Each morning, Felix Rubio helps his wife Kim get their younger kids ready for school. Clothes, breakfast, check on the dog. Normal family life. Then, every day, he visits the child he can’t help anymore – the daughter slaughtered by a gunman at her elementary school as she and her friends watched a movie after their end-of-year awards ceremony.
“Every day I go to the cemetery, and I go out there and talk to Lexi,” Rubio told CNN. “People say she’s with us spiritually and I get it. But me going out there, that’s as close as I get to her physically. I always tell her, ‘Just keep looking after us and one day you’ll see me coming up to you.’”
Lexi was one of the 19 children and two teachers killed by a teenage gunman with an assault rifle at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, last May 24.
Nearly a year on, there are no answers for Lexi’s parents or anyone else on why it took 77 minutes from the gunman entering the school to him being killed by law enforcement.
“My understanding is this first group of officers that come in, they’re shot at, they retreat, and they never go back in. They let children die in that classroom. And I can’t even explain to you what they’ve taken from me,” Kim Rubio said.
“Maybe Lexi’s gone immediately, but that’s what they’ve taken from me – those answers. Had they engaged immediately and my child is deceased, then I know in my heart that she wasn’t scared very long. But because they waited so long, now I’ll never know. I don’t know if it was fast and I don’t know if it took 30, 40 minutes. And that’s hard,” she said. “That’s hard to sit with.”
A mother’s unfounded but gutting guilt
Kim said the first inkling she had of the botched response came early on, not from officials but the questions reporters were asking her. “And I remember saying, ‘I don’t have time to think about somebody else’s failure because I’m so consumed with my own,’ because I’m the one that left her there,” she said.
There are so many what-ifs Kim can rattle off in a litany of mother’s guilt – what if 10-year-old Lexi had been sick that week and not the week before; what if she had come home after receiving honor roll at the awards ceremony that morning; what if the pandemic hadn’t led the Rubios to take their children out of a dual-language school and send them to Robb; what if Kim had not requested Arnulfo Reyes in classroom 111 to be Lexi’s teacher because he had done so well with her older sister Jahleela.
“There’s just so many steps along the way where you think, had I done just this one thing differently, I (would) still have my child, and this didn’t happen to us,” Kim said.
Before the massacre, the Rubios had planned to leave Uvalde to give their children a different experience growing up. Now they will stay to be close to Lexi, even if that might feel awkward in this small city of 15,000 residents, some 86 miles west of San Antonio.
“We’re reminders of something they want to forget. And, I understand that – if you can forget, I can understand wanting to, but we can’t,” Kim said. “In the beginning, this community came together and they stood by us and there was looks of sympathy when we would go out in public and that’s just changed to resentment. That’s not everybody – I have some amazing people that reach out to me still. I don’t know why the rift happened, but it did, and it’s made it uncomfortable to stay. But we’re living without our child, so everything pales in comparison.”
The Rubios moved to a new house because Jahleela couldn’t bear to be in the room she shared with her little sister. Kim said it’s tough being in a place that Lexi never was, so they have her pictures up everywhere.
Some people tell Kim the worst day of her life has already happened, but that’s not how she sees it. “It’s just the beginning of the worst part of our lives. It doesn’t get better. It’s just been longer since we’ve seen her,” she said of her daughter, a sporty and studious girl with a wide smile who wanted to become a lawyer.
“I don’t think we want to move forward. I think when people ask me about that, you’re asking me to move further from my last memory with her. That’s uncomfortable and I don’t want to do that,” Kim said.
Their new mission
Busy days are easier to get through than empty ones, so the couple joined the growing ranks of parents who have lost their children in a school shooting and are arguing for reforms.
“Lexi deserved to have been here and forged her own path and made a difference in this world the way that she wanted to. And that was taken from her,” Kim said. “So, I just feel like it’s my job as her mom to make sure she can still do that. … She’s more than just a victim and if there’s change that comes as a result of this, well, I like to think that she had a part in that.”
The Rubios and other Uvalde parents have focused on raising the minimum age to buy a gun from 18 to 21, as happened in Florida after the Parkland school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The Uvalde killer bought his assault rifles legally in the days after he turned 18. Even that may not be possible in Texas in 2023, let alone the broader kind of ban that Kim wants.
“The average citizen does not need access to these types of weapons. They are meant to destroy lives and that’s what they’ve been doing,” she said.
Felix has no doubt his wife will achieve progress. “I know she can be this bigger person. One day, she’ll get it, and the whole world will see. And then they’ll also remember that that’s Lexi’s mom.”
A ‘girl dad’ no more
Felix, a sheriff’s deputy last year, was off duty the day of the shooting, but after the first officers at the school called for as many reinforcements as possible, he put on his uniform and went to his kids’ school. He even went inside, to the hallway where so many officers stood for so long, waiting for orders or directions that never came.
He does not talk publicly about that day and lets Kim take the lead in interviews, statements and activism. He said he tried counseling, but it didn’t gel with him, and he relies on his wife. “I feel comfortable with just her, talking to her,” he said. Kim looked at him and agreed. “It’s a safe space – I can say what I want to say and when the emotion comes up, I bring it up. He does the same – good days, bad days,” she said. “I could not do this without him.”
Felix loved being a “girl dad” – Kim said the kids have to listen to her choice of music in the car, but if the girls wanted Disney tunes, he would happily turn them on. “I’m not the same person that I was, I wish I could still be that dad,” he said.
He wants to keep the rest of their blended family safe – Lexi’s little brother Julian, and older siblings Jahleela, David, Kalisa and Isaiah. Kim said they follow their kids’ leads and have conversations when they bring things up.
“I don’t know if I’m doing it right. I don’t know if we’re doing anything right,” Kim said.
And death is never far from their minds.
“I guess you should look forward to life and I think we’re just ready to reach the finish line,” Kim said. “I want to see her again. I want to be with her again. Sounds horrible to wait. Just, we’re just waiting.”
She added: “We lost our daughter, we lost ourselves and we’re just trying to pick up the pieces and do what we can with it.”
Felix said people should think about, “How this can rip you away, change your life, who you are.” For himself though, as Kim said, “it’s just a matter of getting to our finish line.”
The Rubios do not know when that will be, but they know where they will be.
Felix and Kim already have their grave sites at the edge of a grassy cemetery – on either side of where the remains of their girl Lexi are buried.