Chapter 5: Earth Day

5. Earth Day

October 1991: John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance — Boston, Massachusetts

There was something wrong in Nancy Lanza’s womb.

She knew how it was supposed to go; two years before, with her first son, she had kept working right up to her third trimester. She had gotten morning sickness, and mood swings. The usual. No problem. But now, three months pregnant with her second child, something was definitely wrong. She was starting to get worried.

Every day it got worse. Without warning, Nancy’s blood sugar would plummet, throwing her off-balance. Then she’d get hit by waves of nausea, increasing in frequency and intensity the more she tried to power through. It was as if the force growing inside her belly wanted something that its mother could not provide, and so it just took, and took, and took from her, sapping her strength.

The complications lingered, their ebb even surfacing in Nancy’s work performance. That wasn’t good; the downward trend in her stats, Nancy told friends, was something that her supervisors at John Hancock would not hesitate to bring to her attention. Even when she was with child.  The fear compounded her stress.

She could feel the baby growing in her, and yet, she noticed it moving less and less. The fear grew. By November, her own symptoms would spiral into a list that included “episodes of physical pain, distress, headaches, insomnia, crying spells, nausea and increased nervousness.” That month, she took a medical leave of absence from John Hancock, seeking refuge at the Lanza family home in Kingston for the remaining five months of her term. She would weather the storm, but its intensity was such that Nancy decided she would never bear children again.

April 22nd, 1992: Exeter Hospital — Exeter, New Hampshire

The day came, and Peter drove Nancy to the hospital, for a planned Cesarean section. There, she gave birth to her second son: Adam Peter Lanza.

A local paper, the Exeter News-Letter, would run a photo of the newborn boy along with a birth announcement, one amongst a collection that recorded all of the children brought into the world at Exeter Hospital that year. Adam’s birth weight was listed at precisely eight pounds, and he appeared no different from the other babies in the maternity ward that day. His mother, relieved that the troubled pregnancy was finally over, brought him home to Kingston, a “healthy baby boy.”

Soon, Nancy was soon rushing Adam back to the hospital, herself in a panic, telling the staff that her baby had stopped breathing. This turned out to be a false alarm: Adam woke back up, his breath returned, and the doctors recorded that it had likely been nothing more than a simple episode of apnea. This marked the first instance in Adam Lanza’s life when his parents were concerned for his health. He was eight days old.

 

Kingston, New Hampshire

With the hardship finally gone from her belly, Nancy soon regained her strength. The Lanzas were seeing the returns from Peter’s years of hard work by then; he had finished his masters in taxation at Bentley University, and then accepted a position as Vice President of Tax for an asset management firm. It was a respected, and lucrative role. The family’s financial concerns began to fade.

Nancy had been at John Hancock for more than eight years by this point, and her plan was to go back to work after her maternity leave ended — dropping Adam off at daycare on her way to Hancock Tower, just as she had with her first son, Ryan, for the previous four years — but it didn’t work out that way; when Nancy had filed for her medical leave of absence late in 1991, she knew that the firm was planning to restructure her department. That meant cutting costs, which meant cutting jobs, but Nancy told family that her bosses had promised her she would still have her spot waiting for her when she was ready to come back.

Then, one day, the Lanza family’s mailbox on Depot Road had its red flag raised, and a letter from John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance was inside, bearing the bad news: Nancy had been laid off, after all.

She was deeply offended, taking it as both a personal betrayal and a professional slight. But then again, the Lanzas had been overdue to shift to the “long-term” phase of their plans already. As Nancy would later write of this juncture in her family’s history, “it was a decision that I made to take more responsibility for the house and the children, and to allow [Peter] to concentrate on his career.” But the knife twisted all the same; her bosses had cited her sinking job performance in the dismissal, and so Nancy felt that in a way, she was being faulted for the suffering she had endured while bearing Adam into the world. She made up her mind not to let the firing go unanswered… but she filed that grievance away, off in a corner of her mind, to deal with later. She had more immediate concerns, at home.

 

For the first three years of Adam Lanza’s life, he did not speak. He would babble, making noises that sounded like words, but not words that anyone else could understand. Within the family, it became accepted that Adam was “making up his own language.”

Nancy would pick up some her son’s unique language by the time he was a toddler — enough to interpret what he wanted, and what he wanted to say. So, as long as his mother was around, Adam was normal enough to get by. It wasn’t quite that he was failing to learn English, either, since it was evident that he was able to understand what adults were saying most of the time. He could follow commands, if somewhat clumsily. But the total absence of any intelligible speech at all could not be ignored.

New Hampshire’s “early intervention” system — intended to spot any developmental issues in young children — includes a phase of “transition planning” when a  child is between 27 and 32 months, to determine if preschool special education would be needed as part of preparation for the child entering the public school system. In early 1995, as this window of time was about to close for Adam, someone contacted the state, and an evaluation was scheduled.

Most likely, it was a pediatrician that wrote the referral; he or she was the first doctor to regularly evaluate Adam Lanza, and they recorded that the toddler presented with “several developmental challenges,” the foremost being his significant speech and language delays. The doctor had concerns about Adam’s physical movements as well, noting repetitive behaviors, as well as both fine and gross “motor difficulties.” The good news was, it should all be treatable.

 

Late 1994: Office of Child Health Services— Manchester, New Hampshire

Nancy brought Adam in for the state’s “birth to three” assessment. This was a necessary step, in order to qualify for the supports that the state could offer toward his development. During the testing session, the state’s evaluators made note that they could not understand any of Adam’s speech at all; they needed his mother to act as interpreter. However, there were positive signs noted as well, as they observed that two-year-old Adam demonstrated “a good attention span,” coupled with “creative play skills.” They confirmed that he could follow verbal direction, but they also noticed some motor difficulties as he was completing the physical tasks laid out before him. The conclusions the doctors drew from this evaluation would echo those from Adam’s pediatrician, and expand on them — the evaluators wrote that Adam, when entering preschool, “fell well below expectations in social-personal development,” and presented with “significantly delayed development of articulation and expressive language skills.”

Adam was going to need help, and that meant an IEP: Individualized Education Plan. Every incoming student with a disability would need an IEP in order to plot out their special education needs, and in each child’s plan, the school was required to specify the student’s primary learning disability.

On his very first IEP, Adam was listed as having “Oral Expression Disability.”

It is not always easy for a parent to accept that their child has a learning disability. To the family or student impacted, the stigma can make it feel as though a weakness has been exposed. In fact, the very New Hampshire government organisation that managed Adam’s transition to public schooling in 1995 also underwent a name change that same year; they switched from “Family Centered Early Intervention” to “Family-Centered Early Supports and Services,” with the state explaining in a statement that the change “came about as a result of a group of parents talking to their legislators about the negative connotation associated with the term ‘Early Intervention,’ as the term implied that they and their children needed to have their lives intervened with simply because the children had developmental issues.”

Indeed, as would have been explained to Nancy at the time, Adam’s having qualified for special education supports merely meant that her son’s development was atypical. He had different needs than other children, and it was best that his learning curriculum be tailored accordingly. In Adam’s case, given his specific developmental delays, his evaluators prescribed regular speech supports and occupational therapy sessions. Beyond this, their only recommendation was for Adam to begin regular preschool attendance, in order to “stimulate development in all domains.”

 

Nancy took Adam to a preschool in Kingston for the next two years. Initially, he received speech therapy that was geared almost exclusively toward improving his articulation: strengthening the mechanics of forming recognizable words; as the “Planning and Placement Team” (PPT) saw it, Adam was sending out scrambled messages. It was their task to unscramble them.

At the same time, the preschool reported that Adam “appeared to be beginning to understand that others could not understand him.” Until this point, the child apparently thought that the words he was using were not just his own. As a result of this shortfall, part of his speech therapy was meant to teach him “strategies” to help “compensate for the limited intelligibility of his speech when talking with unfamiliar listeners,” with the hope that he would start speaking to someone, anyone, beyond his mother. But reports from his preschool over the months that followed indicate that Adam instead fell back on a more simple strategy: when he realized that he was talking differently than everyone else, he stopped talking altogether. The signals from his interior world, scrambled before, suddenly went silent.

According to doctors who would review Adam’s pediatric records in later years, his retreating into muteness should have been recognized as a delay in the development of his expressive language — a facet which is distinct from articulation. It is the ability to demonstrate “communicative intent,” i.e. the will to communicate. Yet, despite this branching in his development,  it appears that his education plan continued unchanged, still focusing on improving his ability to properly articulate words. The underlying problem was left largely unaddressed: that whatever was inside Adam, it no longer wanted to come out.

 

Texas State Capitol Building — Austin, Texas

The doors to the State Senate chambers opened, and a woman named Suzanna entered. Legislators were seated at a long, rectangular table, listening to witnesses they had invited to comment on a proposed gun bill.

Suzanna was there to tell her story. When her turn came at the microphone, she told the gathering in the chamber about the day she had gone for lunch at Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen a few years before — when the blue truck had come crashing through the front window. Recounting the events for the state’s subcommittee, she described the initial fear and confusion she felt, as she took cover with her family, and listened to the seemingly endless gunfire emanating from man with the giant eyes. She described how it had dawned on her, exactly what the gunman was there to do. And what she had to do.

“I got him!” she thought in that moment, her mind’s eye jumping to the pistol she kept in her purse. “I had a perfect place to prop my hand. Everyone else in the restaurant was down, he was up, perhaps fifteen feet from me, and I have hit much smaller targets at much greater distances.” She reached for her purse, and then, just as suddenly as her hopes were raised, they came crashing back down: she remembered a seemingly-minor decision she had made a month or two before, when she had taken the .38 revolver from her purse, and left it in her car. “In the State of Texas, it is a felony offense to carry a concealed firearm anywhere where wine or beer or any alcohol is served,” she reminded her audience, and she had been worried it could cost her her chiropractor’s license if she was caught. So there, in her car, the .38 pistol sat, “a hundred yards away, completely useless to me.” There was nothing she could do but hide, and wait for police. Or the end.

Suddenly, the circumstances changed. A customer at the far end of the restaurant from the blue truck had been throwing himself against a window, and when it finally broke, Suzanna was among the terrified survivors that came pouring through the hole, into the alley behind Luby’s. She thought that her mother was following her to the makeshift exit, but Suzanna later found out that she had stayed behind, with her husband of 47 years, Al Gratia, who lay mortally wounded after trying to rush the shooter. Suzanna’s mother had had been the last victim at Luby’s, shot in a moment that signalled to police who the bad guy with the gun was. Her sacrifice brought an end to the bloodshed.

Midway through telling her story, Suzanna Gratia asked for permission to stand, and then she gave a demonstration of what it was like to be in the cafeteria that day: she placed her hands together, forming a “gun” sign, and narrated the scene as she paced down the row of lawmakers, miming “shooting” each of them. She came to a stop when one senator — a vocal opponent of the bill they were discussing that day — snapped at her “get that finger out of my face!”

Suzanna did, but then she posed a question, nodding to the next man seated at the table: “Tell me, senator: would you like him to have a concealed weapon at this point, or not?”

The subcommittee’s hearings that day were for a bill that would establish a “license to carry” system for Texans, and their handguns. As Suzanna expected, footage of her tense confrontation in the chamber made every evening news broadcast in the state that night. It was just the boost that the bill needed.

The Concealed-Carry Law passed. Within the year, any Texan over age 21, who did not have a criminal record, and was not “chemically dependent” or “of unsound mind,” could get a permit; they would have to pay a $140 fee, and complete a ten-hour class on gun safety and the use of force.  The bill Suzanna championed was signed into law by Governor George W. Bush, the son of the president, who proclaimed that the new legislation would make his state “a better and safer place to live.”

 

 

 

 

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About Reed Coleman

email: reedscoleman@gmail.com
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