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Four years after Parkland school shooting, the pain feels 'just as fresh' for one victim’s family

It's been four years since Debbi Hixon lost her husband Chris, who was killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Hixon says she and her son Corey have barely begun the grieving process.
Danny Rivero / WLRN
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It's been four years since Debbi Hixon lost her husband Chris, who was killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Hixon says she and her son Corey have barely begun the grieving process.

Four years ago, Debbi Hixon lost her husband, Chris, when he was killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Hixon says the pain feels "just as fresh today" as it did Feb. 14, 2018.

When Debbi Hixon first met her husband, Chris, he captured her heart almost immediately.

“My friend was getting married, and I was the maid of honor,” Debbi recalled of the 1988 wedding in her hometown of Hollywood.

Chris caught her eye: He had this confidence about him and a little hop in his step. They got to talking. He was serving in the Navy alongside the groom.

“He was 20, and I was 21. And I invited him out afterwards, because he was alone, by himself. And he's like, ‘Well, I can't get in a bar. I'm not old enough,'" she said with a laugh. "So I bought a six-pack, and we went down to the beach.

"And to be honest, I would have probably married him that day.”

Chris Hixon was killed four years ago at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. He was the athletic director who ran into the building that day to try to stop the shooter. He was 49.

Chris Hixon was the athletic director at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. He is remembered as a hero for charging into the building to try to stop the shooter.
Danny Rivero / WLRN
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Chris Hixon was the athletic director at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. He is remembered as a hero for charging into the building to try to stop the shooter.

“It's just as fresh today as it was February 14th, 2018,” Debbi Hixon said. “It's like a wound that you keep pulling the scab off of, right? It can't ever really heal, until it settles. And we just can't settle, because we're waiting for a trial.”

She is dreading the sentencing trial of the confessed shooter. The court proceedings have been delayed over and over for years. As of now, the final stage is scheduled for April.

“It's like a wound that you keep pulling the scab off of, right? It can't ever really heal, until it settles. And we just can't settle, because we're waiting for a trial.”

“My whole adult life, there's never a decision I made without Chris in the middle of it. We met, I was 21! You know, what kind of car to buy. Where we were going to live. Where we were going on vacation,” she said. “He was the center of everything that I ever did.”

 Photos and mementos of Chris Hixon hang in the home he shared with his wife Debbi. They met when he was 20 and she was 21.
Danny Rivero / WLRN
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Photos and mementos of Chris Hixon hang in the home he shared with his wife Debbi. They met when he was 20 and she was 21.

Many of those decisions had to do with Corey Hixon, the youngest of their two sons. Corey is 26 and has Kabuki Syndrome, a developmental disability.

After Chris was killed, Debbi says she became a single mom to a special needs adult overnight.

“You second guess yourself, especially because Corey is also medically needy," she said.

Navigating these difficult decisions alone, she often asks herself: "Am I doing the right thing? Should he do this? Should he have this?"

"My whole adult life, there's never a decision I made without Chris in the middle of it [...] He was the center of everything that I ever did."

She wrestles with how much Corey should know about what happened to his dad.

“Because for him, he processes things differently. And we don't give him enough credit for all that's building up in his head,” she said.

Corey has vivid memories of that day. Sometimes he struggles to put his feelings into words.

Debbi Hixon tries to shield her son Corey from certain details about his dad's death and the ongoing sentencing trial of the confessed shooter. Corey, 26, has a Kabuki Syndrome, a developmental disability.
Danny Rivero / WLRN
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Debbi Hixon tries to shield her son Corey from certain details about his dad's death and the ongoing sentencing trial of the confessed shooter. Corey, 26, has a Kabuki Syndrome, a developmental disability.

“I don’t know how to start, but it’s …" Corey said.

“Well, how do you feel?” Debbi asked him.

“It still hurts!” he said, his voice thick with emotion.

“You miss Daddy,” she replied. 

Often, Debbi helps interpret for him, and that pulls her back into those memories, too.

“Corey ... thinks because Chris died, no one else should have died. Because Chris was trying to save them,” Debbi explained. “And he struggles a lot with the fact that people still died besides Chris.”

Sixteen people died besides Chris. Seventeen others were injured.

“It's just as fresh today as it was February 14th, 2018."

Corey’s mom tries to shield him from things, like news coverage of court hearings. Corey has found videos on YouTube anyway. Sometimes his anger overwhelms him. All those feelings spill over onto her.

“I didn’t mean to say it here, but he needs to go to hell,” Corey cried. “He does!”

“I agree,” Debbi said softly.

“He just … hell! Or wherever!” Corey said.

Corey’s room is like a chapel now, with stained glass, a prayer bench, an altar, holy water. He finds comfort in his Catholic faith.

 Corey Hixon finds comfort in his Catholic faith. His room looks like a chapel, with stained glass, a prayer bench, an altar, holy water.
Danny Rivero / WLRN
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Corey Hixon finds comfort in his Catholic faith. His room looks like a chapel, with stained glass, a prayer bench, an altar, holy water.

Debbi tries to stay busy. She got elected to the Broward County School Board in 2020, after a three-decade career as a teacher.

“I just worry that if I stop moving, that I won't start again,” she said tearfully. 

“But somebody needs me!” she said, patting Corey’s leg. 

“Most of the time he's my sidekick. Everyone says, ‘Where's Corey?’ I go to things and no one asks me how I am. They just say, ‘Where's Corey?’” she said, laughing. “I'm like, ‘I'm just Corey’s mom.'"

Corey's dad, Chris — she talks to him every day.

“I like to stay busy. But of course at the end of the night, when things are settling down — you know, it's the room that we made our life in. So I take a few minutes to just chat with him about the day. Ask him for guidance. For help,” Debbi said.

“He's with us all the time.”

Debbi and her sons see signs of Chris' presence, like when cardinals fly through the yard. Debbi says Chris finds his way back to them when they need him most.

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