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A year in the life of a Capital Gazette shooting widow

Andrea Chamblee was married for 33 years to John McNamara. Until the day she took on a label she never wanted: another mass-shooting trauma survivor, trying to make sense of the senselessness amid an empty home.

Mike Wise

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In March, when she got back from Havana, Andrea Chamblee figured it was time to have a talk with her husband.

She pulled into the carport in the Subaru Forrester, the one they bought in 2003. She leaned over the gear shift, into the passenger seat. She began to speak.

“Did you like Cuba, John?” Andrea asked. “Are you proud of me? Am I doing the things you want me to do?”

No answer. 

The only sound came from the car speakers: "I'll be seeing you in all the old places."  

Damn. John's sister sang that song. At the memorial. Andrea began to weep.

She walked inside, dumped her swimsuits and vacation clothes in the washer at the back of a cluttered basement, where their bikes still sit beside one another seat-side down.

Andrea microwaved a hot pocket, laptop at her side.

She journaled on Facebook. By 11 p.m., she turned off the television, lights and walked upstairs. 

It’s been 10 months, but she still gets in on the left side. Her side, so she doesn’t disturb his gray house slippers, which remain as they did on June 28, 2018, the morning John McNamara left for his job at Annapolis’s Capital Gazette newspaper. 

"He's not really a bathrobe and slippers guy, but I didn’t know what to get him one birthday – and I got him the slippers and he said he really liked them," Andrea said. "So, you know, they’re there when he comes back."

She is certain she's seen him in ghostly form. Mental-health professionals call this "defensive delusion," comforting the mind to believe someone is alive when someone is dead. Either way, coping with the reality your life partner of 33 years is never coming home burrows deep into the hole, forcing Andrea to ask John the most difficult question of all:

“Why didn’t you listen to me? Why didn’t you work from home that day?”

Why did he have to die and send her spiraling into what felt like her own afterlife -- a hellish world of multiple 75-mile round trips to Annapolis and back, where she tells her story and hopes beyond hope of moving Maryland lawmakers to do something about gun violence besides sending her form letters of recognition and achievement, as if living after your husband is killed is something she wanted to accomplish?

Why does her last love letter to John have to be 312 pages, a posthumous book about D.C. basketball she's finished and found a publisher for -- on top of her regular full-time job as a government lawyer? Why couldn't John have written his own last chapter?

Damn, she keeps thinking. This is what all those other spouses that lost the love of their lives felt. This is the hollowed-out feeling coming home and poking your head in an empty office den, where the urn of your husband's remains sits next to a press-row portrait of him, on the happiest night of his sports writing career, atop a bookcase.

This is what it feels like to try and continue to make your life meaningful after all the meaning is gone, how to search for specks of old joy in a junkyard of sorrow and, really, how to hold two things that don't belong together inside yourself and make a whole person again.

Some days Andrea can't do it; the grief is still too much. And the one-year anniversary since it it all happened is but a month away.

Credit: Andrea Chamblee
A photo of Andrea Chamblee and her late husband, John, who died in the shooting at the Capital Gazette last year.