Comforting Absurdities

A looming one-year anniversary that no one will celebrate


In my garden, June signals the start of daylily season. There are roughly 55,000 varieties of daylilies, and I would guess I have something like 50 — a tiny percentage, certainly, but still too many for me to keep track of which is which.

This year, as I admire what’s blooming, I can hear the echo of my friend John laughing when he discovered that I had a tag marking each one — not just the name, but a description, too. His direct quote is unprintable, but it translates roughly as, “Jenny, don’t you think that’s a tad over the top?”

I hear that laugh, that deep, radio-ready voice, that standup’s comedic timing, but only in my head.

That’s because on June 28, 2018, John McNamara was murdered in the Capital Gazette newsroom along with four of his colleagues, gunned down by a disgruntled man with legal access to firearms. With that instant evaporated countless everyday moments that we all take for granted, chief among them the simple idea that the ones dearest to us will continue to share our space in the world.

You may have seen the segment WUSA9 produced last month in which John’s wife, Andrea Chamblee, reflects on the brutal realities of the past year. (As Andrea balefully noted, this nightmare started in June, but sweeps month is in May.) In the piece, she describes her version of journaling, which has been to post daily entries on Facebook that she calls the Absurdity of the Day.

Some of them are heartbreaking: One of the first described the refusal of the life insurance company to pay her claim until Andrea was able to prove she was not John’s murderer. Some are heartwarming but still things that would never have happened except for the massacre. I’ll include in that list the photo spread in TIME Magazine’s “Person of the Year” issue in which Andrea, wearing John’s press pass, is pictured with the surviving Capital journalists.

(The staff was recently honored with a special Pulitzer Prize for their extraordinary commitment to journalism; I’m certain none of them are happy to have this be the reason why.)

Soon after Andrea started posting the daily Absurdities, my brother commented that he finds them “oddly comforting.” I feel the same way. We know that none of us are living what Andrea is living — we don’t need to dread going home each day to a perpetually empty house, as just one example — but her posts help us to feel in some small way that we are on this journey with her, and they hold us together in a community.

The Community of John.

It’s possible that, even without John’s murder, Andrea would still have become the fierce, unflinching advocate for gun safety laws that she now is, though she notes that being a widow means she makes non-supportive lawmakers uncomfortable when they are forced to address her and acknowledge her reality.

I know I’ve learned from her advocacy just how deeply unwilling, even in Maryland, this bluest of blue states, lawmakers are to pass sensible gun laws.

But one thing that Andrea would surely not have needed to do if John were still here was to finish writing his book.

At the time of his death, John’s fourth book*, The Capital of Basketball: A History of DC Area High School Hoops, was primarily lacking a single introductory chapter. Andrea was able to write the chapter based on John’s thorough, well-organized notes. After that, she did a full edit.

Then she secured the publisher, Georgetown University Press, and did all the work necessary to prepare the book for delivery, including writing captions for every photograph and following up with legendary coaches Morgan Wootten of DeMatha and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski — Coach K — for their final input and endorsement.

John’s book, a labor of love that he worked on for years now brought to fruition by the love of his life, comes out in November (and is available for pre-order now). Andrea will launch the book at Politics and Prose — the elder statesman of DC indie bookstores — on Sunday, November 3rd. It’s an illustration of the best of Washington: a local author with a local subject, supported by a local publisher and a local bookstore.

And all the local people — plus, I’m betting, a bunch who are no longer local — who love and miss him will be there to show that we are still The Community of John. And we’ll continue this journey together.

*The three others are Cole Classics! Maryland Basketball’s Leading Men and Moments, with David Elfin; University of Maryland Men’s Basketball 2002 National Champions, with Bill Wagner, Keith Cavanaugh, and Michael Ashley; and University of Maryland Football Vault.

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