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Suddenly, a pain they can’t escape

Times Staff Writer

Grafton Peterson returned from the funeral home and found his wife, Celeste, in their living room trading stories about their teenage daughter, Erin, with neighbors and friends.

He took his wife aside. In a calm voice, he described what he had seen at the funeral home. Erin had been shot several times. She probably died instantly. Her face was untouched.

Celeste sobbed.

Grafton retreated to the basement he finished for Erin’s high school graduation party last year. A wall is covered with photos of Erin on the basketball court. Number 45. Their center. Their captain.

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“I feel better. I know she’s gone. It’s just her body there,” Grafton said. “To live, you’ve got to die, right? It’s a hurt thing, but it’s part of life.”

Grieving families of the 32 victims from last week’s shootings at Virginia Tech have returned to homes scattered around the country and across the world, preparing to bury the dead and restart their lives.

The feelings are more complicated in Centreville, a bedroom community of the nation’s capital and home to the gunman and two of his victims -- all of whom attended the same high school.

Erin Nicole Peterson, daughter of Grafton and Celeste, was 18 when she died. Grafton, 48, a construction supervisor, looks strong, invulnerable. But his dark brown eyes, rimmed with tears, betray him.

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About 18 years ago, he lost his 8-year-old daughter Carla to cancer. Three days later, Celeste gave birth to Erin.

Before Erin’s first birthday, Grafton and Celeste moved to a two-story house on a quiet corner lot here. They vowed to protect, comfort and, above all, spoil their daughter, sending her to private Merritt Academy, then a public high school -- at her request -- and eventually Virginia Tech.

Celeste, a senior administrator at defense contractor Raytheon Co. in Falls Church, Va., heard about the shootings from co-workers Monday. She immediately went online to check the location of her daughter’s morning class, intermediate French.

Her heart fell when she saw the location: “NOR,” for Norris Hall, site of the second shooting.

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As soon as Grafton heard about the shootings, he knew Erin was dead. She would have called. Erin called her parents every day since going away to school, especially when she thought they might be anxious.

The Petersons were exceptionally close to their only child. Celeste, 48, a devout Baptist, used to pray for Erin before she left for school. When Erin went to soccer camp at Duke University, Celeste stayed at a nearby hotel all week, several years in a row. During Erin’s high school years, her parents chauffeured her to school. They rarely missed a basketball game.

At Virginia Tech, Erin was four hours away -- an eternity to the Petersons. Each time they drove her to school, most recently after a spring break trip to New York, Grafton cried on the way there and back. Erin started calling him crybaby, but she understood.

“We explained to her that it was hard for us to live our life without her and we needed her to call us to ease that, and she understood,” Celeste said. “When she went away to college, it’s like the air went out of the house.”

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The Petersons drove to Blacksburg with relatives Monday, praying that Erin was alive. By Thursday, they were driving back to Centreville, preparing to bury Erin next to her sister.

When they arrived in Blacksburg, they checked into the Inn at Virginia Tech, still hoping. The next morning, a crowd showed up at their room, including Virginia state police, a doctor and a minister. Erin was dead, they said. They needed fingerprints and dental records to officially identify her.

“After that, my in-chargeness, my in-control was gone,” Celeste said. “I couldn’t escape the pain, and that was the worst thing. It was like someone sneaking up and scaring you -- you can’t wipe it off, you can’t rip it off. It’s all over you. You can sit on the floor, lie on the floor, get up -- doesn’t matter.”

The family spent two days waiting for Erin’s body to be released.

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Before leaving Virginia Tech, Grafton went to gather his daughter’s belongings from her dorm room. He and a niece found bouquets of flowers and pages of messages from students propped against the door.

“You walk in and it was classic Erin -- kind of all over the place,” said niece Tracy Littlejohn, 32, of Simi Valley. “It’s still unbelievable -- I talk about her in the past tense, and at the same time I kept expecting her to walk in.”

Littlejohn met her husband at Virginia Tech, and Erin was a bridesmaid at their wedding in 2001.

Littlejohn wore a red shirt Friday that read “Faith, focus, trust.” It was an attempt at strength. But the words melted away when she looked into her uncle’s eyes, stepped into her cousin’s bedroom or thought about what transpired in the Virginia Tech classroom where Erin and 11 others died.

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Evil was there, Littlejohn said. But God was there too.

“I understand that she’s gone. I understand where she is. But I don’t understand why, and I don’t know that I ever will,” Littlejohn said, fingering the silver cross around her neck.

Grafton said he used to stand in Erin’s room and think about her returning at the end of the semester. He still goes in sometimes, but he knows she’s not coming back.

“You never get over it,” he said. “You get where you can live again, but you never get over it.”

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The Petersons sleep fitfully, about three hours a night. Mornings are the worst, Celeste says, because the house feels empty. They don’t watch television -- Erin always controlled the remote, clicking through teen staples such as “Angel,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and MTV’s “The Real World.” Without her, Celeste said, “We don’t know what to watch.”

They have avoided seeing video footage of the gunman, Seung-hui Cho, or of pundits and psychologists dissecting his rants. The Petersons don’t criticize NBC for airing Cho’s videos. They don’t speak out against the university for failing to monitor Cho after he was involuntarily committed for mental health treatment. They have nothing to say about school security, gun violence, mental illness or why a boy who grew up across town killed their daughter.

“Just tell the world I loved my baby and somebody crazy took her, and I hope the schools learn something so nobody ever does it again,” Grafton said Friday, before leaving the basement to comfort more mourners, enveloping them in his broad arms.

Erin’s death sent Celeste back in time. She told stories about her pregnancy to co-workers and members of Erin’s high school basketball team who gathered around her at the kitchen table. Celeste had them all laughing, talking about the time she got trapped at work in a bathroom stall by the bulk of the 10-pound baby she was carrying. The baby would grow to be 6-foot-1.

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Erin was scheduled to be inducted into the Phi Sigma Pi honors society Friday, Celeste said. Instead, she was being prepared for burial.

“She was something else, I tell you, something else,” Celeste said, on the verge of tears. Everyone grew quiet.

“It’s OK to cry,” she said. “Because really, she left a big gaping hole.”

Celeste has yet to see her daughter’s body. She wants to wait until the funeral Tuesday to see Erin as she remembers her, dressed in her favorite sweat pants and a Phi Sigma Pi sweat shirt. The family is expecting 2,000 people for the ceremony at Mt. Olive Baptist Church.

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On Friday, students filled nearby Westfield High School’s stadium to remember Erin and classmate Reema Samaha, 18, who was also killed. The students listened quietly as administrators talked about the example both girls set. Some thought about the other Westfield alum from several years back, the one who took so many lives.

“To have 3,000 kids sit and listen to the principal talk about virtue and caring and respect was unheard of. It’s hard to get 20 kids to do that,” said Pat Deegan, Erin’s former basketball coach, who is setting up one of dozens of scholarships in her memory.

Friends will remember Erin as a strong-willed young woman who knew her mind -- as incensed by Don Imus slamming female basketball players as she was by catty gossip. She was the kind of scholar-athlete who got riled up for games by watching “Rosewood,” a movie about racial violence in the segregated South.

She was that rare player, her coaches said, who not only helped teammates celebrate victories -- driving them to Manhattan Bagel or Chipotle -- but taught them, when they lost, how to let go and move on.

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Grafton is trying to let go. He thinks about his last visit with his daughter, the weekend before the shooting.

They had gone shopping. Erin picked out a new iPod. Celeste insisted that her daughter pay for it herself. As usual, Erin appealed to her father. As usual, her mother had the final say.

But before Grafton left, he slipped his daughter half of the money on the sly.

He smiles as he tells the story.

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“You’ll never get over it,” he said. “But you’ll get better.”

Eventually, the mourning will stop. The names of the victims at Virginia Tech will disappear from the headlines. Strangers will stop wearing maroon and orange ribbons. Classmates will graduate. Teachers will retire. Neighbors will move.

But the Petersons will always remember Erin and the spring day when they lost their anchor to the world.

molly.hennessy-fiske@ latimes.com

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