Before the bullets flew, before the sirens blared, before a small hamlet in Connecticut was forever scarred, there was a little girl with bright blue eyes and yellow hair and pretty pink everything who was preparing to earn her wings.
Emilie Parker was cast as an angel in the Newtown, Conn., Christmas pageant.
As she got ready for school Dec. 14, 2012, the young girl from Utah chatted excitedly about that evening’s rehearsal.
But Emilie never performed in the play. She never made it home from school.
Emilie was one of 20 children and six adults gunned down that day at Sandy Hook Elementary in one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.
A year after Emilie’s death, the story her parents prefer to tell is not of pain and loss, but of love and growth.
Emilie missed the pageant. But Robbie and Alissa Parker hold tight to the belief that their daughter did, indeed, take flight that day, that her spirit lives on.
The beloved 6-year-old continues to move others through gardens and playgrounds erected in her honor, through the art she loved to create, a box of donated toys she assembled before she died and a pink bicycle her parents mustered the courage to give away just a few months ago.
For this family, coping with Emilie’s death has meant keeping her alive in their daily lives.
“[This anniversary] gives us a specific time to reflect and be thankful for her life,” Alissa wrote in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune. “We feel like this time is very private and sacred and allows us to feel very close to her.”
But angels have wings so they can fly.
And Emilie no longer belongs to the Parkers alone.
Remembering Emilie • In the 12 months since Emilie’s death, her family members have seen her legacy spread throughout their town, across the country and around the world.
First, there were the pink ribbons that lined trees and signs and utility poles all around Ogden, where the Parker family returned to lay Emilie to rest next to her grandfather. A crowd of about 800 Utahns attended Emilie’s funeral.
Then came the letters, the prayers, the unexpected gifts.
“Some [gestures] may seem small and insignificant to the person doing the good deed, but all of the different acts of kindness have the power and ability to lift you up,” Alissa said. “You see the good in people and that their hearts are in a pure place.”
The mother said the acts of kindness her family has experienced have been too many to list.
A family sent a truck to the Parkers’ Newtown home to refill the oil tank in the cold winter that stretched on after the shooting.
Another family made a journal of good deeds done in Emilie’s name and sent it to the Parkers.
In the spring, memorial gardens grew.
First, New Mexico’s Maggie Cordova Elementary, where Emilie first attended school, dedicated a garden in her memory.
Days later, on May 24, a small garden along the Ogden River Parkway was erected with a bench and a plaque commemorating the child.
“What we love about all of these projects is that they all pay it forward,” Alissa said. “What is most meaningful to us is that we remember Emilie for the life that she lived and that these projects embody that life. Emilie loved seeing people happy. She loved to play and be silly, and these kinds of projects all share that common goal, and as parents there is no better way to see your daughter honored.”
Last month, a playground in New London, Conn., was named “Emilie’s Shady Spot” in honor of the first-grader who preferred to play in the shade. Pink roofs adorn jungle gyms and pink monkey bars line the park. Everywhere there are flowers and pieces of Emilie’s artwork.
Every so often, the Parkers receive a photograph of the play area from someone in New London who wants to make sure the Parkers don’t miss the sights of children enjoying their daughter’s special place more than 90 minutes away from their home.
It’s one of 26 playgrounds that will be built across the Constitution State in honor of the Sandy Hook victims.
‘Evil didn’t win’ • Some days, the Parkers said, it takes all they have to accomplish the mundane: wake up, eat, take their two daughters Samantha, 4, and Madeline, 5, to the bus stop.
But rather than burying their feelings, the couple said, they try to embrace them. They try to show their younger girls that it’s OK to be sad. It’s OK to feel.
“[We] cry, talk, laugh, look at pictures,” wrote Robbie Parker. “There are so many ways we process our emotions and every day is different depending on what it is about [Emilie] that we miss.”
Before Emilie was killed, her parents were transforming a narrow “crawl space” in their home into a play area for their three children.
After the massacre, Alissa said, the crawl space sat untouched.
It was hard to look at, difficult to go near.
“It was meant for them all to share,” Alissa said. “I felt like that joy had been stolen from me.”
It wasn’t until summer that the Parkers decided to finish what they had started.
They decorated its walls with tall leaves of grass, pink flowers and butterflies.
A tiny table and two chairs are surrounded by photographs of Emilie’s face — smiling down on her sisters’ new play area.
A year after the Sandy Hook tragedy, the Parker family is healing.
“Evil only wins if we allow it to,” Alissa said. “The world around us wants to remember the violence and horrific details of that day, but instead, we choose to turn off those distractions and allow ourselves to draw as close to her as we can and feel [Emily’s] spirit, joy and light she brought into our family.”
In response to the outpouring of kindness and support the Parkers have received during the year after the Sandy Hook tragedy, Emilie’s mother, Alissa Parker, teamed up with producer Melissa Puente from Deseret Book to make a video about her family’s journey. The video, called “Evil Did Not Win” can be seen on Alissa’s blog, The Parker Five, at http://www.theparkerfive.wordpress.com.