Everything about Newtown, Conn., is sad now. Everywhere you turn, there are sets of 26 items for the 26 people who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School — flags, Christmas tree ornaments, wreaths, teddy bears, wooden angels, candles, Christmas trees — and the list goes on and on.
Sometimes people in pain are described as “numb,” but not here. Emotions are raw. Introductions between strangers are frequently followed by hugs and tears.
Perhaps the most striking moments here have been when the funeral processions drive through the center of town, past the ever-growing memorial beneath the town’s enormous Christmas tree. The scene, now a chilling routine, plays out the same way each time.
Any chatter around the memorial (and there’s not much) is overwhelmed by the sound of police sirens. For a moment, people look alarmed. All heads turn as the beginning of the motorcade comes into view along the narrow road.
That’s when people realize what they’re seeing.
Police motorcycles or squad cars are followed by the dreaded cars, the unusually long ones with the tinted windows. People take off their hats. Some make the sign of the cross. Some gasp and say, “Oh my.” All eyes are fixed on the motorcade for the 10 or 15 seconds it takes for it to drive by.
Once the last car is out of sight, the silence lingers and then the tears begin to flow as people begin to turn back toward the memorial.
There was, however, one time when the scene ended differently. Less than two minutes after the cars had passed, a small army of golden retrievers arrived with their owners.
There were smiles through the sniffles and people began to gather around the dogs, to pet them, hug them and be comforted by them.
I was next to a dog named Chance. I’m not really a dog person, but I couldn’t resist scratching Chance’s ears and smiling at how soft and happy he was.
Several groups have arrived in town with dogs, but these dogs were natives. They were part of the Hudson Valley Golden Retriever Club, a local group of retriever enthusiasts.
“Golden retrievers have the personality to make people smile and let people love them and hug them, and we wanted to bring them down and let people drape themselves over them and cry in their fur, and maybe tell them stories they’re not able to convey to each other yet,” Kathi Schapp, Chance’s owner, told me.
She said the group wanted to show local support for a hurting community, and she has seen firsthand the fleeting moments of joy she and Chance can create.
“A little boy came over earlier, was hugging the dogs and he walked away,” Schapp said. “His mother came back and she said that’s the first time she had seen him smile in a couple of days, but then, when she went back to him, he said he was done smiling.”
“But just that little bit meant so much to her,” she said. “That’s what we hope for, just a few seconds, probably more than some of these people have done in days.”