The day before Nicole Paultre and Sean Bell were to get married, life was good. There was none of the petty bickering that goes on between most nervous couples. Nicole’s dress, a white sleeveless gown she had purchased just weeks earlier, was pressed and ready. She had even prepared her own version of a song—Mary J. Blige’s “Be Without You”—to sing to Sean, the father of her two girls.

That afternoon Bell kissed Nicole and their little girls goodbye before dropping them off at her mother’s home on Long Island, where she was holding the bridal shower that evening. He called her later that day, as he always did, still debating whether or not to bother going out for a bachelor party before finally resolving to go. For all Nicole knew, the day the two had been waiting for, the day her beloved had secretly planned by himself as a surprise, had come. She went to bed that night happily anticipating her special day. Then around 4:00 A.M., her mother, visibly shaken, rushed into her room.

“Something happened to Sean,” she said. “I don’t know what, but your sister just called. We have to go to the hospital.” The panicked family hurried out of the house, not even knowing which hospital to go to, let alone what was going on. They assumed that Sean had been in a car accident. Never could they have imagined news that would be far worse.

When ESSENCE first sat down with Nicole, 22, on Thursday, we noticed her stoic demeanor, how she chose her words carefully. But beneath the brave shield there were raw emotions she couldn’t hide. She was dressed simply in a soft brown sweater, black pants and boots, her only accessories a button with Sean’s face on it and her engagement ring and wedding band. At one point during the conversation she paused to wipe away tears. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. Often when she spoke of Sean, she would slip into the present tense, as if he were still here. At times she gazed into space, somber, seemingly lost in her own thoughts. Even the sounds of her 3-year-old daughter, Jada, playing in the next room didn’t seem to pierce the fog. Perhaps Nicole’s mother, Laura Harper-Paultre, who sat nearby her daughter during our interview, put it best: “She’s doing all this rushing around, every day. She doesn’t really get a chance to think. But when she’s alone and she stops, the darkness comes over her.”

Here in Nicole’s first print interview, she talks about her love for Sean, their life together and the tragedy that has changed her forever.

ESSENCE: How have you been?

Nicole: Never in a million years did I imagine this would happen to my family. This is all new for me. I’m trying to be strong for my girls. It’s difficult sometimes waking up in the morning, and every night is tough, but I have to be strong for my family. Now my main focus is taking care of Jada and Jordyn. I keep that in my head, that I have to raise my family now.

When Jada’s father passed away, I told her, “Jada, Daddy’s in heaven, and he’s an angel.” It’s hard for her to understand, but every once in a while she looks up in the sky and she waves to Daddy.

ESSENCE: When did you meet Sean?

Nicole: We met at John Adams High School in Queens when I was 16. He was a year ahead of me, and his smile caught my attention. He was a star baseball pitcher at school. He came up to me one day between periods, and his line was, “How ya doing? I like those pants.” It was so funny. But there was something about him. He’s just really charming, such a sweet guy. We clicked right away.

ESSENCE: What were your plans together?

Nicole: We were supposed to grow old together. (She begins to cry softly) I’m sorry. We just wanted to raise our family. He was planning on playing baseball. He actually had an audition for the minor leagues coming up. He had played baseball in high school and at Nassau Community College. He wanted to go pro back then, but once we had Jada, he took a break from baseball and wanted to focus on family. I always told him, “Go ahead, it’s okay, we’re right beside you.” I back him up 100 percent, and he’s the same way with me. So whatever he wanted to do, we were going to do it together. This just wasn’t supposed to happen.

ESSENCE: Were you surprised when he proposed?

Nicole: Yeah. He also surprised me by planning the wedding behind my back. He had planned everything, paid for everything. I was so surprised, so happy. One night about a month ago, we were sitting on the couch watching TV after dinner. He said, “How would you feel if I said we were going to get married on the twenty-fifth?” I was caught off guard, but I said, “I would love that; we’ve been waiting for this day for a long time.” Then he said, “Well, we are. I’ve planned everything. We already have the reception hall, and we’re going to get married on the twenty-fifth.” All my friends and family knew. Immediately that next day I went and got my dress. (She laughs)

ESSENCE: What were the days like before the wedding?

Nicole: We had already done everything for the wedding. Sean had made the plans, my mother had sent out the invitations and picked up the little giveaways—silver bells with a ribbon wrapped around them, with our names and the date November 25, 2006, engraved on them. We had finished everything that week, so we were just doing our normal things. On Thanksgiving, the day before he was killed, we spent that day with our family. Sean discussed everything with my aunts, and he asked, “You’re going to be there, right? Make sure you’re going to be there. Did you RSVP?” He was excited, and we were both just looking forward to it. Everything was so right. Everything was going so perfect. Not an argument, not a single hitch.

ESSENCE: How does it feel to suddenly become the face of the police brutality issue?

Nicole: I don’t think it’s really hit me. I see these things on TV, and we all know it’s wrong, but I never thought it would hit home in my life. I get a lot of support from strangers, and my family is 100 percent there for me. Famous people that I never thought I’d meet have contacted me through my attorney Sanford Rubenstein and Al Sharpton. I talked to Spike Lee just the other night. Hillary Clinton—I spoke with her and Mayor Bloomberg. Everyone sends their condolences and love. It’s very comforting to know that people care, people that don’t even know him. It helps. They give me strength. I also find strength in church and God.

ESSENCE: Many people were surprised to hear you say in the Larry King interview that you’re not angry. Can you explain?

Nicole: I’m not angry with the entire department. It’s not the department that did this. It’s those five police officers; it’s them that need to be held accountable. A lot of people ask me about my saying I’m not angry, but they don’t understand that I have to focus my energy on other things besides anger.

ESSENCE: What happened that night when you got the call about Sean?

Nicole: I was at my mom’s house, where I had just had my bridal shower. It was fun, had all the ladies over. Then about 4:00 A.M. my mom came in my room and told me my sister had just called, that something had happened. Of course I was nervous, but I never thought it would be something like this. I just thought, Oh God, what happened now? Great. So we went on our way to the hospital, and when we got there they wouldn’t tell us what had happened. Nobody said anything to us for a half hour until a police officer came out and took my name and saw my ID, wrote my information down and said he’d be right back. We didn’t hear anything more from the police for about an hour and a half. Finally I got really upset and asked, “What’s going on? Somebody has to tell me something.” So one of the surgeons came in and moved my family and me into the ER conference room. Then another doctor came in, and she told us that he had passed. It was a complete shock.

ESSENCE: Your attorney Sanford Rubenstein told us you wanted him to do something for you.

Nicole: I asked him to get my wedding bands from the car because Sean had them on him that day. He was able to get them for me, and I’m wearing mine and Sean’s wearing his. I put it on him. At the funeral right before we closed the casket, when I went up to see him, they allowed me to put the ring on his finger. He’s also buried in the tuxedo that he was going to wear for our wedding, a black tuxedo with a white bow tie.

ESSENCE: Why did you call Reverend Sharpton?

Nicole: Actually it was a cousin who reached out to Al Sharpton that night in the hospital. You know, we see him all the time, and he’s a strong voice and he has really helped us out. And he came right away. He didn’t know much about it, but as soon as he found out what had happened, he came right on over. And he’s been here ever since.

ESSENCE: As an African-American man, had Sean ever expressed concern about the police to you? Was he ever worried or fearful about police?

Nicole: No, it was never a concern for him as far as I know. He was really a positive guy. He knew what he had to do, and he would do it.

ESSENCE: The day before Sean was killed, you spent some of that afternoon together. Do you remember your last conversation?

Nicole: He dropped me and the girls off at my mother’s house. But actually I had spoken to him on the phone after that, during the middle of the day. We always contact each other several times a day just to check in on each other and say, “What you doing now? What’s going on? I miss you.” He told me that he had just bought something to wear for his bachelor party. He asked me what I was doing, and I told him we were preparing for the bridal shower. He told me he wasn’t sure if he was going to go out. And at the last minute he did change his mind, so he did go out. And that was it. We told each other we loved each other, as we always ended our conversations on the phone.

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

That was the last conversation we had.

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