On a gloomy December day, more than four months after everything changed forever, Steve is standing on a puncheon at Patuxent River State Park in Brookeville—the one Jake designed for his Eagle Scout project. To honor him, his fellow Scouts finished it after he died.
Rain mixes with the tears that fall from his face toward his neck, around which hangs the cross his son once wore. It’s now his most treasured possession. “I can’t be here without feeling heartbreak that Jake didn’t get to see this through. It hurts to your bone marrow. It’s truly intolerable,” he says. “This is a place where I can come and reflect. We didn’t bury Jake, so there’s not a grave that we can visit. It’s become the site of the accident where a makeshift memorial was set up, it’s here, and it’s his bedroom.”
A cross with “Jake” painted across the front, flowers and other small keepsakes near the site of the accident disappeared on Sept. 18, but a new cross, made by a Churchill football player, and a “ghost bike”—a bicycle painted white that is placed by a nonprofit near the site of a fatal accident involving a cyclist—remain there. Steve drives past it nearly every day on his way to the real estate development firm where he works as chief operating officer.
Steve and Jennifer, a graphic designer, haven’t disturbed Jake’s room since the accident. The shorts their son changed out of before heading to the YMCA pool that day remain on his partially made bed. A drawing of the sun he made is taped to a blue wall. A model Southwest Airlines plane—Jake loved transit and dreamed of becoming a train conductor or flight attendant—sits on his dresser. A copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the pages warped from hours near the hot tub, rests on his desk.
Every night, Steve would pray with Jake in that room. Now it’s a place of grieving for him and Jennifer. “He had this constant joy and buoyancy—he made life fun,” Steve says. “We had this incredible gift, and now we have to figure out how to live without it.”
At Churchill, Jake’s old Bulldog costume still hangs in Heckert’s closet. She can’t bear to throw it out. Last fall, Diego Garzon volunteered to play the role of mascot as a way of honoring his friend. In October, he was dressed in the new costume during a fun run at Seven Locks Elementary School in Potomac when a little girl approached him.
“She said, ‘Jake, I missed you, it’s been a year,’ and she hugged me,” Garzon recalls. “I just stood there. What do you do or say in that situation? So I hugged her back and she grabbed my hand and we ran together.”
Garzon is one of three students who proudly wear the new costume—the smiling one—which now has an official name: Jake the Bulldog.
Mike Unger is a writer and editor who grew up in Montgomery County and lives in Baltimore.