JAN TEXTS ANDY. It is Saturday. Andy is in Baton Rouge, broadcasting the radio pregame show before Auburn plays LSU. Jan is at home in Auburn. She has a question: Josh, who is 16, has asked for more than the usual allowance of $75 that Jan and Andy give him every two weeks. Jan texts her husband: "What should I say?"
Andy's eyes go wide. He isn't used to texts like this. Jan's Saturday texts are usually things like "Good first quarter" or "How did we not score there?" During a commercial, he calls her.
They discuss the issue, as parents do. Jan thinks they shouldn't give in; learning how to budget is a part of getting older. Andy agrees. They hang up. Even though they're on the same page, Andy still feels unsteady. He sees Kirk Sampson, the longtime communications head for Auburn sports, walking by.
"Kirky!" he says, and Sampson stops. The pregame show goes on behind them as Andy tells Sampson, who has teenage sons, about the situation. "Will you check me on this?" Andy asks. He stares at Sampson intently. Sampson chuckles and says their thinking sounds right to him. Andy goes back on the radio.
At home, Josh pleads his case. He points out the progress he has made on keeping a budget lately. He has a job at a gift shop, but he also has a car now, and things are expensive. "I'm really working hard on this," he says, and Jan sympathizes. She does want to help him. She and Andy want him to be happy. "We know you're working hard," she says, and Josh brightens. Maybe there is a sliver of light here. But then Jan touches his arm and shakes her head. "We're very proud of you for that," she says. "Keep it up."
Josh realizes he has no chance. He goes to his room. Jan exhales and texts Andy. Andy exhales and gets ready to broadcast a football game. On this day, they've done what mothers and fathers do all the time: A child presented them with a choice. They talked about it. They made a decision. They followed through. It was, by almost any measure, a fairly ordinary act of parenting. Except for this: Josh is not their son.
THIS IS A story about a terrible accident and the unfairness of life and the ineffable compassion of friends and that spindly, ever-spreading spider web of emotion that we all bring to our own interpretations of family. But first, let's back up.
Andy Burcham meets Jan Gunnels through a Christian dating website in 2003. Both are in their 40s. Jan knows who Andy is because she has heard him on the radio. She likes Andy's kind eyes and thoughtfulness and the fact that he giggles at her jokes. Jan has a doctorate in education from Auburn, and Andy is smitten with her wit and smarts. He teases that he might walk out on their dinner after she reveals she likes mayonnaise on her hamburgers. They laugh a lot. One date becomes two becomes 10.
Andy proposes on Oct. 2, 2003, a Thursday. That night, he hosts "Tiger Talk," the weekly football radio show. The regular host, Rod Bramblett, is off. Rod and his wife, Paula, are at the hospital. Paula has just given birth to their second child. The baby boy is beautiful. Rod and Paula name him Josh.
Andy and Rod are best friends. Rod is the lead radio voice of Auburn sports. He does play-by-play for football and men's basketball. His most famous calls, like the "Kick Six" or his frantic "A miracle in Jordan-Hare! A miracle in Jordan-Hare!" play on loops in grocery stores and at gas stations all over town. Fans holler "Touchdown, Auburn!" when they see him in restaurants or in his car.
Andy is a sideline reporter during football season and calls women's basketball. He and Rod do play-by-play of Auburn baseball together, riding in vans to games all over the Southeastern Conference. They like listening to satellite radio. Over two decades, no matter the genre, Rod is virtually undefeated when it comes to playing "Name That Tune." When the broadcast crew eats out, Rod will sometimes secretly tell the waiter to ask Andy if he wants mayonnaise on his burger. He cackles when Andy is appalled.
Paula and Jan become close too. They cook for each other when Rod and Andy are on road trips. They joke about how Rod and Andy spend more time in hotel rooms with each other than with their wives. Several times a month, the two couples get together for dinner, especially on Friday nights before football home games. Rod and Paula talk about how Josh is doing in school or how their daughter, Shelby, is doing in basketball. Andy and Jan, who do not have kids, talk about their dogs and their travels and what it's like to be the fun aunt and uncle. Everyone talks about football.
One Friday in the fall of 2018, the four are eating at Venditori's, an Italian restaurant in Auburn. This is one of their regular spots. Rod loves the fried cheese, and Andy likes the sausage Parmesan. All four adore the bread balls soaked in melted butter and garlic. After the entrees are cleared, Rod looks across the table. "We have an important question," he says. "We would like for you to be the guardians of our children if something should happen to us."
Andy and Jan glance at each other. "Can we have a few days to think about this?" Andy says after a long moment, even though he and Jan already know the answer. Dessert is served. The next week in the office, Andy tells Rod that he and Jan would be honored to accept the responsibility. Then they go back to talking about Auburn's next game.
Months go by. In May 2019, just before the SEC baseball tournament, Rod asks Andy for his and Jan's official names; he and Paula are finally getting around to the paperwork. Over dinner that same week, Rod and Paula mention to Josh and Shelby that they asked the Burchams to be guardians. It is a heavy subject, but Rod and Paula present it lightly. They joke that by doing it this way, Shelby will never have to spend any of her own money on her brother. Josh nods. Shelby eats her french fries. Everyone chuckles. The conversation moves on.
A FEW DAYS later, on May 25, 2019, Andy and Jan are at their niece's high school graduation party in Huntsville, more than three hours from Auburn. The party is at a bowling alley. Andy is the kind of bowler who is ecstatic to break 100, but he is having fun. The mood is bright.
His phone rings. It's a friend who is a police officer in Auburn. "Andy, I need to tell you something. There's been a wreck, an accident. It's very serious, and it involves Rod and Paula."
Andy shivers. His throat catches. He croaks, "How serious?" and hears his friend hesitate. "It's very serious."
Jan and Andy leave the bowling alley. They rush to Jan's mother's place, where they've been staying, so they can get their bags. Before they even get back to the car, the phone rings again: Paula is dead. Rod is in critical condition and being airlifted to a hospital in Birmingham.
Andy reels. Jan sits on a bench and calls Shelby. She is 20 now, in North Carolina with friends. When Shelby gets on the phone, Jan says, as gently as she can, "Your mother didn't make it." She tells Shelby that the accident was severe and that the doctors think Paula wasn't conscious after impact. They believe she didn't suffer. Jan's words are swallowed up by Shelby's sobbing.
Andy and Jan begin driving. The highway churns by in a haze of streetlights and brake lights. One hundred miles later, they pull off in Birmingham. They park on the street and speed-walk to the entrance of the hospital. Chris Davis, head of Auburn's radio network, is there. So is Chad Prewett, an assistant basketball coach who happened to be in Birmingham for a wedding and ran over once he heard the news.
They all go into one of the hospital's consultation rooms, small and sterile. They wait. Eventually, the trauma surgeon comes in. He is direct: Rod is dead. Andy bursts into tears.
Jan calls Shelby again. "Where are you? Are you driving?" she asks, worried that Shelby might be behind the wheel. Shelby says her friend is driving, and Jan chokes up. How do you do this once, let alone twice? She tells Shelby that her father did not make it either. She doesn't know what else to say, so she sits on the phone with Shelby and listens to her weep.
In the room at the hospital, Chris and Chad and Andy look at one another. They talk in half sentences and unformed thoughts. The disbelief comes out in sputters. Should we call ...? What about ...? How do we ...?
At one point, Andy raises his head. His eyes are wet. His face is drooped. He opens his mouth and finally speaks out loud what has been pounding in his head ever since the policeman called him at the bowling alley. "You know," he says, "they asked us to be the guardians."
THE FAUCET IS open, and the days rush by. Josh and Shelby stay at Rod's mother's home. There are lawyers to see. Arrangements to make. Conversations to have. Friends send food that piles up on tables and counters. One day, Josh asks if Andy and Jan are planning to move their stuff into his family's house. Andy and Jan stammer. Then they explain that Josh will be moving into their house.
There is a memorial service on campus. Andy gives a eulogy. He talks about the joy Rod and Paula found in each other. He talks about how Rod said he never thought it was possible to love someone as much as he loved Shelby until Josh was born. He tells a funny story about the one time Rod ever got mad at Paula. She bought expensive Bon Jovi tickets on the sly and then, to top it off, didn't even invite Rod to the concert. Paula adored Bon Jovi.
Andy says the road trips he took with Rod rivaled the games themselves. He names their old haunts littered all over the South: Herman's and the Old Hickory Steakhouse and Blue Marlin and the Hullabaloo Diner and Ballyhoo. He dabs his face with a tissue. Then he confesses that his one regret is that he never told Rod he loved him. "I never uttered those words," he says, just above a whisper. He begs those in the crowd not to make the same mistake.
Chris Davis helps Josh and Shelby clean out Rod's office. They find a Lego Batmobile that Rod and Josh built together. They find a piece of paper that says: "To Shelby: War Eagle! Cam Newton." They find a page of basic Italian words and phrases that Rod scratched out; he and Paula had planned a summertime European vacation.
An internet GoFundMe campaign designed to collect donations for Josh's and Shelby's futures raises more than $300,000. Everywhere they go, Andy and Jan and Josh and Shelby see people looking at them. Pursing their lips. Offering a kind word under their breath. Some people call them heroes or saints, and they are that, all four of them. Their strength is mind-boggling. But it also isn't easy. There is no manual for how to put shattered worlds back together, and as Jan, an associate dean for education at Columbus State, says to friends, "This isn't a Lifetime movie." She doesn't mean it coldly, not even a little. She just knows the truth: In real life, we don't live out only the epic parts of our good deeds. We live the get-by of it all. The little stuff. The marrow.
It's things like groceries. Andy can eat Grape-Nuts all day long, but Josh likes Frosted Flakes with marshmallows. He has a favorite soap. And snacks. And sweets. And fruit. Suddenly, everything is a quiz. Laundry piles up in ways never seen before in the Burcham house. Jan answers the phone, and it's the school. Driver's education is starting tomorrow, a voice says, and there will be crash videos shown to the students. Will Josh be OK? Jan has no idea.
Life has become like searching for the light switch in a dark room. Progress is relative. A few weeks after Josh moves in, he is sitting on the couch while Jan cooks dinner. From the stove, Jan asks Josh how his day has gone, how he is feeling. She hears him say, "I feel ... safe here," and her hands tighten on the spoon. Her pulse races.
Another day, Josh calls to tell Jan that he has a project he needs to do that night. "Do we have a glue gun in our house?" he asks, and Jan freezes again. Our house. She glows. Things are going well. Then Josh and Jan have a few tense words at a restaurant while Andy is doing the "Tiger Talk" broadcast, and several friends come up to ask Jan if Josh is "doing OK." She feels confused and self-conscious. Emotions rise and fall and rise again.
Then there is Shelby. She is over 18 and, officially, an adult. She is a junior at Auburn and lives in an apartment with friends. But Andy and Jan want to include her. They want her to feel as if she is a part of everything, if she wants to be. When Andy is named as Rod's replacement in July, becoming the new voice of Auburn sports, Shelby comes to the news conference. She wants to be supportive too.
Yet she is also racked by guilt. Jan takes her to lunch one afternoon. Shelby tells Jan how she knows that, given a choice, Josh would want Shelby to be his guardian, not the Burchams. If Shelby had said that to the lawyers, she says, it might have happened.
She has tried to make peace with it, but it is hard. "How could I be his mother and his sister?" she says. She knows it is impossible. Jan squeezes her hand. Shelby tells Jan that she has thought about it a lot, and she feels certain in her heart that they made the right choice. Josh's parents are already gone, she says. His sister can't be.
That night before bed, Jan tells Andy about her conversation with Shelby because these are the things they talk about now. They used to riff on where they might go on their next vacation or a TV show or an upcoming game that is months down the line. Now they shrink their focus. It is the only way they can sleep.
"You know, Shelby is going to get married someday, right?" Andy says from his side of the bed one evening before Halloween. He looks worried. His mind is racing. Jan cuts him off. "Put it away," she says. "We don't have to deal with it now."
Andy nods. "What about Christmas? What are we going to do for Christmas?" he asks, but even that is too far away. Jan is firm. "Put it away," she says. "We don't have to deal with it right now."
ANDY IS ANXIOUS about being the voice of Auburn. It is the kind of job he wanted his whole life, but its arrival is coated in pain. Everything feels new. For years, Andy drove home after games with Rod, and they would listen to Rod's calls being played on the postgame show. Now he hears himself and drives alone. For the first few weeks, Paul Ellen, who does scoreboard updates during the games, had to catch himself from saying, "That's your update, Rod!" as he threw it back to Andy. When Andy screams "Touchdown, Auburn!" his call is charged and boundless, but it is also higher-pitched than Rod's and a bit more staccato.
There are new responsibilities for Andy as well: dinners with sponsors and hosting events and recording commercials or interviews. He is recognized more. He is asked to do more. It is a whirlwind, but in some ways it feels simple compared with the bigger changes at home.
Josh likes writing. He likes vintage sweaters. He likes music and antiques. He likes Polaroid cameras and Converse sneakers and the sleek metal typewriter he has in his room, which used to be a guest room. Josh calls New York "the city" and the area around western Paris "the 92," because that is what the friends he met on Instagram who live there call it. He wants to live in France someday.
Sports are not a big part of his life. And this is different for Andy and Jan, who know they have to adapt. They are past the caretaker stage now, past simply giving Josh a bed and a roof to sleep under and food to eat. They want to go beyond just providing him a space. It is what they promised after the dinner at Venditori's.
Some of it is simply filling a void. Josh loved going to breakfast with Rod, so Andy offers once or twice a week. He and Josh go to Waffle House or Chick-fil-A for biscuits before school and sit in the parking lot. There isn't much conversation, and that's fine; Andy just wants the time. The presence. The comfort.
Josh is thoughtful and introspective. He is cautious. He is also a teenager with a wicked sense of humor. One day, he tells Jan that he wants to get a Jesus doll for the dashboard of his car. Jan smiles and says, "OK, but if you get a dashboard Jesus, you also have to come to church with us." Josh deliberates. Then he says, with sweetness, "Maybe I'll get some fuzzy dice instead."
The breakthroughs come when Andy and Jan least expect it. On a drive home from Cracker Barrel a few weeks ago, Josh suddenly asks if Andy and Jan would like to hear some of his writing. They can't say yes fast enough.
Jan is driving. Andy is in the passenger seat. Josh is in the back. He reads a poem he has saved on his phone. It is about his mother. His voice is tender.
the black canary's song was never so sweet
as your eyes and your embrace.
your voice was like chocolate melting slowly in
as the music plays the curtain draws,
i wonder who decided your fate.
was it me? Or was it just the hymn of the canary,
just singing away.
There is a beat of silence when Josh finishes. Andy and Jan marvel at what they have heard. Then Andy says, "Josh, what was your inspiration when you wrote that?" and Josh thinks for a second.
Finally, he says, "It's just how I was feeling that day."
SHELBY TURNS 21 on Nov. 5. It should be a joyous day, but Nov. 5 was also Rod's birthday, so the emotions are complicated. During the day, orange and blue flowers are placed at Rod's grave. At night, Shelby and Josh and Andy and Jan and Rod's mother go to dinner at a Japanese steakhouse. They watch the fire show and the flashing knives and the flipping shrimp. Everyone sings to Shelby, and she smiles.
Normal is elusive. There are fits and starts. Some things make sense, others don't. A vacation for the four of them to New York is terrific. Discussions about whether Josh should put a location-tracking app on his phone for Andy and Jan are less idyllic. The Brambletts' Shih Tzu poodle, Cooper, gets along just fine with the Burchams' rescue beagle, Taylor. Shelby still calls Jan "Miss Jan" and Andy "Mr. Andy" because that is what she always called them before. It would be strange for her to change.
As a foursome, they are walking right next to one another but still figuring out just the right way to hold hands. Jan will sometimes say to people who ask her about the situation that "we're not a family yet," and she says it that way because she doesn't want to be presumptuous. She doesn't want to assume that's what Josh or Shelby needs or wants. She doesn't want to assume that Josh will want Andy and her in his life after he turns 18. She and Andy don't want to act as if they are simply understudies who were called in to lead.
They can only do what comes naturally to them, big or small. At restaurants, Rod used to order for the table. Now, when the server comes, Andy and Jan say, "Josh, tell him what you'd like." When Josh leaves in the morning, Andy says, "Have a good day, Josh. I love you." He says it more than he ever has, and it doesn't matter whether Josh says it back. Andy says it because he knows it is good for Josh to hear it.
No one talks much about the accident. The police arrested a local teenager, and he has been charged with two counts of manslaughter. Going nearly 90 mph, he plowed into the back of the Brambletts' car while it was stopped at a red light. The youth says he fell asleep at the wheel. Toxicology reports found marijuana in his system. Josh and Shelby don't care much about what happens with the case, although Shelby doesn't like when she hears news reporters talk about how "three lives were ruined that day." She laughs at the idea that it was only three.
All she wants is what Josh and Andy and Jan want as well: to look forward together, even if everything around them has a hint of the past. So the steps come slowly.
One recent afternoon, Jan gets a call from the district attorney. The teenager who crashed into the Brambletts has been charged as an adult. His lawyers are petitioning for him to be sentenced as a minor. The difference is massive, the attorney explains to Jan. As a minor, he might get three years in prison; as an adult, he would be facing more than 20. The attorney wants to know what Josh and Shelby think.
Jan brings it up to Josh. She is nervous about what he will feel, what he will say. But Josh doesn't lash out. He doesn't run from it. He doesn't brood.
He says, very simply, that he believes there should be real consequences for the teen's actions. And then he says, "Someday, I'm going to have children, and my kids will never know their grandparents. They'll never know them."
Josh pauses. "But they'll have y'all," he says to Jan. "They'll know you."