A new book reminds us of the power of resilience

Book Review-The Rising
"The Rising" explores a man’s resurrection after his wife and two daughters were killed. (Penguin Random House via AP)

EVEN IN TODAY'S overwhelming 24/7 news cycle, there are stories that stick. Every reporter has a few that stay with them.

In my two-plus years at the Daily News, I've amassed a list:

The teenager, now a thoughtful man, whose grim 1996 discovery of a young woman's body in an empty lot near his North Philadelphia home changed his life forever.

The transgender woman who was dismembered and then dumped in a field in 2013 and whose body and now ashes remain unclaimed in the coroner's office. (I'm trying to do something about that.)

The 13-year-old boy who looked into my camera outside the Marriott at 12th and Market one May afternoon and asked if anyone who knew the whereabouts of his missing father, a passenger on the derailed Amtrak Train 188, to please call. His father was later confirmed as one of the dead.

And always, the story that has stayed with me through the years, a new state and a new job: the horrific 2007 Cheshire, Conn., home invasion where two petty criminals beat a man nearly to death and then tortured and killed his wife and two daughters and set the house on fire.

Horrible things happen to people every day. But what resonated with so many was the randomness of the crime, the depravity.

All these years later, I still think of that when I set the alarm system in my house.

I wrote about the case for years, through long jury selections, longer trials, sitting steps from the tight-knit family of the victims and of the lone survivor, Dr. William Petit Jr.

And yet the things I remember most have nothing to do with the vile details of the crime.

I remember how normal the family's day had been just hours before their gruesome ordeal. Beach, golf, a simple family dinner, a little TV before bed.

I remember how grief gripped Petit's throat as he spoke of Hayley, his oldest daughter, on sentencing day for one of the men, whom a jury condemned to death.

"I grieve because she never got to love someone -" he said before pausing for what seemed forever, "- because she never got to love someone for a long time."

I remember seeing him at a road race and watching him with that mix of awe and curiosity that everyone seemed to have and wondering if he would ever find happiness again, if that was even possible for someone who suffered such loss.

As a reporter I cover a lot of tragedy, so I find myself wondering that a lot. That might be why long after the stories are out of the headlines, I find myself checking in with those left behind. Not that long ago, I called the mother of a young pregnant woman who was shot last year. Her daughter and unborn grandchild died.

"Oh, you know, maintaining," she said.

Was that the best it got?

I don't know the answer for her. But in a new book about Petit, I finally have my answer about him.

In The Rising: Murder, Heartbreak, and the Power of Human Resilience in an American Town, author Ryan D'Agostino writes about Petit's recovery and resurrection.

I often sat near D'Agostino in court. He was a solid guy from Esquire magazine who is now the editor of Popular Mechanics magazine. When many of us were focused on whoever was on the witness stand, his eyes stayed on Petit in search of the answers he explores in this book.

How does a man find the strength to live on? How is a man capable of surviving the worst?

"How does a man come to be like Bill Petit?"

There's been a lot written about this case. There was an HBO documentary, endless newspaper stories. An Oprah interview.

But in his book, D'Agostino explores the question that tugs at so many of us when horrible things happen and we inevitably wonder what we would do, how we would go on - if that's even possible.

"To witness the resurrection of Bill Petit is also to understand the power of community - especially in small-town America," D'Agostino writes. That may sound a little hackneyed, but it is absolutely true of Petit and of the community who came to his rescue.

Of course, Petit's recovery and resurrection is about a lot more than that: resilience, perseverance and, as D'Agostino writes, a strength that defies expectation.

Petit is remarried now and has a young son. He got that second chance at happiness so many of us wondered was possible.

But Petit's story and D'Agostino's book resonate for another reason - because whether it's a story of a grieving father in suburban Connecticut or a grieving mother in North Philadelphia, it's a blessed reminder that even in the face of the most unimaginable tragedy, the human spirit rises.


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