Losing Kyle

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Trigger warning: The following story addresses suicide. If you or anyone you know needs help or someone to talk to:

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In the late fall of 2009, I hit what I have come to endearingly refer to as my “Rock Bottom”. It looked like this:

Three-time divorced woman, mother to a daughter living out-of-state with her Mormon dad and stepmom, and a son who had just been diagnosed with autism; waiting tables at Applebee’s because my “career” in real estate was tanking, along with the relationship/partnership I had with another Realtor. I had to move out of my boyfriend/business partner’s house and was barely scraping by to afford putting a roof over my son’s head.

In the darkest hours of my Rock Bottom, there was ONE lifeline, ONE thought that gave me a glimmer of hope about the possibilities for my future: I was a marathon runner. I could do hard shit. Impossible shit. In May of that year I had run my first 26.2-mile race, and at the finish line I found myself a stronger person than I ever imagined. This new idea of myself, this perception of possibilities, the ownership I finally took over my actions and their subsequent consequences, quite legitimately saved my life.

***

I met Kyle Gerber on a late summer evening in 2016 at the Lighthouse Lounge. I had been running with the Ogden Pub Runners for just over a year, meeting once a week at a local bar where we would run three miles and then convene for a frosty beverage and socializing shenanigans. He was a newcomer to the group but with his outgoing personality and friendly smile, no one would have ever known. He quickly became a regular at OPR, and everyone was smitten by him.

Kyle’s effervescent personality naturally drew people to him. He was fit, tan, and lean with a head of beautiful blonde, wavy locks and bright blue eyes. But even more than his boyish good looks, Kyle had a heart of gold.

In December that year, I had heard about an idea called the “Burrito Project,” where a group would get together to roll burritos and take them out to feed the homeless in their community. I invited my OPR friends to participate in our own version of this project. About a dozen people showed up to my house that chilly morning with their assigned breakfast burrito fillings, ready to assemble. Kyle showed up with dozens of scrambled eggs and a huge bag of sauce packets from a local Mexican fast food joint.

“I told them what we were doing, and they just gave these all to me,” he said, with a smile and a shrug.

We rolled over a hundred burritos that day and then hit the streets, passing them out to gracious souls in our community. Afterward, Kyle and I ran back to my house. We made small talk as we ran, mostly about our past and future runs. I was surprised to find out he had very recently began running, especially considering what great shape he was in. I was even more shocked when he told me how he had quit a 22-year smoking habit.

That was one of the first of many runs I would share with this new friend.

***

If there was adventure to be had, not only was Kyle there, but he was usually the mastermind. He created a new sect of Ogden Pub Runners: Ogden Trail Troopers. Because road runs could get boring, he initiated runs on the beautiful mountain trails. He kayaked, went to concerts, mountain biked, and ran. He threw parties at his house, cooked amazing meals, and helped anyone in need. He worked hard and played even harder.

In February of 2017 he announced that he wanted to do the Grand Circle Trailfest in October that year, a series of back-to-back trail runs at Bryce, Zion, and the Grand Canyon, totaling more than forty miles altogether. I had recently experienced the death of my ex-husband and desperately felt the need to do something big, bigger than myself. I took a deep breath, ignoring the panic at paying almost six hundred dollars for a race, and signed up.

Not long after we had registered, Kyle tore his ACL. He took the absolute minimum time he possibly could to recuperate and rehab. In May, despite everyone trying to talk him out of it, he ran the Ogden marathon. I knew he was a faster, stronger runner than me, even in a knee brace. The morning of the run, we loaded onto the VIP bus, making our usual jokes about pooping and pre-race jitters. He told me he would stick with me for the whole 26.2-mile race.

“Please don’t,” I told him. “I don’t want to slow you down.”

“It’s fine,” he said. “I need you to make sure I don’t overdo it.”

True to his word, he stayed with me the entire time. At mile 13 I slowed down to eat a snack. I begged him to go ahead. He would not. At mile 17 I stopped at a Honey Bucket. He was patiently, loyally waiting for me when I popped back out. Through Ogden Canyon, along the parkway, up until the last block of the finish line. He pulled, pushed, and prodded me when I wanted to give up. Ten steps from the finish line, he placed his hand on the small of my back and pushed me ahead, so that I crossed the finish line before him.

***

Kyle’s knee was still giving him trouble, but that didn’t stop him from coming to the Grand Circle Trailfest in October. Our friends David and Brittany Blanchard drove down separately, so Kyle, Jennie Payne, and I joined up with them in Kanab. On the drive down, we talked about our pasts- Kyle sharing stories of being a homeless youth and overcoming drug addiction. I shared my own story of surviving childhood sexual abuse. I thought to myself how amazing my tribe of badasses is.

We got to the race headquarters and set up in the “tent city”. David and Brittany had their own tent, and the rest of us set up right across from them. We formed a circle in between our two tents with our chairs, and the boys popped beers while us girls poured mimosas. In the evening, Kyle lit a cigar. I laughed as people walked by and gave him dirty looks. If I knew nothing else about Kyle, I knew that he didn’t give a shit what others thought about him. It was one of his most endearing qualities.

He opted out of the first race, a grueling 14-mile run at Bryce canyon. While we ran, he rode his bike around the park in the chilly weather. But at the finish line, like the beacon of a lighthouse, he was always there for us. The next day, a 12ish-mile run at Zion Canyon, he decided to give it a shot. Even with his knee in a brace, he finished before me. When I got to the finish line, all four of my beautiful friends were there waiting for me.

On the final run at the Grand Canyon, Kyle dropped us off at the start line and headed out on his mountain bike. Everyone else was ahead of me as I climbed the first five miles of the challenging course. When I finally made it to the top and it leveled out to a dirt road, I picked up my pace. I saw a familiar shape in the distance and was elated when I realized it was Kyle on the trail. I popped out my earbuds.

“Hi, buddy!” I shouted.

“How’s it going?” he asked cheerfully.

“I’m ready for a mimosa,” I replied.

“I’ll have it ready for you when you’re finished,” he said, flashing his Kyle smile.

Sure enough, when I finally made it across the finish line and over to Kyle’s truck, he sat, smoking his cigar, and handed me a cup of bubbly and OJ. Later that day, as we drove home to Ogden, I hid tears as I realized it was the one-year anniversary of seeing my ex-husband in the hospital for the last time before he died. Kyle was blasting The Violent Femmes and I was grateful he and Jen couldn’t hear my stifled sobs.

***

I have been asked to serve on the board of the Ogden Pub Runners. I am hesitant, only because I have an autistic son and a lot of other commitments I worry will stretch me thin. However, I love OPR and I don’t think it will be a huge time commitment, so I say yes. A short time later, a few other amazing friends join the board and I am thrilled at how amazing they all will be. One of the new board members is Kyle.

***

Kyle has been really busy, so we don’t think much of it when he doesn’t show up for a lot of our group runs, or he misses an OPR board meeting. He’s serving on the GOAL Foundation and helping out a ton getting ready for the 2018 Ogden Marathon, so we understand. We get it. Despite being so busy and not having a ton of time to train, he still runs the Ogden Marathon on May 19th. He rides the VIP bus to the start line with my husband, and they casually shoot the shit.

I only run the half marathon this year, so when I get to the finish line I have plenty of time to relax while I wait for my hubby and the other OPR people. Our friends, Donna and Steve Hernandez, have set up their familiar and beloved rainbow umbrella, and friends gather there to cheer runners in. We see Kyle as he nears the finish, and we burst into celebratory screams, handing him an ice cold beer which he raises over his head and carries, like an Olympic torch, as he crosses the finish line.

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He makes it over to our group where we shower him with praise and accolades for a job well done. He is tired, naturally, and only celebrates with us for a little while before excusing himself and heading home. We’re having an OPR board dinner that night, but he messages us to tell us he is too tired to come. I don’t realize then that is the last day I will ever see Kyle again.

***

In the two years I’ve known Kyle, he has been very active on social media. I realize, since the marathon, that I haven’t heard too much from him. I go to his profile and see that the last post was from May 19th, almost two weeks ago. I’m perplexed, but I figure, in true Kyle fashion, he is just really busy. A couple days later, he comments on a post I’ve made about a race in Moab in November.

“Ahh, he’s back,” I think.

Whatever qualms I had were quieted.

***

It is the morning of June 7th and I have just finished setting up my marketing stuff on Hole One of the miniature golf course at Toad’s Fun Zone for my job as a home warranty rep. I’m wearing a black running skort and Rainbow Brite socks as part of my gimmicky marketing. This is how everyone knows me: funny, silly Stacy. I glance at my phone and see that I’ve missed a call from my husband. He sends an ominous text: “Call me as soon as you can.”

I immediately think something has happened to his dad. A few weeks ago, I was alarmed when he took us out to dinner and asked multiple times, “So, anything new going on with you?” It was like watching “Groundhog Day,” and it was terrifying.

I called my husband, bracing for the bad news about Papa.

“Have you been on Facebook?” he asked, his voice low.

“Not since earlier this morning,” I replied, confused at his line of questioning. What does this have to do with his dad?

“Babe,” he whispered. “I don’t know how to tell you this…”

“What?”

“Kyle,” he whispered. “Kyle Gerber killed himself.”

I know that there is a chemical reaction happening in my brain, that this message is being interpreted, packaged up and sent to its respective place. But the connection is failing. It’s nonsense what my husband is saying. The words travel to my ears as if from a very far away place, and I can’t comprehend it.

“What?” I know I haven’t heard him right. My brain is telling me NO NO NO, this is not right. The world is spinning. My vision is blurry with tears. I stand, stupidly, ridiculous in my cheerful multi-colored knee-high socks, shrieking. I hear and feel the sound escaping me, but I have no control over it.

“I’m coming home,” he says, and he hangs up.

I am hysterical. Someone gently leads me to a table in the arcade area. Arms are embracing me; someone hands me a bottle of water; I message the rest of the OPR board. What do we do? This can’t be real; this can’t be happening; THIS CAN’T BE KYLE.

***

News of Kyle’s suicide spreads quickly and shocks the community in which he was an active part. The Ogden Pub Runners have their weekly run that Thursday evening, and it is somber. It’s as if everyone feels that there is a pause in the goings on of the world, yet life continues. There is a huge outdoor concert that evening, a concert Kyle would be attending. There’s a new reality of life as we know it, before and after Kyle.

Kyle’s death leaves behind two teenage sons, eleven days before one of their birthdays and Father’s Day. Three local non-profits have lost a well-loved board member. A family has lost a son, brother, uncle. I have lost one of my best friends.

I have replayed every conversation, every run, every encounter I ever had with Kyle, searching for the clues that I must have missed. I come up empty-handed and more heartbroken every time. I think of how adventurous he was- was it reckless? I remember how he didn’t wear his seatbelt- was that an indication of wanting to die?  I never saw signs of depression; I never thought Kyle was in or could go to a place where suicide was a viable option for him; and I am at a loss as to why that’s the way his life ended. An unbearable ache fills my chest every day.

***

The night that is the very rockiest bottom of my “Rock Bottom,” I drank a bottle of wine and decided to take a bath. I loved the large bathroom of the adorable, old Craftsman home I had found to rent for me and my son. As the bath tub filled with steaming hot water and bubbles, I opened my medicine cabinet and found a bottle with a few tiny white pills. I didn’t know what they were, but I decided I would take them along with another bottle of wine I had just uncorked.

I slid into the hot water, daring myself to go under the surface. Tears streamed down my face as feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and despair engulfed me. My life was a shit show and that was pretty much the best it would ever be. My kids would be better off without me; my whole family would be. I leaned my head back and waited for the wine and pills to do their job, so I could carelessly slip below the water’s surface.

The oblivion never came. Hell, maybe those pills had been baby Tylenol. I pulled the plug and as the water drained, I sobbed. I knew in that moment I wasn’t ready to end it, but I sure as shit needed to do something to fix it.

***

I thought the marathon saved people. I thought this tribe, this one percent of the population, was unbreakable. I naively thought all the running endorphins could help cure everything. I thought I was impervious to heartbreak. Kyle proved me wrong on all counts.

I don’t know what demons he fought. But he must have given them a hell of a fight for as long as he could. The Kyle I knew was strong, resilient, a fighter, a survivor. He was like me. When we get pushed down, we get back up and dust ourselves off. He was a Success Story, a Golden Boy, a Warrior. He was a light everywhere he went. Until he wasn’t.

Today I got inked with a tattoo I have wanted for months- a compass with mountains in the center and a feather along the bottom. This tattoo represents all the ways I found myself on the trails, especially when I ran my first ultra-marathon last November; Kyle was there and even got a video of us crossing the finish line. Only I had the artist add a small semicolon in the stars above the mountain. Kyle may be gone, but his story is definitely not over. I know I will find him on the trails, and I trust that he will continue to help me as I find my way.

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