Amber and Kimberly

From left, Unified Newspaper Group reporters Amber Levenhagen and Kimberly Wethal take a selfie while photographing a friend's wedding in November 2016. The two became best friends while working at the Royal Purple, the student-run newspaper at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and later became coworkers at UNG. Levenhagen died as a result of her injuries sustained in a car accident on Aug. 9, 2019, but saved the lives of many others through her gift of organ donation.

I subscribe to the idea that as we get older, we don’t lose who we once were, but rather become new versions of ourselves.

I’m no longer a 5 year old kindergartener, a fairly awkward high school kid or a college student trying to figure out the world, but all of those versions of me have shaped me into who I am. I look back fondly on those memories, but I don’t long to have those days back or be that person I once was again.

There’s one version of me, from a year ago, that remains an exception.

In a different timeline, the morning of Aug. 9, 2019, would have been unrecallable, like any other day. But I remember that day and the tragedy that would change my life vividly.

I distinctly remember sitting in the Fitchburg Starbucks for hours before an interview at City Hall. I wrote stories, edited photos and interviewed a farmer about his hemp enterprise.

That day, I had published an enterprise story that I had labored over for more than a week. I ordered the new camera I’d been salivating over, and I accidentally let an interview run too long.

I clearly remember that I was happy – at least in comparison to what I soon would be feeling. I was naive to the fact that my world was about to crumble.

Just before 5 p.m. that day, while heading north to a photo session, I got the call: My best friend and coworker Amber Levenhagen had been in a car accident. She was in the hospital and wasn’t awake, but alive. We knew nothing else.

The words from my coworker Emilie are just as clear in my mind now as they were then, as she tried to reassure me: “She’s not dead, just unconscious.”

A new version of me was born in that second, when I felt the life energy drain from my body, down out of my abdomen, while sitting at a stoplight.

The rest of my drive, I tried to mentally rearrange my life: When could I go see her this weekend? She would obviously need to recover and probably undergo some physical therapy, and that meant time off from work, so where could I pick up her stories?

Another new version of me was created when I got the call around 7:30 p.m. that night from our assistant editor, Scott, on his birthday, no less. He said things weren’t looking good and I shouldn’t plan on going to see her. And yet another new version that came at 11:30 p.m. that night, as I collapsed in the doorway of the bathroom in my boyfriend’s apartment when I was told that she still had a heartbeat, but her brain showed no activity.

Amber was gone.

Those were the most painful versions of myself that I’ve had to live through.

As I look back to August, September, early October, another version of me tried to fake my way through the stages of grief. When the grief counselor was brought into the UNG office, I sat there straight-faced and didn’t shed a tear. I felt I was strong; the counselor knew it was the exact opposite.

In faking it, I told myself it was time to grow up. To stop crying in the car every time I passed her old apartment complex while driving the Beltline. To give a funny eulogy at her funeral, rather than one that was going to make people even sadder.

I spoke about her pretty much only in present tense, as if she was still here.

It wasn’t until I was informed that whether I liked it or not, I would be required to take off work on Wednesday mornings and go to Agrace’s group grief counseling that I saw what was really happening.

Early on during one of those sessions, something that a grief counselor said in passing, to comfort another group member struck me: “You’re going to need to learn who you are without your loved one.”

For months, I had refused to move on without Amber because that felt like permanently losing her all over again. But in that moment came a new version of me: I didn’t need to learn who I was without her, but instead, I needed to find who I could be while carrying her with me.

Amber, in our five years of friendship, gave me so many things.

She was a dedicated listener and validated my feelings, even if she didn’t agree with my decisions. I came to her for advice first. I could always count on her to put her life on hold if I wanted to go drink wine at 3 p.m. on a Thursday at the Union Terrace or meet me at a coffee shop to “get work done.” (We never did.)

Amber showed me the meaning of being passionate – in one’s convictions, beliefs and work.

So as I’ve started to heal, I’m starting to look to her for where I can emulate her.

I want to be a better listener and a supportive friend. I want to be passionate for a cause and fight for what’s right, like she would.

There will continue to be new versions of me as I go through my life – versions of me where I will be heartbroken again, where I’ll have a reason to celebrate or be tackling a journey in life.

But now, all of those future versions of me will have something in common.

Deep inside my own soul, there will be a flame burning bright, and it’ll be me doing my best to keep hers alive and tell her story.

Kimberly Wethal was lucky enough to be one of Amber Levenhagen’s best friends for five years starting in college, and carrying into their time at Unified Newspaper Group, where it was the two of them against the world.