Jesse Lewis, 6, saved his classmates by shouting “Run!” the day a lone gunman walked into his classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It was an act of heroism that cost the innocent child his life.
His mother, Scarlett Lewis, strongly believes Jesse was born to save his classmates that fateful day. “I believe that was a large part of his purpose,” she said. Lewis, who is very spiritual, is fond of saying that her son’s light was too bright for this world: She said she always sensed she might not have enough time with Jesse. Since the day Jesse was born, Lewis prayed every day, “Dear Jesus, thank you so much for Jesse. I know that he is a gift, and I know that you could take him from me at any time, but please don’t.”
Lewis said she even had premonitions about Jesse’s death. On the day of the shooting, before she received official word that Jesse had been killed, Lewis said when her friends texted her asking about Jesse, she wrote back, “Jesse is with Jesus.”
But even if she had a sense that Jesse might be taken from her, Lewis was far from ready to lose her son. “Trauma is the feeling you get right before you get into a car accident and that’s how I’d feel when I woke up,” Lewis said of the month after Jesse’s death. “I’d spend the whole day slightly having that feeling – feeling 10 percent less. You’re strapped into the biggest roller coaster in the whole world.” Lewis is an exuberant woman who smiles often and makes wide, sweeping gestures when she talks, but once in a while, she takes off her glasses to wipe a stray tear. “I’m always heartbroken,” she said.
Lewis said it was especially hard for her as the only single mother out of the Sandy Hook victims’ parents. “The only time I felt sorry for myself is when I saw all of the parents together in that room,” she said on walking into the first meeting of the victims’ families after the shooting.
Surprisingly, it was a negative sentiment that prompted Lewis to make a positive change in her life. Shortly after the tragedy, a social worker told her, “It will never get better.” Lewis said the woman’s stinging comment was a pivotal moment for her. “I am thankful for that,” said Lewis. “I had to take a stand. I made a conscious choice. Adam Lanza killed Jesse, but he did not – ” she raised her finger for dramatic effect – “kill J.T. and myself.”
Lewis said she has been able to heal through tapping, an alternative medicine technique, working on the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation and writing her book, “Nurturing, Healing, Love: A Mother’s Journey of Hope & Forgiveness.”
Lewis was inspired to write the book after she fled Sandy Hook to sought refuge at her mother’s home immediately after the shooting. When she came back home, she was astounded to find a note from Jesse on the chalkboard that she hadn’t seen before: “Nurturing, healing, love.” The message remains untouched, in his six-year-old handwriting and spelling – Lewis covered it with a piece of glass. “Jesse handed me the torch,” she nodded. Lewis is now on a mission to change the world, one thought at a time: She teaches people to change hateful thoughts to loving thoughts.
Jesse’s note on the chalkboard is just one piece of his legacy. His presence still illuminates his mother’s home. The walls are lined with smiling paintings and photos, letters, stuffed animals and quilts. Jesse’s favorite rubber ducks are all over the bookshelves and end tables and Jesse’s easel is still in the attic, frozen in time with an unfinished painting.
Lewis said she gets messages from her son everyday. Sometimes it’s as slight as hearing a song by Jesse’s favorite band, Maroon 5; she said Payphone” was one of Jesse’s favorite songs, and the lyrics “I’m at a payphone trying to call home” particularly resonate with her. Other times, she said, it’s as miraculous as when Lewis and her older son, J.T., looked up and saw “jesse + jesus together forever” in skywriting during a trip to Florida.
“His spirit is with me, but the hardest thing is missing his physical body,” she said, her voice cracking. She said she misses hearing his footsteps pounding through the house and cuddling with him for 15 minutes in the morning.
Lewis describes Jesse as “solid as a rock” and extremely outgoing. “Jesse’s favorite saying was, ‘Have lots of fun!’” she said, smiling. It’s a message she also spreads when she’s working with the foundation. Lewis’ face lights up when she talks about how much her son loved playing sports with other kids, horseback riding, painting and listening to music on his iPod shuffle. “He had a sweet and lovely side but he was also a kid who could just walk right up to a grown man with total confidence and shake his hand and introduce himself,” she said.
Lewis said though her trauma has been healed, she still grieves for her son and falls into a brief state of shock a few times a week. She tries to keep herself busy by advocating for peace and spreading Jesse’s message of choosing love over anger and hate.
Lewis just spent time in Hawaii speaking at schools and community centers for the foundation with the help of Maya Soetoro-Ng, President Obama’s sister. She returned with a new addition to her family: A dog breeder in Hawaii gave J.T. a beagle puppy named Olive with a tag on her collar that says “Choose Love.” She choked up as she pointed to the tag: “Isn’t that sweet?”
The two-month-old, sleepy puppy adds to the cheery chaos of the home, where Lewis also keeps three other dogs, horses and chickens. Jesse may be gone, but the house is full of life.
Lewis reached into the mountain of letters she still receives from people around the world – her “love letters,” as she calls them. She pulled out one letter from a little boy named Josiah and read it out loud. “‘I know I could never do what [Jesse] did,’” read Lewis, tearfully. “‘He was the bravest person I knew. I hope that you will accept my gift of $4.29. I know it’s not much but I hope it will be able to do something for you.’” She sighed.
“You think about how time is moving forward, and you don’t want time to move forward,” she said. “You just have to make the best of it. I have found meaning through my suffering.”
Learn more about the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation.
Follow Andrea Park on Twitter: @andreapark