TEWKSBURY, Mass. — Glowing from the screen is a startling image. Yet 7-year-old Ali LeRocque gazes placidly at it: a Route 91 Harvest festival logo. Asked why she would keep it on her cellphone, she says, quietly: “Because that’s where people shoot at my mama.”
Spoken as simple fact — devoid of the tears that moisten the eyes of her daddy, who struggles with his composure sitting next to her — it reveals the ironic blessing beneath the tragic reality: Innocence is this little girl’s protective shield.
“She knows her mom’s not here and not coming back,” says Jason LeRocque, 41, at his rustic home in a Boston suburb on a chilly afternoon. Light rain falling outside adds melancholy to the otherwise cozy house, now absent Rhonda, his wife of 21 years.
They were grooving to country music 2,700 miles west of here, beneath Mandalay Bay, when she was shot that awful October night. Across the street, Ali slept soundly in their Luxor hotel room under the watchful eye of her grandfather, as her father watched her mother die at University Medical Center.
That unimaginable night in Las Vegas, Rhonda LeRocque was among nearly three dozen parents to die — leaving Ali as one of 87 children to lose a mom or dad.
“She was crying (when he told her) and I think she understood, but to what extent? She’s a 7-year-old that’s full of energy, so she’s not overly sad. There are moments when she’ll see a picture of Mom and I’ll find her pausing and looking at it. I’m more fearful for the future, but for now I’m comforted that she’s not a total mess over it,” Jason says.
Seeking solace in faith
In fact, this parent — a devout Jehovah’s Witness, as was 42-year-old Rhonda — has found comfort in the child, with whom he shared the messages of their faith as a means of coping with what had been unthinkable. Since then, she has reminded him of his own advice.
“If she sees me crying, Ali will walk up to me, give me a hug and a little smile and say, ‘It’s OK, Daddy, you can cry, but you know we’re going to see Mommy again in the Paradise.”
As Ali remains fixated on her phone, her dad strokes her neatly combed hair. She wears a single flower clip, a simple symbol of her father’s attempts to provide the type of grooming — and, in a larger sense, mothering — that Rhonda once did. “That’s my go-to thing now,” Jason says of the flower clip. “I’m not so good with hair.”
Firing off jets of youthful energy in all directions — popping fruit snacks, licking the jelly center of a sugar cookie, hugging a baby doll sporting a “Mommy’s Cutie” label, skipping across the living room — Ali awaits the arrival of a female family friend to divert her with activities for the afternoon. Meanwhile, as he fixes his spunky daughter in his gaze, swirling emotions flicker across Jason’s eyes — love, sadness, hope, anxiety — and he sometimes looks away to compose himself and quell his sniffles.
“I thought I was doing good today,” he says apologetically as another sniffle escapes, his face registering the weight of his life, post-tragedy. As Ali leaves with his friend, Jason opens up about a life he never imagined he’d be forced to live.
Going it alone
Relying on a support system including his mother and father, who are staying with him, and extended family and friends, Jason expresses his deep gratitude for the loving bubble that surrounds the new widower and his little girl. “People are volunteering to take her here, there and everywhere, and it’s great, but she wants me to be with her,” Jason says. “That’s a struggle. I can’t be there 24/7. I’m trying to do as much as I can, but I have to draw that line eventually and cut that off a bit.”
Even when he can be there, though, Jason admits his fears of raising Ali without the presence of the woman he met at a Jehovah’s Witness worship hall, whom he describes as “such a sweet, kindhearted, fun girl, on top of being beautiful.” And on top of being his partner-in-parenting.
Baking and cooking, which Rhonda supervised with Ali as her pint-sized assistant? Not a strength of her dad, a construction project manager. Neither is keeping the LeRocque clan healthy, as Rhonda did, meting out vitamins, supplements and her pre-made protein shakes. (He dreads finishing the few remaining shakes and eliminating a reminder of the loving domesticity of his wife, who also worked as a hospitality food and beverage specialist.) And while his employer has accommodated his newly complicated schedule, allowing him to ferry Ali back and forth from school, make sure she does her homework and supervise her after-school activities, it takes a toll.
“It truly is drastic,” he says of being abruptly yanked into single parenthood. “Having Rhonda to share those duties with, life was still challenging, but now it feels overwhelming at times. … She was just a natural caretaker, she truly spoiled us. … I would give anything to go back to what we used to think was a stressful life. … And with the support I currently have, I know I have not even felt the real impact of having to handle all these things that I will no doubt face as time goes on.”
Jason acknowledges the burden of losing the love of his life — and the blessing in life that their love produced. “It’s a heavy load to carry, trying to stay strong for her while being so sad inside,” he says. “But if I didn’t have Ali it would be a lot tougher to get up in the morning. I feel like Ali is a little gift we have from Rhonda.”