ROCKVILLE - Justin Dhyani and his siblings decided to donate their allowances to the families who lost someone to the Washington-area sniper even though none of them - not Justin, who is 11, nor his brothers, Jai, 15, and Josh, 14, nor his sister, Tess, who is 6 - knew any of the victims.
All the Dhyani kids knew is all most of us in the metropolitan area knew: For three weeks in October, we were forced to live with fear.
In the Dhyani house on a cul-de-sac in Rockville, it was Jai who was first out of bed, the family crier who watched CNN and MSNBC and told everyone, except little Tess, if anything new had happened overnight. He kept the family informed on who had been shot and where - and how close that was to their home on Safe Harbor Court.
But it was Justin who took their mom's challenge later to write a letter accompanying their family's donation. It was Justin, the busiest of the kids, who had so much to say that he went straight to his bedroom upstairs, closed the door and began to write.
His mom, Tracy Dhyani, had come up with the idea of donating. She was inspired by Carol Nelson, the wife of Justin's baseball coach, who suggested that they take the money typically spent at the end of the season on team trophies and give it to the victims' families.
Curious, Tracy looked back at the calendar and the schedule she had kept on her Palm Pilot to see what activities they'd missed. Justin was playing three sports at the time, so he missed baseball, football and basketball games and practices. Josh missed training events to prepare him for basketball tryouts and an archery class, Jai had been forbidden to walk to acting classes, and Tess' field trips with her Brownie troop to the pumpkin patch were canceled. So were Tess' soccer games.
Tracy counted the tennis tournament she missed and the meetings and events canceled or postponed by her group, the Community Woman's Club of Rockville. They counted the days Jai's high school wouldn't let students eat their lunch outside and the times Tess' elementary school canceled outdoor recess. In all, they counted 47 activities, and the number surprised them.
There was no way to measure the effect of other things. Josh's school taped paper over the lower windows and as the tallest kid in his class he was well aware that the top of his head could be seen where the paper stopped. Tess had been told "a bad person was hurting people," and that was why the children who lived close enough to her school to walk had to be escorted back across Montrose Road by armed policemen wearing bulletproof vests.
The whole family knew a 13-year-old boy had been shot, and the sniper had supposedly left a note saying no child was safe. Yet there was no method to calculate what it meant when Tracy stopped saying, "Have a good day" as she sent her children out the door, and said, "Have a safe day" instead.
Justin had a lot on his mind when he sat down at his desk the day the two suspects, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, were arrested, Oct. 24. His mom was surprised it was Justin who took up her challenge. Jai was the writer in the family. She thought Justin must have something he profoundly needed to say.
Dear Mr. Wims,
Justin addressed his thoughts to Gregory Wims, president of the Victims' Rights Foundation, which gives all of the money collected to the victims' families.
As we all know, we have been attacked by men of evil, that we call "the sniper." The thing that got me the most during the attacks of "the sniper" was waking up to fear. Fear that today one person was going to die, we didn't know when or where it was going to happen, but we just knew. I guess the fear I felt was from just not knowing.
He wrote for half an hour and didn't stop until he was done.
I am eleven years old and being so young and naive made this experience much worse. I tried to live a normal life even though there was a killer out there, but I was reminded of this everyday in school when the principal would say that we were still on code blue. One of the worst reminders was on Friday nights, where we would usually be playing football in Dogwood Park, where I would've been able to release some of the stress by hitting people, but I couldn't because of these men of evil. Then to top it all off, every time I turned on the TV all I would hear was the sniper was still out there.
All that is over now, now that they caught the sniper. Today it felt like we had just won a war. It's the greatest feeling I've had in a month.
Justin wouldn't let anyone see his letter at first. It was only after he went to bed that night that his mother, who stays home with the kids while her husband, Bob Dhyani, sells appliances to developments, saw what Justin had written.