It was dusk, nearly quitting time. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy leaned back in a wooden captain’s chair, about to end a week’s worth of unwanted interviews, all about a date that cannot pass too quickly, the looming anniversary of Sandy Hook.
Malloy is aware that the massacre of 26 children and educators on Dec. 14, 2012, indelibly marks his first term as governor, just as President Obama, a commander-in-chief in the midst of prosecuting two wars, pronounced it the worst day of his presidency.
Just don’t ask how it’s changed him.
“Listen, I’m not saying you could go through that experience or any of the experiences that anybody had around that day and not be a changed person,” Malloy said. “But you’re then asking how am I changed.”
The question is a trap. Say too much, you risk being seen as trawling for sympathy on the eve of a re-election year, of wrapping yourself in a tragedy that belongs to others. Say too little, you risk seeming cold. Say nothing’s changed, well, that’s just not possible.
“First of all, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t answer that question, that’s number one,” Malloy said. It was an observation, not a complaint. He smiled and gave a barely perceptible shrug. “That’s politics, right?”
Malloy, 58, tried again to answer, talking about the wisdom that comes with age, with experience. It was trite, and he stopped.
“I don’t know. I don’t know how you answer that,” he said. “Are you a changed person? Of course you’re a changed person. How have you changed? Not a day, not hours of day go by that I don’t think about it.”
The previous day, Malloy was ready to address the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce at a hotel in Cromwell, when the chamber president, Larry McHugh, mentioned Sandy Hook, and Malloy took a deep breath. It was one of those unexpected moments that catch people up, like the clear, blue fall skies that can suddenly evoke 9/11 for New Yorkers.
“Happens all the time. Happens all the time,” he said. “It was and continues to be an overwhelming experience.”
A plaque sat on the floor, near his desk. It was given to him the previous week at the same hotel by the Connecticut Funeral Directors Association. He spoke at their annual meeting, thanking them for their public service after Dec. 14, when association members volunteered to prepare the victims for burial.
“When I spoke at the event, it was very clear how emotional it was for a lot of them,” he said.
He is noticeably thinner.
His face seemed to narrow and pinch in the weeks after the shooting, and even political opponents wondered how he was doing. He was the one who told the gathered family members that day in a firehouse by the school that their children and their spouses were dead.
He and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman went to wakes, to funerals. At one mother’s insistence, Malloy viewed the body a child who had been shot in the face. He didn’t weep in public, not until he was asked days later about the moment he informed the waiting families there were no more survivors.
“I made the decision,” he said during that first press conference, three days after the shootings, “that to have that gone on any longer, uh…”
“Was wrong,” Wyman said, finishing his sentence.
“Was wrong,” Malloy repeated. “I did it…”
“And very well,” Wyman said.
Malloy quickly wiped away tears.
One of the most sympathetic views of him in those days came from Sen. John P. McKinney of Fairfield, a Republican now seeking Malloy’s job. Newtown is in McKinney’s district, and he, too, was at the firehouse on Dec. 14. It was McKinney who told the Wall Street Journal last December about seeing Malloy near the firehouse kitchen after he broke the news to the parents.
“He was sitting by himself and just, you know, staring,” McKinney said. “I saw him in a way that obviously I’ve never seen him. Just as a guy with a really heavy heart.”
Malloy has lost 30 pounds, but he said it is from exercise, not stress. He said he began working out and lost the weight before Sandy Hook, though he conceded his daily regimen may be therapeutic.
“I think physical activity is helpful, to tell you the truth,” he said. “It may have become more intense or focused, but I actually began April 1 the year before.”
Not long before Sandy Hook Elementary and Newtown, Conn., became household words, Malloy saw Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado. They talked about the previous summer’s attack in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., where 12 were killed and 58 wounded.
Malloy thought of his experience after 9/11, when he was mayor of Stamford. He knew people killed in the attack, spouses of teachers in the public school system. And as mayor, he was in the loop during the long recovery of remains that played out over more than a year, keeping the tragedy forever fresh.
It seemed Aurora was weighing on Hickenlooper.
“You know, it’s very easy to go into some sort of mild depression and have it affect you,” Malloy said he told Hickenlooper. “Be careful.”
Hickenlooper thanked him.
Did he take his own advice after Dec. 14?
“Sure, I did,” Malloy said.
The governor said he availed himself of the same support offered to the first responders and support personnel who reported to Sandy Hook that day and in the days that follow.
“By the way, what I was subjected to pales in comparison to what other people were subjected to, but I did the debrief,” Malloy said.
The debriefing was conducted by “a person who handles that kind of stuff for the state police,” he said. A few weeks later, he spoke to a counselor associated with the community recovery in Newtown.
On Saturday, Malloy said he will do what he has asked of the rest of Connecticut. He will take a moment to reflect and then perform an act of kindness, work on a community project that he declined to identify. He plans on attending a service at one of the many houses of worship that will ring a bell 26 times, beginning at 9:30 a.m., when the attack began.
He said he has no plans to speak.
“I’m going to be there,” he said. “I’m going to pray.”