More than anything, Ian Hockley misses hearing his son Dylan’s laugh.
“He would laugh at anything, and if he was upset or having a tantrum, you could just tickle him and he’d laugh,” Hockley told Metro. “It’s not that we don’t have laughter, but we don’t have his laughter.”
Six-year-old Dylan, who was autistic, was hugging his aide, Anne Marie Murphy, when they were both shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14 of last year. As the anniversary of his son's death approaches, Hockley holds his fondest memories tightly.
Dylan loved jumping on the trampoline, laughing all the while, recalled his father, a finance manager at IBM.
“If we were on the trampoline, we had to bounce and play until he was giddy and ready to be sick,” Hockley said.
Hockley said it was a function of Dylan’s autism that he loved repetition. Though his speech and motor skills were delayed, Dylan was in a regular school program and was just starting to read and write. His favorite words were “more” and “again.”
“If I was swinging him around on a swing, it was always, ‘Again!’” said Hockley. “That was his thing: Find something safe I like to do and just do it and do it, and that’s the essence of joy. He knew what he liked.”
Sometimes, that meant lots of cuddling. “He was very tactile and loved to be cuddled,” said Hockley. “He’d use you as a pillow and cuddle up against you.”
Hockley’s jovial disposition and his habit of doling out bear hugs belie his grief. His face lights up as he describes Dylan at the beach, lying in the warm sand and feeling the waves wash over him. But at Sandy Hook Deli, the cheery, fond memories were interrupted when Hockley paused for several seconds at a time to bury his face in his hands or put up his palm to signal a break.
He said the past year has been a roller coaster. “Running up to Dec. 14, things are going really well — and then there’s that first drop and you’re in for the ride,” Hockley said. “Sometimes it’s down and sometimes it’s back up. There have been some wonderful things, like going to the Super Bowl with Jake (Dylan’s older brother) and starting the foundation, but you wouldn’t have had them if it weren’t for the tragedy.”
Unfortunately, he said, the downs haven’t gotten better.
“Sometimes it’s worse, because in the first few months you have shock to protect you,” Hockley admitted. “But you also learn to deal with it and get back up quicker.”
He has been working through his grief with Dylan’s Wings of Change, a nonprofit organization dedicated to autism awareness.
Hockley first got the idea to start the foundation when supporters from around the world started sending his family money after the shooting. “We saw how Dylan was progressing and we said, ‘Let’s do the same for other kids,’” Hockley said. “That money provides resources for other kids with autism.” Hockley said Sandy Hook Elementary did a superb job accommodating Dylan, and he wants other children to have the same opportunities.
Through Dylan’s Wings of Change, Hockley and his family want to provide support for autistic children in two ways: through technological tools for schools and athletic activities. Dylan loved to play tag and kickball, and Hockley wants autistic children to have the support they need to take part in sports clubs or participate in Special Olympics Unified Sports teams.
The organization is growing quickly: Dylan’s Wings of Change has already raised more than $20,000 and has plans to raise more money and participate in the Cape Cod Ragnar Relay Race in the spring. Hockley said he has been flooded with positive responses from the parents of both autistic children and adults.
Hockley also said the families of Sandy Hook victims have received an outpouring of support not just from the local community, but also from celebrities like Jay Z and Beyonce. “We went to see Pearl Jam when they were in Hartford – me and two other dads – and we talked to Eddie Vedder and he spent 20 minutes with us right before he went on stage,” said Hockley. “He stopped his concert and talked for five minutes about what needed to change in this country and then rocked out again. Seeing that is uplifting.” Hockley said these “tops of the roller coaster” have helped his family wade through the tragedy – a day-to-day process, especially for his surviving son, Jake, who was also at Sandy Hook Elementary during the shooting.
His advice? “In one hand, you have this massive pain, and in the other hand you can collect wonderful things and friends. If you collect enough things, the pain will never go away, but you have some balance. One day, the good hand will be bigger than the other.”
Learn more about Dylan's Wings of Change.
Follow Andrea Park on Twitter: @andreapark