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The Last Day: Sept. 19, 2015
I wrote this years ago and have struggled with publishing it. Eight years later, to those who supported us and those who wondered, this is what happened.
He never saw fall. I think about that a lot. September isn’t quite it. It’s the
time of year we start pining for fall. Trees are still green, on the cusp of
color but unchanged. Football is on, but just barely. The air still sits warm
and heavy on my shoulders when I head outside with a beer, bare feet on
the rough porch slats that buckle in the humidity every summer.
Then one day the air changes. It’s crisper, no longer sweet with flora but
earthy now. Even if you can’t see it, you can feel the fall.
He didn’t. Not that year. One season, he was here. The next season, he
I think about that every time I get my first feel of fall, my boots on those
porch slats, lying flat again in the cooler air, unburdened by summer’s
It’s been five falls. Five years since the September day that changed our
lives, though I’ve always preferred to break it into different chunks— five
falls, five Christmases, five birthdays for my daughters, five springs, five
summers, a million lifetimes ago, and also 10 minutes.
I was pining for fall in Durham, N.C. on September 19, 2015. I was at a
Duke-Northwestern football game with my friend, Guy Benson, and I had
made a horrible miscalculation, and I don’t just mean attending a Duke-
Northwestern football game.
My hometown loyalty had combined with a Southern penchant for
dressing the part, and I found myself in the only Duke blue clothing I
could find and the only pants that fit me – a short-sleeved sweater and
dark maternity jeans.
It was not a good call, especially for a woman in her third trimester. I was
born in Alabama, raised in North Carolina, and went to college in
Georgia. I do not shrink from heat and humidity. In fact, I relish my
chance each summer to smirk at my proud Northerner and Midwestern
friends when 98 degrees reduces them to the same kvetching they hear
from me in a light snowstorm.
But this was a cruel heat, I remember thinking as I stood under a tent set
up for spectators mercifully dispensing clouds of cool mist. People
gathered as if at a watering hole on the savanna, only instead of antelopes,
I saw people I knew from high school.
“Heeeey! Hot enough for ya? Yes, just in town for the weekend! How are
y’all doing? How’s your sister? No, I did NOT know she married him.
How wild! Yep! Due in December! How old are your kids now?”
After a few of these exchanges, I mustered my strength to leave this oasis
and rejoin Guy in the stands, checking the game clock to see how long I’d
have to sweat it out. I watched the rest of the game, cursed my misguided
wardrobe choice, and snapped one picture of the brilliant green field
framed by cotton-candy clouds in a perfect, blue summer sky.
It is my last picture of that old life, before the passage of time became
distorted, no longer governed by clocks and calendars, but by pain and
It is my last picture of that summer, the last season my husband was alive.
When Guy and I got in the car after the game, he was relishing
Northwestern’s win and overestimating the team’s future success, as is his
custom. The foundation of our friendship was a shared brand of practical
optimism. Both were about to be tested.
I plugged in my phone, which I had let run out of batteries, as is my
custom. We made the short drive from the stadium to my childhood
home. The pair of us had arrived in Durham the night before as part of a
swing through the Southeast on a speaking tour for the book we had co-
authored, published earlier that summer. It was not uncommon for our
speaking engagements to be scheduled to coincide with as many of our
favorite sporting events as possible.
We pulled into the driveway at my parents’ house, that comforting gravel
crunch under my tires echoing every other mundane time I’d ever arrived
home. My phone restarted and began to buzz. We parked and I turned it
over on the console to find a series of frantic texts.
The details weren’t clear but the message was. My husband, Jake, had been hurt in a bike race and it sounded bad. I don’t remember the exact
messages, but I remember seeing a helicopter mentioned. I was a 4-hour
drive from the site of the accident.
I told my parents and Guy we needed to gather our stuff and get on the
road to D.C. as quickly as possible.
“No, I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but it sounds bad. No, I don’t
know what hospital he’ll be at, but let’s just get going north and we can
figure it out.”
I went into the small bathroom in my parents’ house. I looked in the
mirror and saw fear. I prayed hard, but couldn’t close my eyes. I looked
down and traced the pattern in the familiar black and white tile. I prayed
that God would help us get there safely and protect Jake from whatever
was to come. And also me. I prayed He’d protect me.
I changed clothes and we all jumped back in the car, my dad driving, Guy
in the passenger seat, and my mom in the back seat with me. My daughter,
just turned 2, was with my in-laws in the D.C. area. Jake had been
taking care of her while I was on this trip, but took a last-minute slot on a
charity team to raise money for research in honor of a friend’s cancer
fight. It was a 50-mile race over two days through parts of D.C. and rural
Maryland. Jake was an experienced rider, competitive in college and after,
and neither the distance nor the terrain would have been a deterrent, even
on short notice.
We were about 20 miles north of Durham on I-85, a road I’d traveled
countless times since I’d started a career in Washington, D.C. more than
10 years earlier. It was that career that took me to speak about the
presidential race and new media at Google’s office in Washington in 2008.
One of the other speakers that day, in the audience as I spoke, was Jake –
an activist and technology enthusiast with fighter-pilot looks, a Southern
pedigree, and a decidedly left-of-center ideology.
Apparently, he introduced himself at the post-event dinner. Awash in
good wine and my well-meaning but profligate extroversion, I did not
remember this, nor agreeing breezily to seeing each other sometime.
“Oh, sure, sure, let’s do that!”
I later joked that Jake was not in the habit of being forgotten by women,
and it may have been the only reason we got together. He denied it.
It was not until another year later that we clicked and started dating. In
true Washington fashion, we were asked by a friend to appear on another
panel together because he suspected we would hit it off.
It’s something between an industry joke and a custom – the idea that
political professionals never get married in election years and plan their
pregnancies the same way. We got married in 2011, had a baby in 2013,
and had another on the way in 2015.
We didn’t actually plan it that way, but it looked like we did, which was
something of a theme in our relationship. The adventures, the pictures,
the timing, the blue-eyed baby with the mane of blonde-streaked hair, the
across-the-aisle relationship – they all looked a bit charmed.
It certainly felt that way to me.
And then near Oxford, N.C. on I-85, racing the clock to get back to Jake,
my phone buzzed again on the console and I flipped it over to see an
unknown number. I answered.
A man on the other end introduced himself as a law-enforcement officer.
Just like the helicopter, I knew this was a bad sign.
Between clipped apologies, he informed me of the death of my husband,
Jake Brewer, at 3:41 p.m. in Mt. Airy, Md.
“Okay. Oh. Yes, I understand. Thank you.”
I definitely thanked him. The language he used was calm and detached,
but his tone was that of someone who has been trained to do hard things
properly and is still affected by them. I appreciated that.
I hung up and turned to my dad.
“No need to rush now, Daddy. It’s over. He’s gone.”