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Column: ‘Bittersweet celebration’ for Lawrence family

It was Valentine’s Day 2015 when Tony Lawrence saw his daughter Danielle for the final time.

They met outside the Wading River home where Danielle lived with her younger sister, Brandy, and mother, Tanya. It was a frigid winter day, so they huddled inside Mr. Lawrence’s car. He gave his daughters gifts: cards, candy, flowers, bracelets and even 7-Eleven Slurpees they had requested.

The conversation drifted down the predictable path of boys and boy bands. Danielle loved One Direction. Mr. Lawrence reminded them of the only boy that matters: their dad. They joked and laughed.

They spent about 20 minutes inside the car before saying goodbye. Mr. Lawrence turned toward Brandy, who was in the passenger seat, and kissed her on the forehead. He then turned toward the back seat where Danielle leaned in to hug her father, catching him partially by surprise; she rarely displayed a lot of emotion.

He kissed her on the right cheek and she said to him: “I love you. Thanks for everything.”

Mr. Lawrence often reflects on that moment to help ease the pain of what happened the next day. Late on a Sunday night, inside the home where she lived, the shy 17-year-old, who loved music and had recently begun to excel academically, was shot and killed alongside her mother, who was 43. The gunman, Ms. Lawrence’s boyfriend, 44-year-old Thomas Calhoun, then killed himself.

Brandy, then 14, escaped into the bitter cold after dialing 911, the lone survivor of a horrific double murder-suicide that rattled the Riverhead community.

More than two years have passed since that night. On Saturday morning, Mr. Lawrence and Brandy accepted a posthumous diploma in honor of Danielle at Riverhead High School’s commencement ceremony, where her memory shined in tributes from speakers. It was a celebration, Mr. Lawrence said, albeit a bittersweet one.

“I just want people to know what a great kid she was,” he said on the eve of graduation Friday.

Riverhead graduates stand to applaud the Lawrence family at Saturday’s graduation. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

As Danielle’s name echoed through the Riverhead High School gymnasium, the final name called among the nearly 350 announced that morning, Mr. Lawrence and Brandy stepped onto the stage in her honor. Seated in the third row of graduates, Amaya Coach began to cry. She had been close friends with Danielle since they’d first met at Riley Avenue Elementary School. Mr. Lawrence, a physical education teacher at Roanoke Avenue Elementary School, had even considered granting Amaya the opportunity to accept the diploma before ultimately deciding it was something he needed to do.

“I started crying as soon as they called her name,” Amaya said, fighting back tears in the hallway after the ceremony. “I just feel bad she can’t be here today.”

She called over to another of Danielle’s close friends, Diamond Lynch, who also had just graduated, to share some of her memories. She could barely get a word out before the tears began to flow.

They comforted each other with a hug.

Friends and family quickly point out Danielle’s love of music when they remember her.

Mr. Lawrence recalled the time he took Danielle to Nassau Coliseum so she could try out for “The X Factor,” a reality television competition. They stood outside in the cold for hours waiting for their opportunity during the two-day event. When her turn came, she sang the Whitney Houston hit “I Have Nothing.”

Given the amount of talent at the competition, he knew there was little chance Danielle, then 16, would advance. But that didn’t matter. It was the courage she showed to put herself out there that made Mr. Lawrence so proud.

“I wouldn’t have the guts at 16 that she did,” he said. “She believed in herself.”

She performed in school plays and played the violin, always bursting out of her shy state when the lights came up. In Danielle’s memory, the Riverhead Class of 2017 donated violins to Pulaski Street Elementary School’s music program as a way for students to remember her through music.

A candlelight vigil was held in Wading River on Feb. 16, 2015 to honor Danielle Lawrence. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo, file)

When Mr. Lawrence thinks back about the night his daughter died, he remembers a hero who bravely came to her mother’s aid. During their last moments together inside Mr. Lawrence’s car, he reminded his daughters that if their mother and boyfriend began to argue, it’s best to stay inside their rooms. The argument was between adults and didn’t concern them, he told them.

Mr. Lawrence had expressed concern about the living situation, even filing an order of protection against their mom. But the girls didn’t want to leave their mom behind.

Suffolk County police said at the time that the fight that erupted into gunfire was the culmination of a long breakup between Ms. Lawrence and Mr. Calhoun.

When Mr. Calhoun pointed a gun at Ms. Lawrence, Danielle begged him to stop. Brandy hid in a laundry room in the downstairs of the mother-daughter house, where she could still see her mother. Her mom directed her to call 911. Brandy ran upstairs to call police and Danielle stayed downstairs. Ms. Lawrence, having already been shot once, managed the strength to scuffle once more with Mr. Calhoun to protect Danielle, only to be shot again. Danielle fled to the laundry room and crouched down. Mr. Calhoun followed and shot her.

“She earned her wings,” Mr. Lawrence said.

Ms. Lawrence tried to crawl upstairs in one last attempt to protect Brandy before Mr. Calhoun fired a fatal bullet at point-blank range.

Mr. Lawrence said through conversations with detectives he was able to understand how the tragedy unfolded that night.

Brandy ran outside and slipped on ice. Mr. Calhoun followed her and pointed the gun at her. He never pulled the trigger.

“I tell her, you’re here for a reason,” her father said. “As you get older, you’re going to have a story to tell. And what you’re going to tell, you’re going to help other kids out. You survived for a reason.”

Brandy lives with her father in Middle Island now and attends Longwood High School. She turned 17 this month. She’s gotten her driver’s license, loves attending concerts such as Justin Bieber and doing things like any teenager. On Wednesday, she left for a vacation to Jamaica to visit her mother’s grandmother, who’s 105. Through therapy and her faith in church, she’s handled the trauma as well as Mr. Lawrence could have hoped.

“I’m so grateful she’s doing what a normal teenager will do,” he said.

Mr. Lawrence said it’s his enduring faith in God that allows him to carry on, to continue teaching children when a young girl so often reminds him of Danielle, and to find the strength to let go of the bitterness he felt toward the man who callously killed his daughter.

“I feel sorry for him,” he said. “He didn’t understand what love is.”

There’s a poem by author Marianne Williams that Mr. Lawrence holds dear. From the book “A Return to Love,” it begins with the following line: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

When he met Danielle and Brandy on Valentine’s Day he’d meant to give them a copy of that poem with their gifts, but had forgotten to. He realized it when he got home and figured he’d give it to them that Monday.

In the years since, Mr. Lawrence has given the poem to a teacher or someone who has shown love, understanding and compassion toward his surviving daughter.

It continues: “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same.”

Top photo caption: Tony and Brandy Lawrence pose with the diploma for Danielle, who would have graduated this year. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

The author is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review and The Suffolk Times. He can be reached at 631-354-8049 or [email protected].