NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A knock on the door woke Nashville Mayor Megan Barry and her husband, Bruce, out of a sound sleep about 3 a.m. When the mayor saw police at her door, she knew it must be bad news — maybe an officer was shot, and she was needed at the hospital to comfort a grieving family.
Instead, what the officer revealed just wouldn’t register: Her 22-year-old son, Max, was dead.
“He had to repeat it several times, because that was not what my brain could hear,” Barry said, her voice cracking, during a news conference Monday.
Barry returned to work Monday for the first time since her son died of an apparent drug overdose July 29.
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It marked the start of a “new normal” for the grieving mayor — she won’t ever hear his voice or get his text messages again.
But even as she mourns her only child, Barry also knows she can be an important voice in drug abuse awareness and the opioid epidemic.
Max Barry’s death comes amid nationwide concern about a rise in fatal drug overdoses. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports overdose deaths from all drugs that the government tracks rose from roughly 23,000 in 2002 to more than 50,000 in 2015.
In Tennessee, state health officials report 1,451 people died from drug overdoses in 2015 — the highest annual number of overdose deaths recorded in state history.
The mayor kept her composure as she went through the day’s duties Monday.
In an elementary school classroom she smiled wide and didn’t skimp on hugs as she delivered backpacks to students on their first day of classes.
She showed enthusiasm as she thanked the community for an outpouring of support for her son during the news conference that followed.
At times, though, she couldn’t hold back tears.
“Max will continue to inspire me and Bruce for the rest of our lives,” she said, starting to cry. “Our hearts will always be sad and empty because we can never replace our child. But I know that with my faith and I know that with my family, and I know that with my friends, we will get through this.”
The Barrys still don’t know what drug or drugs killed their son, as they await toxicology results. The mayor said Max had completed a month of rehab last summer. She didn’t specify what substances he went to rehab for.
“Max came home last summer to visit, and it was clear to me the minute that he got off the plane that he was in distress,” the mayor said. “And so we got him into rehab immediately.”
Afterward, he graduated from the University of Puget Sound — “almost on time,” she said. For the last few weeks, he poured concrete for a construction company in Denver and was looking for an apartment out there with friends. Eventually, he wanted to return to Nashville, Barry said.
Max Barry died at a private home in Jefferson County, Colorado, near Denver. One of two other people in the home called 911, saying his friend was incoherent. First responders couldn’t revive him, Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Jenny Fulton said. His parents found out early the following morning.
Hours later, the Barrys announced their son’s death. They invited the public and the media to his memorial ceremony last week, and have been open about his overdose.
At the service, Bruce Barry donned the kind of backward baseball cap his son would wear and drew laughter and tears with his stories about the young man he called warm, sensitive, tolerant and inquisitive. What happened in Denver tells the story of his death, not his life, Bruce Barry said.
“My hope is that it may inspire, encourage other parents out there to have frank conversations with their own children about this,” the mayor said. “And if that saves one life, then what a blessing.”
Just before her son’s death, the mayor had visited the mother of 15-year-old Jaezoine Woods, who was shot and killed in late July. Barry told the heartbroken mother that she didn’t know her pain, but was there for her.
After Max Barry died, the mayor called Jaezoine’s mother back.
“I reached back out to her and told her, ‘Actually, now I do know your pain,’ ” Megan Barry said. “That was very sweet of her to send out her love and prayers to us.”