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Mother's Day for Parkland moms: An empty, aching feeling

Mother's Day for Parkland moms: An empty, aching feeling
Lori Alhadeff and daughter, Alyssa, who would have turned 15 this month. “Nothing can erase the grief,” Lori Alhadeff said. (Lori Alhadeff)

They will not receive cards or hugs this Mother's Day from the children they lost at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine's Day. Instead, they will make do with words, flowers and photos from the past.

Lori Alhadeff has preserved the bouquet and vase that her 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa, bought for Lori's birthday on Feb. 11, three days before the massacre. April Schentrup brightens when she thinks of the "Sonnet to Mom" that her 16-year-old daughter, Carmen, shared with her the night before Carmen read it in class on Valentine's Day, a few hours before she died. Linda Beigel Schulman has daily chats with the big, blow-up photograph of her son, Scott Beigel, which she brought from the 35-year-old geography teacher's funeral to her home on Long Island, N.Y.

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"I go into his room and talk to it like a crazy person," Beigel Schulman said. "I say 'good morning' every morning and 'good night' every night. Maybe it sounds like I'm in a little bit of denial — well, a lot of denial. But it makes me feel like I'm in touch with him."

Some mothers of the 14 slain students and three educators killed at the Parkland, Fla., school have become visible and active in the three months since the shooting, while others have stayed silent with their grief. All will ache on Sunday, just as they ache every day.

"My plan is to treat it as a regular Sunday," Schentrup said. "We'll go to church in the morning, then have lunch. But I realize it's not just another Sunday. I asked Evelyn [her youngest child, also a Stoneman Douglas student] if there's anything special she wants to do, because I want to make her happy. So I guess that probably means more shopping."

Schentrup and others in a group that she refers to as "the Parkland 17 Moms/Wives" took a shopping trip with a purpose on Saturday, to support stores that have changed gun-sale policies since the shooting. They went to Dick's Sporting Goods and a Walmart in Coral Springs.

The mothers swapped phone numbers and email addresses after meeting at a private get-together for victims' families a few weeks after the shooting. From that, Schentrup said, an online group chat room and daily text exchanges between victims' mothers and wives have taken root.

Every few weeks, the group meets at someone's home where they share food, stories and tears, and talk about coping with private grief in the face of such a public tragedy. On Thursday, six mothers and Debbie Hixon, the widow of slain Stoneman Douglas athletic director Chris Hixon, met at Schentrup's Parkland home to go over the details of Saturday's "shop-in."

"Everyone is invited and kept informed, but not everyone participates," Schentrup said. She said roughly a dozen women have been involved with the group.

"They've been wonderful. I've been included in everything," said Beigel Schulman, who makes frequent trips to South Florida to visit relatives and who plans on conducting a shop-in with friends and family on Long Island. "It's almost like I'm two layers removed, because my son was a teacher and their kids were kids, and because I live so far away. But I consider myself part of the Parkland family."

The Parkland mothers' calendars are crowded with events, ceremonies and fundraisers to honor their children's memories, a way to keep busy and fill the void in their hearts. Lori Alhadeff has launched a nonprofit called Make Schools Safe.

On Friday, she held a fundraiser at the Parkland tennis center. Later in the day, Alhadeff flew to New Jersey, where Alyssa grew up (the family moved to Parkland in 2014) and where Alhadeff still has family. On Saturday, they planned to hold the first Alyssa Alhadeff Pear Blossom Festival, a spring celebration and fundraiser in their former town of Woodcliff Lake, N.J.

Earlier this month, on what would have been Alyssa's 15th birthday, the family had a gravestone unveiling followed by a gathering at the Deerfield Beach pier, where Alyssa loved to swim and hang out with friends.

"Nothing can erase the grief," Alhadeff wrote by email last week. "But being around family, friends and people that love me does help to ease the grief."

The moms-and-wives group shopped together Saturday at Dick's Sporting Goods in Coral Springs before going individually to a Walmart Superstore near Stoneman Douglas High, the same Walmart where the confessed shooter stopped for a snack after the massacre. Dick's and Walmart raised the minimum age for gun purchases to 21 and also stopped selling certain weapons and ammunition.

Schentrup read a statement outside Dick's on Saturday, and Hixon and Gena Hoyer, the mother of slain student Luke Hoyer, answered questions. Others who attended included Jennifer Guttenberg, mother of Jaime Guttenberg; Patricia Padauy Oliver, mother of Joaquin Oliver; Annika Dworet, mother of Nicholas Dworet; and Caryn DeSacial Schachter, stepmother of Alex Schachter.

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When it comes to politics and policies, the Parkland fathers have been more visible and forceful, on all sides of the spectrum. Fred Guttenberg, who lost his daughter Jaime, and Manuel Oliver, who lost his son Joaquin, have been forcefully advocating gun control and political change. Andrew Pollack, who lost his daughter Meadow, met President Trump and has been advocating for better school security and arming teachers.

But the names and views of many mothers aren't as well known.

"Some moms are just not there yet," Schentrup said.

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As Mother's Day approached, Schentrup and Beigel Schulman find solace in memories, and in the words left by their children.

Beigel Schulman has a box filled with every card and letter Scott wrote to her since he first went to sleepaway camp at age 7. He'd send a Mother's Day card, usually on time, from South Florida to her home every year.

"My rule was he'd have to write something on his own in every card," she said. "I didn't want something from the store, but from the heart." She said Scott was more content in the 10 weeks before his death than at any time in his life. "I'm choosing to celebrate him and the 35 years we had together instead of mourning him," Beigel Schulman said.

Mayo writes for the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

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