All photos by Luke Renoe

June 16, 2022

This morning there was a knock at my door while I was still sleeping. I figured it was Amazon delivering a package. Then another knock. Then they used my knocker so I knew it was serious. I pulled my shorts on, thinking they needed a signature for the package. I was trying to figure out who it could be. 

I pull the door open and I’m shocked to see my parents there, wet eyes and a tissue box in my mom’s hand. 

Hey buddy. We have some news. 

They came in and sat on my couch. Mercifully, they didn’t hold me in suspense. 

Tyler killed himself last night.

My first thought was him surrounded by his books, his close friends, in his small and quiet house in Ohio. 

I don’t remember the order in which they told me the next things, but we talked through all the details.

I remember the night Tyler and I were at a bar in downtown Indianapolis on the far side of my twenties, him nearing his 30’s. I said we should get up and dance to the music. I joked about needing more alcohol before that could happen and he said No, that makes it less honest. When I dance, I want it to be me dancing, not the alcohol. Dancing needs to be honest. Art needs to be honest. 

So I never forgot it and never danced drunk in my life. 

You could say I’ve lived an honest life, but I wouldn’t. 

Maybe you could say I danced some honest moves and I wrote some honest words because, according to my cousin Tyler, I did them while sober. It was me creating, not a substance. 

Tyler wrote a lot of his words tipsy. He made a lot of phone calls to me while tipsy. He was a poet when he spoke. He was a genius when he wrote. Maybe he forgot his own words about the honesty in the sobriety, but looking back on it now, I’m sure it helped with the pain. The original liquid bandage.

Tyler taught me how to be cool. 

June 29, 2022

I watched my dad bend 90 degrees at the waist and cry, hard, as we walked toward that holy soil beneath which my cousin lay (forever…and that’s the part of death I’m still grappling with). Loud and holy sobs rang out in uneven rhythm across the cemetery. My own eyes flooded. It was a sunny day and my cousin’s body lay beneath the shade of a tulip tree bursting with leaves. The simple beauty suited him well. 

Dwelling beneath the soil did not. 

I guess he used up all the words that were inside of him.
All his art had spilled out until there was nothing left to spill.

For a mind that, from my vantage point, was bursting with life and thoughts and humor and rhythm and sly chuckles over tobacco-stained teeth, there was a lot more that he owed to the world. He owed us more of himself. More of his thoughts and words.

But the God who let these voices call out into the darkness of his mind is not fair. 

More alarmingly, I claim to believe that this God is predominantly benevolent. And it is here, after this declaration, that meaning seems to depart from word.

God? Fair? Good? In the same breath as Death and Buried?

The feeling of tremendous loss doesn’t fit inside of language…at least, none of the ones humans have created yet. We made language to convey meanings and refer to objects, but none of them can yet describe grief, or God. 

When I was nearly done with high school, Tyler and I took a midnight walk around the golf course behind his house. Then he drove me to Denny’s at 1am and I thought it was so cool. We talked about existentialism as if I knew what it meant.

Tyler was a better poet than I am. He was honest and I’m filtered. Maybe that’s the difference between someone who rolls his own cigarettes and someone who’s scared to smoke: honesty.

July 20, 2022, Lost Coffee

How many paths can blood take to the head?

Were you nervous about discovering the answer that lurks behind the universe?

There is a pain that leads to death and a numbness that does as well. One just takes longer than the other, but you’ll get there eventually. I’ve been numb in the busyness of this summer. I haven’t cried enough for my cousin.

I’ve sat before with many people in their grief, but never experienced it myself, save after the death of a dog. Tyler’s is the first body of a loved one I’ve seen lowered beneath the soil. 

My dad summed it up well: I don’t blame Tyler for his death, but I wrestle with God for the pain which was his life. Why the voices? Why the many paths his brain wandered which all led to the grave the way rivers lead to the ocean?

Did the voices stop? Did the grave finally cause a hush to descend on his brilliant mind?

We are always asking why. Why did my uncle suffer both as son and as father? Why do some people get mutilated and herded into gas chambers? Are there degrees of suffering or is it all relative? My worst day is equal to yours. There’s a whole science to comparing sufferings. How does the suicide of your son stack up to the genocide of an ethnic group? Or the stubbing of a toddler’s toe?

Why does God allow either one? He gave us free choice but he also put us in a universe where both of those things are possibilities. Why not the type of free choice that’s like, do you want strawberries or sprinkles on your sundae?

That’s a choice. 

But God is like, choose me or choose death. Choose the death of you and your loved ones. Choose to endure a painful childhood and then a painful fatherhood. How much can you bear? He will also tear the heart from your chest and cause you pain of biblical proportions. Choose your choice. Muahaha

That’s God?

You can hear the echoes of the Satan who once tormented Job now asking God to test us today. Pretty please?

I’ll give you Tyler and all the poetry inside his head, but also the torture. 

Here, I’ll give you a taste of the brain-pain he lived with his whole life, and now you carry it the rest of yours. 

June 16, 2022

Now I’m crying on a plane to California as I write and no one is looking at me. They’re sucked into their screens and wrapped up in their cordless headphones and for once I’m grateful.

I’m also grateful to be alive and to be working and loving and surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses—the kind you can still see and hug and cry in front of, and they care that I’m crying. I’m grateful for parents who show up with entire tissue boxes.

And I’m even grateful for a God who gives me the choice to love life; to create life inside of other people, to plant my measly words inside of them and hope that this God of free will chooses to grow trees that feed the world and give shade to the birds. 

A God who lets me be angry at him while I figure it all out.
Like a little kid who curses his mother while she’s holding him close.

And God even lets us choose not to exist.
God lets us choose the hells inside of us and to spread that hell to the world. 

I framed one of his letters and one of his paintings and hung them on a wall beneath a clay mask he gave me decades ago. So I don’t forget to be cool. So I don’t forget to live poetically and neglect to give rips what anyone else thinks.

A chunk of me is now missing.
And I think Tyler would have appreciated being referred to as a chunk.

I love you, cuz.

e

3 comments on “On my cousin, Tyler

  1. Sadly, I can offer only my sympathies and prayers

  2. Ethan, this is very moving and surreal. As usual you write eloquently and vividly. Thank you for this moving tribute to Tyler.

    I have never gotten over the suicide of a close friend a few years ago, http://ldolphin.org/krugjohn/. The certainty I have is that I’ll see Michael again—his relationship with Jesus was clear. The pain I feel is still unabated.

    Terrible tragedies like this defy explanation. But I’m glad you shared as you did and I send you my brotherly love and affirmation.

    Lambert

  3. Beth Kirkham

    I’m so sorry.

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