Tony Lusardi III with Lauren Rousseau (inset)
Alessandra Petlin; Inset: REX USA
Initially it was Lauren Rousseau's smile that caught Tony Lusardi III's attention on a dating website. He sent her a jokey message, she sent a "ha-ha-ha" back, and a month later they had their first date at a wine bar.
"We hit it off right off the bat," says Lusardi, 30, a sales rep for a tech company. "I am a giant, awkward nerd when I first meet people, but at one point I said, 'Can I kiss you?' " Rousseau, 30, a substitute elementary school teacher, turned red and said, "Yes." When their lips locked, says Lusardi, "I knew she was perfect for me. I thought, 'She's the one.' "
About five weeks later, they made it Facebook official: They were "in a relationship." Young, smitten and feeling they had all the time in the world, 13 months later they were just beginning to hatch plans to move out of their respective parents' homes. "We were thinking we would move in together, get a dachshund – we wanted to name it Pork Chop – and see what happened."
What happened was as unimaginable to either of them as it was to most Americans – until, that is, Dec. 14, 2012, when a lone gunman shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School
His first stop was the first-grade classroom where Rousseau was subbing in hopes of getting closer to her lifelong goal of having a class of her own. Usually assigned to work with another teacher, "Lauren was so excited because she had her own classroom that day," says her mother, Teresa Rousseau, 63. "I was told she was the first one killed in that classroom."
Since that day, says Teresa, "I wake up every day immediately knowing I'm in a very sad, Lauren-less place."
For Lusardi, "everything completely stopped for a solid two-and-a-half weeks." Each night, he would cry himself to sleep, then awake the next morning anticipating his daily message from his early-rising girlfriend – only to realize, he says, "I was not going to get any more texts from her, ever."
The day of the massacre, the two messaged back and forth about their plan to see The Hobbit
that night. At 8:59 Lauren sent her last text to him: "Lol."
What happens after the gun goes off? Read more from Lusardi and four other families of those lost to gun violence – in playgrounds, churches and schools. The survivors talk about how their lives will never be the same.