Life after Tyler: Pain, comfort part of healing for Rathbun’s girlfriend

AnnaMarie Oakley with a box of the items Tyler Rathbun, her boyfriend of two and a half years, left at her house before his death in November 2012. Photo by Chris Heady.

This is the first of a two-part story.

By Chris Heady

At around 4 p.m. on June 15 it rained.

It rained so hard the power went out in parts of Prairie Village, including the Oakley house. For AnnaMarie, 17, this wasn’t the first time a storm had made things dark.

She collected candles from around her house in the black as thunder clapped outside.

AnnaMarie is afraid of thunder. That and “Dementors” from Harry Potter. But that’s about it. Tyler would always comfort her when it stormed. But today he couldn’t.

She positions the candles on her desk, the light shedding on pictures: her and Tyler at their last school dance, her and Tyler on the beach. A keychain with his name barely shows in the flicker.

As she finished with the candles, she recalled a poem.

“Then ye be glad, good people,
this night of all the year,
the light ye up your candles:
his star is shining near.”

She smiled.

The next morning the rain stopped and the sky cleared, and another chapter closed.

***
It’s been seven months since AnnaMarie’s boyfriend of two and a half years Tyler Rathbun died in an ATV accident.

She was asleep in her bed at home when it happened. Her parents, Cherron and Rich, cracked the door to her room at 8:30 a.m.

They sat on either side of her and shook her awake. The first thing AnnaMarie saw that day was her crying mother.

“There was an accident,” Cherron said.

“What?”

“AnnaMaire, Tyler died,” her father said.

AnnaMarie sat frozen.

“No. No. You’re lying to me,” she said, shaking her head with each word.

She scrambled out of bed and grabbed her keys off her white bedside table.

“Well I want to go see him in the hospital,” AnnaMarie demanded.

“I just saw him yesterday. I just talked to him last night. We have plans today. I have to get up, I have to shower, I have to get ready, we have plans in an hour, there is something they can do, they’re doctors.”

Her voice was shaky.

“It’s been hours,” Rich said.

AnnaMarie checked her text messages. The last message she sent to Tyler had gone through at 2:03 a.m.:“Love you.”

An hour later, Tyler was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident on the Sutherland family farm.

***

More than half a year later AnnaMarie sits cross-legged on the same bed where she heard the news of her boyfriend’s death and talks about Tyler like she just saw him, shaking her head and giggling like he was right next to her still, making her laugh like he always did.

“Sometimes I forget,” she admits.

She talks about when they first met, on the soccer field of all places. Tyler was 10 and AnnaMarie was 9 and seemingly everyone had a crush on that Rathbun boy with curly black hair and deep brown eyes.

Six years later, they found themselves at the birthday party of a mutual friend. AnnaMarie was going to be a freshman in high school, Tyler a sophomore. The two talked that night and from there developed a friendship.In March of AnnaMarie’s freshman year, Tyler asked AnnaMarie on a date, and the two were together from then on.

Over the course of two-and-a-half years, the relationship evolved into something more than AnnaMarie says she could have imagined. They would go on family trips with each other to cabins in Colorado or football games in Oklahoma. And during Tyler’s senior year, AnnaMarie found herself on the sideline of nearly every game as he scored a school record 22 goals, taking pictures for the school newspaper.

She couldn’t believe how close they’d become.

“If I were to explain it to someone they’d just be like ‘Oh yeah, high school relationship,’ and I would just be like, ‘Yeah, maybe, but I don’t think so,” AnnaMarie said. “And maybe that is like I’m young and I won’t know until I’m older I guess. But what I felt was definitely really, really, real for both of us.”

***

The night before Tyler died he was at the Oakley household, wondering if he should go to the Sutherland farm or not. He wasn’t planning on it.

“Go,” AnnaMarie had said. “It’ll be fun.”

The next morning, Nov. 25, Tyler was riding on the ATV when the four-wheeler rolled.

“He never let me on that ATV,” AnnaMarie said. “He said I’m too little so I can’t do it. He said it’s dangerous and not safe.”

According to police reports, when medical professionals arrived on the scene around 3 a.m. there was nothing they could do.

“When my parents told me… I just went blank,” AnnaMarie said. “It wasn’t real. It was just words it wasn’t anything meaningful. It was just empty.”

The next few days friends and neighbors were in and out of the Oakley household 24 hours a day.

“I’m not sure our door was ever closed,” Cherron said.

Friends would sleep in AnnaMarie’s bed or sprawled on the floor when she didn’t want to be alone, something she’d become afraid of. Families and neighbors brought dinner for days. But the support couldn’t take away the shock and sadness AnnaMarie felt.

The loss of a high school love doesn’t compare to the loss of a family member, AnnaMarie will be the first to admit.

But the sudden loss of someone as close as AnnaMarie was to Tyler could very well shape her for the rest of her life, says her therapist Liz Christian.

“It is important for people to remember that any relationship that is significant when you’re young, it shapes your future,” said Christian, who has counseled other SM East students since Tyler’s death. “Everyone will go through loss and grief, and it shouldn’t be minimized as, ‘Oh, that’s a high school relationship.’”

The shock factor, says Christian, is a main part of the effects of sudden loss for teens. For AnnaMarie, the shock seemed like it would never pass. She spent most of her days in bed. Sleeping during the day because she couldn’t at night. When she finally did go outside she’d would take different routes home or around town to avoid certain streets. She stayed away from music and shows she and Tyler had enjoyed together like Bon Iver and South Park.

“There’s not a guide book on how to recover from a death, it’s different for everyone,” AnnaMarie said. “It’s not like we just broke up, like he’s mad and he’s not talking to me. It’s involuntary, it’s something neither of us can help.”

She wasn’t like some people who were convinced Tyler’s spirit surrounded them all.

At times she’d feel his presence, usually at night when she missed him most. Sometimes she’d talk to him, tell him she missed him. Other times she’d yelled at him, cuss him out for being so stupid.

It wasn’t until soccer season she saw what others saw.

It came after the girls varsity soccer team lost 2-1 in the Regional Final to Blue Valley North. Afterwards, Head Coach Jamie Kelly addressed to his team with tears in his eyes and told them how proud he was. But it wasn’t Kelly’s pride AnnaMarie was chasing, it was Tyler’s.

“We had felt like we had let him down,” AnnaMarie said. “I didn’t think he would be proud enough.”

That night, AnnaMarie dreamt of Tyler for the first time since his passing. They were just talking. After a while Tyler reached out and touched AnnaMarie’s hand.

“I am so proud of you,” he said.

With those words, AnnaMarie awoke.

“That one time, that one time I needed him, he was there,” she’d later say.

She fell back asleep, and another chapter closed.

Part two of this piece will run tomorrow, Tuesday, July 2.