The tissue box in the Kechter house is covered with dust.
"That’s a good sign," Ann Kechter says. "It means we’re doing a little better."
Yes, she and husband Joe still cry a lot over the murder of their son, Matt. Like the other day, when Joe found a 30-minute cassette tape with Matt’s voice on it in his car. Joe wept all the way home.
But it’s no longer like the constant gushing of tears in the days, weeks and months immediately after Matt, 16, was shot in the Columbine High library.
Ann, Joe and their younger son, 13-year-old Adam, are coping the best they can.
"It’s still hard. We’ve really lost that joy to life," Ann, 41, says in a living room punctuated with photos of Matt as a toddler, a young boy and finally a high school football player.
"Moving on? I don’t think there’s any such thing. We’re carrying on. We’re redefining our lives and trying to carry on without our oldest son."
With the first anniversary just days away, carrying on has meant many things - including Ann and the mothers of two other victims getting tattoos with columbine flowers.
The Kechters are helping to lead the effort to raise $3.1 million to convert the school library into an open atrium. They have hobnobbed with John Elway, professional wrestler Mick “Mankind” Foley and philanthropist Sharon Magness. They have met President Clinton and still receive gifts from a couple of Secret Service agents.
They, like the other Columbine victims’ families, have become celebrities born of tragedy.
"None of this will ever, ever take the place of Matt," Ann says. "But we’ve met such amazing people, and we’re just ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. It’s a strange place to be."
Joe, 42, adds: “And the funny thing is, Matt would have been the one to really enjoy meeting all these people.” To this day, they are humbled by the kindness and support of their community, of people “who give from the heart,” says Joe, a roofing contractor.
A woman from Lakewood, a complete stranger, has adopted them, sending periodic gifts - a table covering, garden-grown tomatoes, skin lotion, says Ann, a gas-buyer for the Public Service Co.
They will always be touched by Columbine’s varsity football team, which won its first state championship in December in honor of No. 70 Matthew Joseph Kechter, who had been a junior-varsity lineman his sophomore year.
Their closest friends have become the families of the other slain children. Nobody else quite understands the profound sadness, the therapeutic need to talk about how their children died and the pain of not yet knowing those details.
Ann lies awake at night imagining Matt’s final moments. She cries because, though she still dreams about Matt, she can no longer smell him, even on his bedroom pillow.
"The library will get built and the anniversary will come and go," Ann says. "But we’re still going to come home to an empty house without our oldest son. That is our reality. We still don’t have Matthew."
And because the media coverage has been relentless, the grieving process is extremely complicated, Ann and Joe say. They’ve contemplated moving across the county or out of the metro area entirely, in search of a place where it might be easier to grieve privately.
But the support network is so great here that leaving is unlikely. “We’ve looked for a place where it would hurt less,” says Ann, “but it’ll hurt no matter where we are.” Even the little things can send a jolt of unexpected sorrow through them: changing the answering machine message so it no longer includes Matt’s name; naming the people who live in the house on the census form; listing the number of dependents on the income-tax forms.
"I will always have two," Ann says of her children.
Sometimes she wears Matt’s clothes. She still has videotapes of Matt that she hasn’t watched since last April, holding them in reserve for a day when she can’t carry on without them. And every once in a while she’ll wake up and, just for a second, forget that the straight-A son who wanted to be an engineer is dead.
But the pain always comes back.
Many days, the pain only gets worse. Ann and Joe can’t pick up the newspaper, turn on the TV or flick on the radio without hearing something about Columbine.
And watching action-adventure movies or violent TV shows is impossible.
Getting through Christmas was tolerable only because Ann and Adam decorated the tree with 13 angels (she named each in memory of a slaying victim) and 23 silver bows (one for each of the injured).
Matt’s birthday, Feb. 19, was hard, too. The family - including aunts, uncles and cousins - rented a few cabins in Estes Park. They ice-skated, went out to dinner and told stories about Matt. His aunt and uncle baked two cakes - one shaped like a football and the other like a heart with the words, “We love you, Matt.” “It was really a celebration of his life,” Ann says.
On their way home, they stopped by the cemetery. Friends had decorated Matt’s grave with giant balloons, ribbons and cards. “It was good to know people still remembered,” Joe says.
Sports were a bond between Joe and his older son. They played golf together, and Joe was the kind of dad who, for years, rushed home from work to coach Matt’s athletic teams.
Matt also was a big pro-wrestling fan, and Adam remains so. Among those who’ve come to the Kechters’ side is wrestler Mick Foley.
He calls regularly to talk with Ann, Joe and Adam, and during a February appearance at the Denver Coliseum, he gave the Kechters front-row tickets, invited them backstage, and then ducked out with them for a midnight dinner at Denny’s.
He also gave Adam his trademark Mr. Sock-O hand puppet. Adam keeps it in a frame.
Adam, say Ann and Joe, has helped propel the family through the past year.
"That’s what motivates us," Ann says. "We have a 13year-old son who has his whole life ahead of him. We have to be positive and optimistic so we can try to provide him with a future. We can’t just quit living. We have a responsibility to him." Part of that responsibility is deciding whether Adam goes to Columbine in the fall. He wants to, and Ann and Joe probably will let him.
Someday, Ann and Joe say, they would like to become foster parents and get involved in violence-prevention programs.
"I feel like I’ve matured by 25 years and now look at life like I’m an old lady," Ann says. "It’s easier to know what’s important: loving your children, being a good parent, having a relationship with God." "We’ll never be the same," she adds. "But with time and courage, we can be strong again."
Lauren Dawn Townsend
Born January 17, 1981
18 years old
Lauren Townsend was a senior and captain of the girls’ varsity volleyball team, which her mother, Dawn Anna, coached. Lauren was a talented sketch artist as well. She volunteered at a local animal shelter and had planned to major in biology at Colorado State University when she graduated from Columbine.
She was buried in Littleton Cemetery in Littleton, Colorado.
On this table lies the clothing of the victims of the Columbine High School Massacre.
The thirteen that were murdered share a table with their killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and the table is labeled “Victim Clothing.”
It is important we recognize Eric and Dylan were victims too.