Zack Blue never asked any questions when his mother Michele called him in the early morning of Oct. 11. Michele’s quivering voice said enough. Something was wrong.
Michele wanted desperately to tell her son why she was crying. But as hard as she tried, words failed. Instead, she asked Zack to come home immediately.
Zack, Trey Nelson and Nelson’s brother Chase started the morning by shooting the basketball around inside Patriot High School’s gym that Friday before school.
When Michele called, Zack and Chase were on their way back to Patriot from Dunkin’.
After he hung up with his mother, Zack wondered if something happened to his 94-year-old great-grandmother Lee in North Carolina? It was possible. Over the summer, Lee was told she had two weeks to two months to live.
Following the sudden change in plans, Zack dropped Chase off at Patriot and drove the 10 minutes to his Bristow home, where at least two police cars were parked out front.
Zack walked inside to meet his parents, still uncertain why he was here. In the kitchen, Michele and her husband Wes struggled to explain the police presence so Zack turned to one of the officers for clarity.
The officer dutifully informed Zack his 13-year-old sister Ashley had died from an epileptic seizure. Attempting to process the awful but irrefutable news, Zack leaned into a couch before eventually making his way over to a corner of the dining room where he sat for a couple of hours lost in thought.
He and his girlfriend Hannah Nugent were scheduled to participate in that night’s festivities as the homecoming king and queen. But Zack wasn’t going anywhere.
“Everything was kind of a blur that day,” Zack said.
No one expected Zack to participate the next day in Patriot’s fall league boys basketball game either. In fact, head coach Sherman Rivers told his team he planned to cancel the game.
Zack, however, wanted to play. In the middle of this turmoil, he needed an outlet to ease his pain. And his favorite sport provided the necessary escape. He had a choice.
Stay home and grieve. Or compete and begin the healing process even if it only kept the emptiness at bay for the length of a two-hour or so game.
The choice was easy.
Separated by three years and three months, Zack and Ashley had a typical big brother-little sister relationship. They got on each other’s nerves and found ways to poke each other with an occasional push.
They were also quiet unless they knew you well. Then you’d see a sillier, goofier side.
Of the two, Ashley was more open with her feelings. She was the one who’d draw a picture for you on your birthday. Or in Zack’s case, scratch his back while the two of them watched a movie or TV together.
Zack kept his emotions more in check. But don’t be fooled. Underneath his reserved demeanor lay a competitive streak in which he found subtle ways to let you know he held the upper hand. It could be a sly smile after he won yet another sprint by a wide margin in conditioning drills. Or it could an under-his-breath remark after blocking an opponent’s shot.
Ashley was no wallflower either. If she beat you in H-O-R-S-E or her favorite board game Sorry, you’d hear about it for days.
Athletics connected the two. No surprise given the household they grew up in. Michele and Wes played volleyball and basketball at Osbourn Park High School and Michele returned to her alma mater to coach volleyball and swimming. In five seasons as head coach, she led the Yellow Jackets to three district volleyball titles and two state tournament appearances.
Their kids added to the family legacy.
Ashley proudly let people know she was a three-year member of Gainesville Middle School’s varsity volleyball team. She also competed in softball and basketball growing up, while Zack played basketball and soccer.
The highlight of all, though, was Ashley’s perseverance even when epilepsy started to interfere with her activities in the seventh grade.
She suffered her first seizure right before turning three and until middle school, most of her seizures occurred at night. After undergoing a number of tests and four brain surgeries, no one knew the seizures’ cause. The only remedy was taking medication to control them.
But once the seizures started occurring during the day and sometimes at middle school volleyball practice, Ashley stopped competing at Gainesville. It was the winter of her seventh grade year.
Though not playing at Gainesville, she remained active on local rec basketball and softball teams and continued with her club volleyball team. The only difference was that Michele and Wes had to monitor her more closely. Instead of dropping her off to run to the store, they stayed in case Ashley had a seizure.
In late spring, Ashley switched medications to decrease the number of seizures. It seemed to work.
“We thought we were on the right track,” Michele said.
The Blues had a baby monitor in their bedroom to keep an ear out if they heard Ashley in distress during the night. But it was impossible to receive any warning for what she ultimately died of: sudden unexpected death in epilepsy. Wes found Ashley unresponsive after going into her bedroom at 7 a.m. to wake her up for school. Fifteen minutes later, Michele called her oldest child to return home.
SUDEP is a rare occurrence with just over one in 1,000 people with epilepsy dying from the affliction each year. It’s so rare Michele had never heard of it until 20-year-old actor Cameron Boyce died from it July 6.
Michele said the results of Ashley’s autopsy found fluid in her lungs, something that is in 75 percent of people killed by SUDEP. As baffling as it was, there was nothing else to point to as the cause.
“She was so low on the risk factor,” Michele said. “It’s so crazy and awful.”
Zack handled Ashley’s condition like he did most things: He stepped in when needed. While sharing a room while they were little, Zack always knew to yell downstairs to let Wes and Michele know Ashley was having another seizure.
He brought his sister milkshakes after episodes and, trained in first aid, stayed with her as he got older if their parents needed to run out. Now he was at a loss.
Zack stayed home for a week after Ashley died, but he was not alone. His coach, teammates and friends surrounded him with non-stop support.
After learning of Ashley’s death from Patriot principal Michael Bishop, Rivers left Patriot and went straight to Zack’s house.
Rivers had never dealt with this type of situation directly in his nine-year career as a head coach or an assistant. But he knew to keep the conversation light. He asked Zack about his pet guinea pig named Jamal. Zack and Hannah planned on picking up a male from the litter. But when they arrived, there were only female guinea pigs. They stuck with the original name.
Rivers and Zack also talked about Zack’s favorite team, the Los Angeles Lakers.
“I tried to be as normal as possible,” Rivers said.
Nelson took the same approach.
Nelson knew something was up with Zack after Zack dropped Chase back at Patriot following the run to Dunkin’.
But Nelson didn’t know specifics until Rivers held a meeting after school and told the team of Ashley’s passing. Nelson, who will start alongside Zack this season in Patriot’s backcourt, raced over to see his friend. At the time, Zack was downstairs in the basement watching a movie with Hannah. Nelson gave Zack a hug and told him how sorry he was. He and his family got a card and the entire team and coaching staff signed it.
When Zack returned to school, no one brought up Ashley’s death unless he wanted to talk about it.
Zack still keeps to himself, but he constantly thinks of his sister. He’ll sometimes watch Nickelodeon, Ashley’s favorite TV network.
Her image is the wallpaper on his phone and he wears a bracelet that advocates for SUDEP awareness, something Patriot will honor when it hosts Osbourn Park Jan. 14.
Ashley would have turned 14 Nov. 23. To celebrate her life, the Blues and their extended family played volleyball that day, including Michele’s 69-year-old father with his two knee replacements.
The next day, the family attended the Philadelphia Eagles’ home game against Seattle after friends gave them field passes. To honor Ashley’s beloved Eagles, the Blues brought to the game her Nick Foles jersey from the 2018 Super Bowl championship season.
“It was good, but also very hard,” Michele said. “It was the first of many firsts without her.”
Since his sister’s death, basketball has provided Zack with a healthy distraction.
“The biggest thing for him was he couldn’t wait for the season to start and take his mind off it,” Rivers said.
There’s plenty to keep Zack’s attention.
After biding his time the last two seasons as a reserve, Zack is the Pioneers’ go-to person for a team in need of experience. Patriot lost all its starters from last season’s 23-3 squad that set a school-record for wins and reached states for the first time in the program’s history.
The 6-foot-1 senior guard is Patriot’s best defender and shooter. He’s tough enough to battle under the basket for rebounds and agile enough to create space for an outside shot.
Zack admits some days are longer than others. His mind drifts during school without any prompting. He’s still unsure what to say and feel at times. And the Blues’ house is much quieter with Ashley gone.
But then Zack heads to the basketball court and all is well. He’ll utter a sarcastic comment like ‘nice shot’ after Trey Nelson shoots an air ball. Or he’ll win another sprint and makes sure everyone notices without attracting too much fanfare.
Patriot opens its regular season tonight against Woodbridge and no one’s looking forward to tip-off more than Zack. He will of course play with a heavy heart. There’s no defined timetable for grieving a loss. And this moment doesn’t replace the loss of Ashley. It doesn’t come close. But it fills a hole however temporary.
For now that’s enough.
“I’m ready,” Zack said.