The horror of the Newtown elementary school massacre last week hit close to home for Roe and Joe Czulada of Riverhead, who lost their 21-year-old daughter in an accident involving a drunk boater 18 years ago.
Jill Czulada was swimming in Flanders Bay on July 17, 1994 when she was struck by a boat piloted by an intoxicated captain. She died four days later at Stony Brook University Hospital.
The man who took her life pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide and was sentenced to probation.
Not a day goes by that Roe Czulada doesn’t cry over the loss of her youngest of four children.
“She had everything to live for,” Czulada recalled today. She was pretty. She was smart. She was popular. Jill was studying to be a paralegal and working part-time at a Melville law firm while she completed the paralegal studies program at Suffolk County Community College. She was almost finished.
And then the unthinkable happened.
“You never really recover from the loss of a child,” Czulada said. “But when your child’s life is taken by criminal behavior, it’s even worse.”
Watching television interviews with some of the parents of the murdered children of Sandy Hook Elementary School “really hit home,” Czulada said.
Tuesday would have been Jill’s 40th birthday.
“After watching an interview with the mother of little Jessica [Rekos]I said to Joe, ‘We have to do something in memory of those children, something to honor Jill’s memory too,'” Czulada recalled.
Her husband suggested making wooden crosses for each of the victims. They have a white wooden cross with Jill’s name on it that they put on their lawn of their Sunrise Avenue home during the holidays each year. This year, Jill’s cross stands next to a display of 26 other crosses, one for each of the murdered children and educators at the elementary school. Each cross has a green and white bow tied to it — green and white are the colors of the Sandy Hook school, Czulada explains. An angel sounding a trumpet pointed toward the heavens oversees the lighted display, which bears a wooden plaque inscribed with the words “Newtown’s Angels.”
Her mother envisions Jill like that angel, looking out for the children of Newtown “up in heaven.”
“Jill had a special place in her heart for children,” Czulada says, breaking down in tears. This past week has made the pain of her loss raw all over again.
“We do everything we can to keep her memory alive,” Czulada says. “We talk about her all the time with friends. We know she’s still here with us.”
Czulada bristles when people talk about ‘closure.’ It’s a concept she says she does not believe in. “It’s final, like it’s over, put it behind you. It’s never behind you.”
The Czuladas know something of what lies ahead for the parents of the Newtown kids.
“We know what they’re feeling. Our hearts just grieve for these parents. We just know what these parents are faced with every day from now on, every holiday…” Czulada’s voice trails off.
“Creating this memorial brought us closer to these families,” Czulada said. “We want to let them know we care, that Riverhead cares,” she said.
Photo caption: (Top) Joe and Roe Czulada today at the memorial for “Newtown’s Angels” they erected on the lawn of their Sunrise Avenue home. (Bottom) A portrait of their daughter, Jill, given to them by friends John and Marie Dunleavy, hangs in their home.
RiverheadLOCAL photos by Peter Blasl