It’s a little after 5 a.m. on a Saturday morning.
I should be sleeping. In an hour, I should be jolting myself awake, my brain remembering that I need to be at a senior portrait session in an hour, and I have only 15 minutes to make sure I have my camera gear in order and brush my teeth.
But instead, I’m looking at video footage taken of a collision on I-94 from a helicopter earlier the day before. The car is sitting on the side of the road, smashed and caved in.
I’m looking for a few things.
The car’s a 2019 Silver Honda Fit. It’s got a license plate I would recognize anywhere. I’m looking closely to see if I can spot a small hedgehog tree ornament on the dash under the shattered windshield glass.
It’s 5 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 10, and I’m looking at the crash that killed my coworker and my best friend.
It’s then I realize the woman who’s been my relentless cheerleader, my shoulder to cry on and sometimes my workout buddy – when we both had the ambition to get there – is gone.
I feel an aching in my heart that I haven’t ever felt before. I’ve gotten punched in the stomach, only to then immediately get hit in the throat.
And it hurts.
It hurts because the world lost a fantastic, passionate journalist who had just been promoted to her dream job, and was absolutely killing it. It hurts because I will never again hear her excited giggle, nor will I see her pixie cut pop up over my cubicle. It hurts because I have to now write her out of all of my future memories I planned on having with her.
It hurts most of all because I’m the only one left to remember what memories we do have.
I knew Amber for five years of my life, far less than I wanted. A friend I made at our college newspaper The Royal Purple and carried far beyond to Unified Newspaper Group, we shared countless memories, adventures and jokes in that half-decade of friendship.
Amber and I – Kamber, as we called ourselves – seemed like we were always on some sort of adventure. We braved a Trump rally together for the Royal Purple in 2016, crammed into the press booth like sardines, proud that we were the only UW students in the press box. We spent three consecutive years photographing Syttende Mai together, where I introduced her to lefse and we started a tradition of eating Fosdal’s cookies while game-planning coverage.
Last year, when she wanted to don a protective bee suit for a story but was worried about how to take photos in it, I offered to take them for her and stand surrounded by 60,000 bees in a tank top and shorts. I was so on edge that I’d get stung while photographing her having the time of her life, but I’d do it a hundred times over for Amber.
She was one of my biggest cheerleaders, giving me nothing but love and support as I built my photography business, being one of my second shooters multiple times. She drove all the way to Whitewater to watch me present my senior capstone and was more excited over stories I was writing than me.
She was one-third of a group of young female journalists that included myself and our friend Erika. A day never went by where the three of us didn’t talk to one another (often, it was two talking and the third threatening to put the group chat on mute so they would get some work done). For more than three years, the three of us talked about everything and anything you could imagine and served as one another’s support systems through every bump in the road.
Amber helped talk me through some of the hardest times in my life, as I struggled with almost being evicted multiple times from my college apartment due to a roommate who flaked on me, and came to visit my mom and brought her flowers when she was in the hospital.
The love was always there between us, although we made a lot of people question it. We fought like an old married couple, whether it was how we should redo our AP Style guidelines for the paper, or over trite things like Stoughton trivia (which I always won, by the way). Or often, I’d yell at her for coming back into the office with Taco Bell yet again, to which she’d respond with a guilty giggle as she ran back to her desk.
Anyone who watched us interact in the office knew the insults that flew between us came from love, and that we were always laughing and joking about something.
But there was one joke we shared that I never wanted to come true.
Both community reporters, our job was to edit obituaries for AP Style, and to get them laid out on the newspaper page. Sitting across from one another, whenever we’d get a photo where some poor funeral home employee had been tasked with blacking out the background of a photo of a recently deceased person, we’d show it to one another and say, “Wow, that funeral home did them dirty.”
It was one time mid-last year where we promised one another that if one of us died, the other would make sure our obituary photo was decent. No one was going to remember us with a terrible Photoshop job.
It was only meant to be a mildly uncomfortable joke. I never imagined it would be my reality.
Amber Lynn Levenhagen: It was the honor of my life just to be a part of your life. I will carry your memory forward, and do my best to live a life that you would be proud of. I love you, and always will. #livelikeAmber