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Lewiston, Maine, continues the journey to recovery nearly 6 weeks after mass shooting

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It's been nearly six weeks since a mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine, left 18 dead and 13 injured. But this past Saturday, several hundred people filled the downtown streets. And some see these types of celebrations as a way to help process their trauma and grief, but Susan Sharon of Maine Public Radio found that other Lewiston residents are not ready to gather yet.

SUSAN SHARON, BYLINE: Christmas was Joe Walker's favorite time of year. He was the essence of jolly, says his daughter, Bethany Welch, someone who knew how to make other people laugh.

BETHANY WELCH: He had this, like, elf costume he would wear at all the family Christmas parties. And he would make my mom dress up with him. And then he'll do, like, Santa dressing, too, because he had the belly to be like Santa.

SHARON: Walker was the manager of Schemengees Bar and Grille. He was among those killed by a man who also opened fire at a bowling alley a few miles away on October 25. Just three days before he died, Welch says her dad called her and they had a lengthy, unplanned conversation about her immediate life goals - graduation from nursing school at the University of Connecticut, buying a house and marrying her fiance, for starters.

WELCH: He was just like, yep, that sounds like a good plan, daughter. I'm so proud of you, like, and all this stuff. And then I don't want to go back on my word. Like, he approved it, he was proud of it, he knew what it was.

SHARON: When she heard about the shootings, Welch says she jumped in her car and drove for several hours through the night straight to Schemengees from Connecticut, desperate for any word about her dad. His permanent absence has yet to hit her, she says. She got through Thanksgiving by distracting herself with work. But she graduates this month, and then there's Christmas.

WELCH: Yeah, it's going to be a hard one.

SHARON: Even those who didn't lose anyone are trying to figure out how to get into the Christmas spirit, and then how to move forward.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Three, two, one.

(CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. Happy Kwanzaa. Happy holidays season.

SHARON: Matthew and Martha Agren of Lewiston showed up for the city's menorah and tree lighting ceremony wearing we are one Lewiston T-shirts underneath their jackets.

MATTHEW AGREN: We became one town one horrible evening. It's the first time in a long time this town's been united over anything, and I hope it stays that way for many years to come.

SHARON: The Agrens say it's uplifting to gather for occasions like this one, but other residents still aren't comfortable going out. As a result, Shanna Cox, president of the Lewiston Auburn Chamber of Commerce, says some hospitality businesses are down by as much as 60%. The chamber has started one of several fund drives to help the community recover.

SHANNA COX: We're all just at different points in that journey. I think what I do see universally is a desire to find a way through. And I'm so glad to see the resiliency that has always been here in Lewiston where we're gritty and we're an underdog people. And so we know folks are rooting for us.

SHARON: For bar owner Kathy Lebel, finding a way through will likely mean reopening Schemengees in a different location. Lebel wasn't working the night of the shooting, but she says she still feels powerless about not doing more to protect her loyal customers and friends. She's carried that sense of unease to her other Lewiston restaurant, where she now pictures herself like a flight attendant.

KATHY LEBEL: Welcome to the Station Grill. Please have a seat. Take a look at your menu. To your right is an exit and to your left, please pay attention to the other exit. And it's not right, but that's kind of how I feel. Like, I want people to be aware.

SHARON: Lebel isn't sure how she'll get by without Joe Walker, whom she calls her right-hand man. But this year she's carrying on his holiday tradition of raising money for needy families. Walker's daughter, Bethany Welch, meanwhile, has amended the life plan she shared with her dad after watching first responders in action on the tragic night of the shootings. She says she's found her calling as a trauma nurse. She's confident he'd be pleased.

For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon in Lewiston, Maine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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