Is it possible to change what comes to mind merely by saying just a single word?
Across Connecticut and beyond, this town's name now conjures up the worst: home invasion, senseless death, a ruined family, failed justice. But what if — by human will and hard work — this word could begin to suggest something else?
It is a valiant effort that residents of Cheshire are deeply involved in, almost one year after the sickening crime that left three much-loved town residents tortured and dead.
Could the plea from Dr. William Petit, days after the murder of his wife, Jennifer, and children, Hayley and Michaela, a year ago, instead become what we think about when we think about Cheshire?
"Help a neighbor. Fight for a cause," Petit told mourners at an emotional memorial service last July. "Love your family."
A town's healing, and Petit's plea, are complicated — and for some, deeply religious — questions. Is there more good than evil? How does the positive arise from the absolute worst?
Petit family friend Ron Riser, an ordained United Church of Christ minister, warned me to be careful. "The pain is never going to be gone for a lot of us."
But Riser, with a lifetime of trauma and grief counseling, sees something else. Like a brain rewiring after a stroke, people are making new, profound connections in this community.
"People who never knew them feel touched by this."
The Petit family house on Sorghum Mill Drive has been razed, replaced by a large heart-shaped flower garden not yet finished. It is an odd grassy knoll in an inviting and orderly Connecticut neighborhood of big houses and deep lawns, tall shade trees and backyard swimming pools with rippling blue water.
All is the same. Everything has changed.
"There is this shared history now that we didn't have before," Janet Ray explained to me when we spoke about how this last year has unfolded.
Ray, a mother of two, taught Sunday school with Jennifer Petit and is a member of a United Methodist Church congregation forever altered by the Petit tragedy.
"I am more fearful," she said, telling me of children unable to sleep and her fervent desire to place the good and bad in the proper context.
"Most people are good," Ray said, a hint of uncertainty in her voice. "There are these aberrations of evil."
Then Ray told me a story about how her neighbors began walking their children to school in the months after the Petit murders. It has spontaneously become a morning ritual and opened her eyes to people — and lives — she never knew about before.
"We are bound," she said.
I kept hearing this, in so many words, around Cheshire.
Among the Petits' old neighbors, there is an unusual closeness and protectiveness. You see an open garage door late at night, you don't just worry. You make a call, one Sorghum neighbor said.
"We didn't do that before," said Al Adinolfi, a state representative who lives a few houses away from the Petits. "It was an awakening for everyone."
Megan Alexander, who has just finished her first year at Syracuse University, told me of the depth of the bond she has discovered. She was a best friend of Hayley Petit, the girl she always kidded about one day playing basketball for UConn.
"Things have really been difficult," Alexander, who is 18, told me. "It has been a rough year."
"I went off to college and I can't say I was in the same place as other freshmen," she said. "I ended up taking a leave of absence in the second semester so I could be with the community. Our community is going through a healing process."
"You think about life in a different way," Alexander said. "It was really important for me to be here."
Back home and searching for something in which to invest herself, Alexander and some other teenagers decided to stage a basketball tournament, for anyone in town, to benefit multiple sclerosis. Jennifer Petit, Michael's wife, had MS.
It was a huge success, with 36 teams of all ages. "We raised $10,600," said Alexander, who is not a basketball player. "It was a turning point for me. I felt I had done something."
Another bond cemented.
Ask about the Petits around Cheshire and sooner or later the conversation comes around to the night last January when thousands of luminarias — candles in paper bags — lit up all 470 streets in town, including the one in front of the state prison. The event raised $127,000 for the Petits' family charities. Organizers — dozens of local residents — are planning another one this year, on Dec. 6.
"It's still very difficult for everybody," organizer Jenifer Walsh said. "But you can't just keep it all in and close your door and forget that it happened."
The Rev. Sandra Stayner, rector of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in the middle of town, recited a version of a story that others repeated to me.
"I've been all over the place in the last year. And you say Cheshire and they say, 'Oh, Cheshire, that's where that horrible home invasion happened,'" she said. "It's very raw still."
But then she told me about high school kids who have joined fundraisers and the volunteers who come out of the woodwork for anything related to the Petits. And like folks all over town, she repeated the words of Bill Petit.
I want my girls to be remembered for the good they did.
"That's what the resurrection is all about," Stayner said. "Even out of the worst evil, God's promise is that he will bring resurrection from it."
The other day, Bill Petit quietly took a local high school boy out to lunch who raised $1,500 for the family charities. This morning, in Plainville, more than 2,000 runners will set off in the inaugural fundraiser for the Petit Family Foundation, an event organized by high school friends of Bill Petit. On the anniversary of the tragedy this coming week, friends and neighbors will quietly and privately plant a garden in the family's memory.
This summer, Megan Alexander works as an intern for the state MS society in Hartford, which will carry on her annual basketball tournament. She's looking forward to going back to Syracuse University this fall. She will always remember Bill Petit's plea.
Help a neighbor. Fight for a cause. Love your family.
Cheshire can still make me think of the worst, but Megan and scores of others are showing us that this, too, can change
Contact Rick Green at email@example.com.
For all stories, photos and videos about the Cheshire slayings, visit courant.com/petits