a society, should move on from here.
Next: "If this is the tipping point, then let's all start working together for change."
Francine: How could it not be? And if this is the tipping point, then let's all start working together for change. Because I don't think I can survive this without doing that.
David: There can't be a person in the world who thinks what happened is okay. That's probably one of the most significant areas of common ground that we can find with those on the other side of this conversation. Who can justify the numbers of people who have perished from gun violence, even since December 14?
Francine: Eight children and teens a day.
David: These innocent children. It doesn't matter if we're talking about situations like the one that affected us or about the street corners of Baltimore. Who thinks those numbers are okay?
Oprah: Do you think that what happened at Sandy Hook has made people focus on this issue in a way they had not been willing to before?
David: Certainly. People took this more personally because of the age of Ben and his classmates.
Francine: And the courage of those teachers and administrators. They are heroes. Absolute heroes.
Oprah: Because if something like this can happen in Newtown, it really could happen again anywhere.
Oprah: How do you find the strength to keep moving forward when you face setbacks, like the rejection last April of the expanded background-check bill that you lobbied for? Did you feel defeated after that?
David: No. Not for a second.
Oprah: You didn't feel like it was a slap in the face? Because it felt that way to a lot of people in the country.
Francine: We didn't feel that way because we knew we weren't going away. This is our life now. I've said to many of our leaders, "Look, I don't have any fear talking to you, because what else do I have?"
David: We have nothing else.
Francine: Except Ben's ability to give us courage to move forward. We can't change what happened, but we have to honor Ben's life, and Nate's life, and keep being truthful.
Oprah: Will you go back to Congress? It's not over for that bill.
Francine: Yes, but there are a lot of other bills, and a lot of relationships to build on, too. It takes a very long time to get people to start thinking about things in other ways.
David: Also, let's not forget that our government was designed in such a way that nothing can move quickly. And there's a well-financed, well-oiled lobbying machine that we have to contend with. All of that takes time.
Oprah: And you're not saying, "Let's eliminate all guns."
David: No. That's never going to happen. That's not realistic.
Francine: This is a public-safety issue that also includes our schools and our approach to mental health. You know, the mental-health piece of this is so complicated, and yet no one talks about it.
Oprah: We all just overlook it as though it isn't even there.
David: Yes. That's one of the reasons we are so happy to be involved with Sandy Hook Promise, because they have people working in all these areas—like mental health, school safety, gun responsibility—that are directly related to gun violence.
Next: What perspective the Wheelers have found
Francine: My faith and my community. I am grateful every single day for my family, my friends, and my church. David and I have such an incredible network of people who support us and love us. I don't think we could make it without them.
David: Strangers, too. From around the world. People we'll never meet, never know. There's a couple in Texas who sends us a card every week. Still. It's so powerful.
Oprah: David, I've heard you say, "Through our pain, we are trying to get perspective." What perspective have you found?
David: Well, suffering and grief are intensely personal experiences. One of the hardest things has been learning how our processes differ. I've needed to do some things in the journey of my grief that have caused Francine pain, and she has had to do some things in hers that I haven't felt were right. For example, I woke up one morning last March realizing that I had to visit the school. I had to see Ben's classroom and ask the detectives all the questions that were on my mind. Francine, however, was not ready to hear about it and did not want me to go. She didn't want to know that I was carrying the information that she knew she would have to learn eventually and that would hurt her very deeply. But you have to respect the other person's processes to keep a marriage going. You have to let them do their own thing. So I went, and then she went when she was ready.
Oprah: I think it's so important for people to understand that. No two people grieve the same way. If you don't respect that, a marriage can be destroyed. So when do you know to back away and when to move into your partner's space?
Francine: We have to communicate really, really well.
David: There's no room for games.
Francine: For example, we'll be arguing over little things—like, say, David's forgetting to tell me about Nate's Cub Scouts meeting—and as we sense it escalating, we'll recognize that what we're really upset about is the fact that Ben is not here. So we'll say to each other, "Let's flip the switch!" Not going down that rabbit hole.
Oprah: Not that rabbit hole. David, I know you call yourself a "happy atheist," so I won't ask you this question, but Francine, did you ever find yourself angry with God for allowing this to happen?
Francine: Early on my pastor said to me, "You know, it isn't God who did this." And so I thought about it, and I can honestly say I've never been angry with God. I've been angry at evil. I'm angry that we have the free will that makes something like this possible. But angry with God? No.
Oprah: How do you each think you've changed from this experience?
Francine: I am more courageous, and I value my truth to a much greater extent than before. For many years, I did things through filters. You know, maybe I shouldn't say that or maybe I won't do that or maybe I'll just be safe here. Since the tragedy, I feel released from all of that. The cost is too great. I have to say what's in my heart.
David: This has made me look at the bigger life questions. I was not raised in a particular religious tradition, so I've started reading the books of great thinkers. Like Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning.
Oprah: That's a hard read. Frankl was writing about his experience surviving Nazi concentration camps.
David: Yes, but so much of what he writes resonates with me. He concluded that our purpose as human beings is to find the best possible answer to the questions and problems that life presents us every day.
Oprah: And to do that with love.
David: Right. Because man's salvation—and he means that not only in the religious sense, but actual survival—is found in and through love. So that's how this has changed me; I'm much more open to these thoughts now.
Francine: Somebody said to us at one point, you can't ever fill that hole in your heart, but what you can do is cover your heart with love to protect that sacred hole.
David: So our job now is to make our hearts bigger than the loss. And there is only one way to do that: We have to make our decisions out of love.
Francine: When we make decisions out of fear, that's when we have problems.
Oprah: Have you gone through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's stages of grief [denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance]?
Francine: I feel like we go back and forth through those.
David: When it's the violent loss of a 6-year-old, you bounce all over the place. It is literally minute to minute at the beginning, then hour by hour, and then hopefully day by day. The stretches of time between the enormous knee-buckling waves of grief that take us down get longer, but the waves still come.
Oprah: What does a bad day look like?
David: Bad days are when I just can't get to the place I need to be in order to feel open, and instead cynicism, frustration, and the desire for revenge take over.
Francine: For me, it's when I miss feeling Benny's body. He was such a lovable little boy. Always letting me hug him and kiss him. Those days, I'll just cry all day long. But I cry every day. And every day I get angry that this could happen, and every day I think, "Did I dream this? Am I in a dream?"
Oprah: What do you turn to or what tools do you use to help you work through a bad day?
Francine: I go for a run. I call my friends. I make myself write down everything I am grateful for in that moment. I'll try singing. I'll sit and listen to Nate. I also use prayer.
David: I'm more internal. I will occasionally call a friend, but I have found great comfort in Eckhart Tolle's concept of the observer.
Oprah: Meaning you try to observe your thoughts, in the moment, and not let them take over.
David: Yes. It doesn't always help when the waves of emotion are overwhelming, but it opens the door to a place where I can find stable ground.
Francine: We've also come to lean on four or five couples who also lost a child in the tragedy. We didn't know most of them before, but now we're very close; they lean on us, too.
David: They're like family. We want nothing more than to be there for them.
Oprah: Well, I have to tell you that it's been an honor to have you both here. Hearing you and seeing you operate the way you do, with love, has certainly made me stop and think, "Am I activating that way of being for myself? Am I being as loving as I could possibly be?" I am sure others will feel some of that, too. But before we end, tell me: Where do you think Ben is?
Francine: He's in the sky. He's in my heart. He's with Nate. He's talking to friends. He's in my dreams. He's everywhere.
David: He is a part of us, and he is everywhere.
Oprah: Thank you both for your example. You are what spirituality is.
Sandy Hook: A Place for Change
Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit founded by members of the Newtown community, brings together Americans determined to prevent gun violence against children. To learn more, go to SandyHookPromise.org. Ben's Lighthouse, named in honor of Ben Wheeler, offers programs for the long-term well-being of children and youth in the Newtown area; visit BensLighthouseFund.org.
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