If we learned anything from 2020, it’s that political matters can really cause a person to shy away from ‘policy talk’ or risk potentially polarizing a conversation. Refreshingly, that is not the case when having a conversation with former Nashville Mayor Megan Barry. The person on the other end of the zoom call or in the glam chair at a photoshoot is warm. She’s someone you can unwind with over a glass of wine and a fun conversation – who you would trust to take PTO meetings to the next level in the best way. In fact, that’s kind of what started her career in politics. Realizing that she wanted to use her skillset to serve her community ignited a popular, steady campaign that resulted in her being elected as the first female Mayor of Music City. Widely celebrated and widely beloved, Megan had big plans. Unless you’re brand new to Nashville, you know her flame was dimmed too soon.
The devastating news of her widely gossiped extramarital affair spread like wildfire and resulted in her stepping down from office. Megan received starkly different treatment than if she were one of her former male colleagues. She could’ve opted for fiery discomfort and frustration in response to how she was treated by the media and some members of the public as a female political figure. However, Megan spent her time out of office wholeheartedly grieving the immeasurable loss of her only son, Max. And as if losing your life’s greatest treasure wasn’t enough, Megan was faced with the task of rebuilding her marriage from the carnage of an arguably too-public career and affair. In true Megan Barry fashion, she went above and beyond to make amends and rebuild. Megan not only sought absolution and healing within her marriage, but she also rebuilt her mindset to seek the silver linings that life offers every day. Life is a gift, after all.
It was September 10th in 2015, and Megan just received the final results of a tense election runoff. She had just been officially elected. After serving as a Metro Councilwoman for the better part of a decade, she had a vision for Nashville – the same city that she fell in love with during her time as a graduate student at Vanderbilt University.
For years leading up to her mayoral race, she would gather with girlfriends to catch up and blow off steam. “Friday nights, we would decompress after a long week and just check-in, get some affirmation on whatever we were working through. It always ended up devolving into complaining about politics.” The common question that their work lives would devolve to is, “Where are the women?” This led to the birth of WTF – Women for Tennessee’s Future – an organization that helps elect progressive women to office at both the local and state level. Not to Megan’s surprise, she would continue asking that original ‘where are they’ question throughout her term as Nashville’s Mayor.
She stepped into office, already shattering glass ceilings and being the ‘first’ of many. She was the first officiant to legally marry Nashville’s first same-sex couple in the summer of 2015. As the first female Mayor, she anticipated a learning curve among her colleagues. “I was at a groundbreaking ceremony for a new building and spent a little bit of time having casual conversations with the CEO’s. After a few minutes, I asked what they were waiting for. The CEO’s told me they were waiting on the Mayor.
I said, “No, we are not.”
He said, “Well yeah, we are. He’s not here yet.”
And I said, “Yeah, but she is. You’ve been talking to her for like, ten minutes.”
She hit the ground running in every way- making an effort to promote diversity within Metro government, improve Nashville’s traffic problems, create affordable housing and initiate programs like Opportunity NOW, which centered on creating jobs and paid internships in effort of reducing the rise of violence amongst Nashville’s youth. Despite being confused as the ‘Mayor’s wife’ one too many times, Megan stayed focused on policies and setting an example. “[Being mistaken as the Mayor’s wife] happened often enough to remind me that there’s an ominous responsibility in being the ‘first.’ Because you are the one that they look to, and they don’t expect to see. And when they do see you, it’s your responsibility to represent in a way that sets a path for those who come later. And I hope I did that on some things I was able to do. I know I didn’t do that at the end… but what I hope young females will remember is that I got elected, and they can, too.”
“I wanted to change the expectation of what leaders would look like and to pave that way for the generations of women who would come after me,” she said. And she did just that. Unfortunately, Megan was less than two years into her dream job when her personal life came to a screeching halt.
It was July 29th, 2017, when Megan and Bruce received a knock on their door in the middle of the night. At first, Megan began dressing, thinking a tragedy had transpired in Nashville. The tragedy, however, happened over a thousand miles away in Denver, CO. Their son Max had died of a drug overdose at the young age of 22.
The news of his death quickly spread, and the Barry’s received an outpouring of love from across the nation. They joined thousands of others grieving a painful and all-too-relatable loss due to our country’s growing opioid epidemic.
Today, Megan finds comfort when strangers share their stories of her son.
“The ‘make my day’ moments are the people that come up and talk to me about Max. So many times, when a child dies, people are uncomfortable and unsure of what to say. I will tell you; it brings so much happiness to hear your child’s name come out of someone else’s mouth.”
“Moments of joy come from remembering my child and having someone else remember him, too,” she says with a light behind her eyes and a smile on her face. When Megan talks about Max, she instantly brightens up, but it hasn’t always been that way.
“The house Bruce and I live in now is the house our boy grew up in. It was a sad place for a long time because we had to figure out how to put the memories of Max into the space that we’re living in now. The hardest part would be in the mornings. I would go into the kitchen and have my coffee – where the door jamb that led into the dining room was marked off. -Max, -Max, -Max. The wall marked off his height with his name and date next to it. For a solid year, it was so painful to look at the door jam and the progression of his life: from the time he was a tiny 5-year-old to the time he was a full-grown 6ft teenager. Now, I look at it, and it brings me joy. If we ever leave this house, we will be cutting that frame out and taking it with us.”
Megan didn’t take much time off from work after Max’s passing, despite being completely broken. In fact, it took yet another tragedy to truly initiate her grieving process.
In January of 2018, Megan admitted to having an extramarital affair, receiving heavy public criticism and the sharp side of sexism. Two months later, she submitted her resignation as Mayor. Devastated from an overwhelming amount of loss from losing her dream job, to most importantly, learning how to navigate life without her one and only son, she left town for a few days to regroup. Unbeknownst to Megan, this trip would be yet another turning point in her life, but this time for the better.
“Often, I think about the gifts that life gives you that are silver linings that didn’t seem like it at the time. Now obviously, when I left office, there was no way at the time I felt like it was anything close to a silver lining. But actually, it gave me space to grieve. I didn’t know how to grieve. I was in this very public space, not knowing how to deal with the emotions. And not just that, but I didn’t have the space to grieve. I kept thinking, ‘if I keep putting one foot in front of the other…’ but finally, when I left office, I didn’t have to keep moving forward anymore, and in that stillness, I was able to truly grieve.”
“I left Nashville two days after I resigned [to get away] and see my sister. I’m waiting for the plane, and although I was totally still in shock, there was chatter and whispers of “holy shit…. it’s her” all around me. I get up to board the plane. As I’m walking on, a woman named Jodie stood up from her first-class seat and blocked the aisle in front of me. She grabbed my ticket, handed me hers, and said, ‘You will not walk this plane. You are going to sit right here.’ And she went to the back of the plane in my place. Because what she saw at that moment if I did walk that plane, all that chatter would follow me to my seat.”
Not only did Jodie give her no choice but to trade seats, but she phoned the next airport to ensure Megan wouldn’t miss her connecting flight to Montana.
“I was the last person to board my connecting flight. We were flying into Montana, and I happened to sit next to this woman and her daughter. As the conversation had come over the course of our time together, I asked what was bringing them to Montana. This mother had just lost her husband to a skiing accident. This daughter lost her father. They were on their way to pick his body up. And we all three just sat there and cried. It makes me cry just thinking about it. We just bawled as we landed in Montana – for the loss. And in that moment, it was the exact moment I started to grieve for Max. Not that I had just left this job that I loved. Not for all the other stuff. But for Max. That moment on that plane was so healing. And it only happened because of the kindness of that one person, Jodie.
I think what I have come to appreciate so deeply is that people are so kind. They really are. I know our political discourse at the moment that has ratcheted it up to a level. But you know, I didn’t know Jodie’s politics. I didn’t know the wife or daughter’s politics. All I knew is that in those moments, we shared a common humanity. That common humanity bound us together in ways that superseded all the other noise.”
It’s a typical Tuesday evening and Megan’s home with her husband, Bruce. She’s winding down from a busy day while Bruce is in their kitchen making a homemade meal for them. Here, Megan begins reflecting on their last few years together.
“Bruce and I have been married 28 years. We’ve been through a lot. Our bond is so deep and wide. And I get that some people will read that and go ‘bullshit’. But it’s true. You don’t ever know what’s going on inside a marriage, and that’s absolute fact. But Bruce, he’s lost so much too. The grief he experienced when Max died combined with the grief that he had for me when all that came out is that I lost a job that I loved. I mean, how amazing is that?! That’s where his grief was. He knew how much I treasured being the Mayor of Nashville because he knew first- hand how much I love our city. I mean, he grieved for that in the same way I did. Our grief process together has been a journey.
It’s been three years since I left office. No marriage is easy. No marriage is perfect. Ours certainly wasn’t and isn’t. But we are stronger for everything we’ve been through. Leaving office enabled me to rediscover and rekindle that deep love that I have for my husband. It’s the type of caring that comes with truly knowing someone, sharing a life, and just, you know, loving them.”
Megan and Bruce have been lying low but staying safely involved with community groups throughout the pandemic. They’ve dedicated their time to working alongside the Oasis Center, a program based out of Nashville that serves at-risk youth in Middle Tennessee.
“We talk a lot about Max’s death and how that shaped much of what happened. Max had an incredible life that was way too short. One of the things that Bruce and I have done is set up a fund through the Oasis Center, called the Max Berry Travel Fund. This fund is set up so we can continue to celebrate his life. We know how powerful travel was in shaping Max’s life, and we wanted to afford the financial opportunity with low bars and barriers, true to Max – we kept the application short and sweet for kids who are able to access this fund. The hope is that if there’s a child who is working with the Oasis Center who wants to travel (after COVID) but can’t due to financial barriers that this fund can help them make that a reality. That’s one thing we’re doing to celebrate his life.”
Finally, Megan has begun the process of writing her story and experiences down.
“I’ve spent a lot of time over the last eight to nine months working on my memoir. I’m genuinely excited about it. I’m not sure if there will ever be interest from readers, but it starts with the time I was elected until about a year ago. My hope is that it tells the story people want to hear. The story of being elected as the first female Mayor. The story of losing our beloved son, Max. The story of Bruce and I and how we ended up in a place that neither of us ever thought we would ever end up… and how we put it all back together.”
When asked about ways she and Bruce were able to do this, Megan says, “Well, you will have to read the book! It takes work. But I will tell you that the biggest gift that my husband gave me is that he forgave me, and then he forgot. Forgiveness is something that absolutely has to come. But the forgetting is the bigger gift. He’s so good.”