Life after Tyler: After months of coping, the search for a clean slate

AnnaMarie Oakley at the Rosedale World War I Memorial Arch, where she and Tyler Rathbun used to spend time together. Photo by Chris Heady.

This is the second part of a two-part story. Read part one here.

By Chris Heady

AnnaMarie Oakley squints through her tortoise shell sunglasses, trying to see past the 6 p.m. sun that shines directly into her silver Hyundai.

“I think it’s up here but I could be completely wrong,” she says.

There is a picture of her and Tyler from Homecoming pinned to her pull down-mirror. A keychain with his name on it swings back and forth to the sound of her blinker.

“There’s this windy road that it goes up into…yep, here it is, this seems right,” she says with a sigh and a smile.

After an hour of searching she finally finds the hidden spot Tyler always took her, the Rosedale World War I Memorial Arch that overlooks downtown Kansas City. The sun sets to the west with the Kansas City skyline to the east.

A small walkway leads up to benches and a stone wall that’s freckled with small red bugs. You can throw a rock and hit train tracks. A flag atop a huge pole waves to the right of AnnaMarie, now sitting on the rock wall.

“It’s so peaceful up here,” AnnaMarie said. “It’s a quiet place, quieter than both of our houses, which are always loud and busy.”

AnnaMarie sits with her left leg over her right, her hands folded on her lap, looking over the city skyline. “I think it’s still a pretty place, it’s just changed a little I guess.”

It is here that AnnaMarie talks about how she’ll remember Tyler Rathbun, her boyfriend of two-and-a-half years, the boy she says changed her life.

“He really made you feel so special and so important,” AnnaMarie said. “He touched so many people’s lives everywhere and they didn’t even know him.”

She think about how lucky she was to get so much of this special person’s time.

“I spent every single day with him for hours and hours,” AnnaMarie said.

She begins to tell story after story. That time a yellow butterfly followed them around in Colorado for four hours. When he blurted out “I love you” for the first time while they were watching a movie. How they sat on the porch at the same farm where he would die in an ATV accident a week later, looking at the stars until 3 a.m.

Finally she gets quiet.

“I remember one time,” she begins, her sunglasses hiding a tear running down her cheek, “We were at his house, we were eating dinner and watching a movie, this was in like October, and I just remember thinking to myself, ‘I have no time with him left. I really just need to enjoy this.’”

She looked at him and smiled. He smiled back.

“I still remember that, just thinking, ‘Enjoy just being with him, even if we’re not saying anything.’ I’m glad I thought that.”

****

Liz Christian, the therapist who has worked with Oakley since Rathbun’s death, says that while studies have shown the worst trauma someone can endure is the loss of a child, the loss of a boyfriend or best friend as a teen could potentially be more shocking.

Tyler’s passing was AnnaMarie’s first ever encounter with death, making the road to recovery harder.

“It’s almost like a loss of innocence right away instead of gradually losing it,” Christian said. “Teens have this feeling of being invincible when they’re young and when something like this happens it makes everything more real.”

AnnaMarie says she cried every night until February. It was only then that she decided to finally take steps toward healing. She’d go on a run to get ready for soccer tryouts, clean her room, actually do her homework – any sort of task to keep her mind busy.

“Eventually I could go five minutes without thinking about him,” AnnaMarie said. “And then 10 minutes and just day by day it would just get longer. And then I remember starting to laugh again.”

Oakley’s parents Cherron and Rich say the big step toward healing they wanted to see their daughter take was playing soccer. The soccer field was where Tyler and AnnaMarie had first met, where they developed their crushes on each other. AnnaMarie didn’t want to play – it was too soon, she said. But the way Cherron and Rich saw it, she had no option.

“She was gonna play,” Rich said. “She had to.”

“She was so mad (when we made her),” Cherron said. “She slammed the door that first day when she left.”

But Cherron is convinced soccer is what healed her daughter. Day after day she would return from practice with a brighter attitude. It was noticeable the day she came home showing off her new number: Tyler’s old No. 14.

“It healed everyone to see her play with Tyler’s number, it was healing for everyone — seeing her be out there, around people, doing normal things” Cherron said. “AnnaMarie is so outdoorsy and was inside for so long that it just wasn’t right for her. With her out there I think it made everyone feel like it was OK to go back to normal.”

The way AnnaMarie looks at the healing process is through opening and closing chapters. The first was getting up in the morning. Then it was school. Then her first trip to Colorado.

“There have been too many chapters already,” AnnaMarie said.

When she does something without Tyler and can endure something without thinking about him, the chapter can close. The first big chapter she closed was soccer.

“After that the next chapter was called summer,” AnnaMarie said.

The June sun starts to set over the city skyline as AnnaMarie shoves off little rocks next to her onto the ground a few feet below. Before she leaves, she recalls one last story, one that she thinks shows all that Tyler was.

They were at a pet store when Tyler spotted a fish. It was the ugliest one in the store, and he bought it.

“He was afraid no one else would buy him,” AnnaMarie said. “And I’m just like what? Who does that? But he really genuinely meant it.”

“I don’t want this one fish to feel alone,” he told her.

***

It’s 11:45 a.m. in the Oakley kitchen on June 23 when AnnaMarie is finally packed and ready to leave.

“Alright, give your brother a hug, we have to get going,” Rich says.

AnnaMarie takes one last bite of peach.

“Take care of Bode,” she says, arms hardly able to get around her brother’s square shoulders. “Walk him every day.”

“Yeah, okay,” Will says back.

The sound of rain taps the car windshield 30 minutes later on the highway.

“Do you have something to read on the plane?” Rich says.

“Yeah I have my summer reading books but I probably won’t read them,” AnnaMarie says.

“Why not? You should just get them out of the way.”

“Okay, yeah fine, maybe.”

It was January when AnnaMarie told her parents she wanted to get away, far away. It was something she always wanted to do, and now seemed as good as a time as ever.

Cherron was first worried her daughter was just running away from her problems, something she thought would be the worst thing for her daughter to do.

“I just didn’t want her to not deal with it, I didn’t want her running away,” Cherron said.

They talked for weeks about a trip and Cherron and Rich were eventually convinced. Cherron made a spreadsheet of all the study abroad programs for the summer and Costa Rica seemed like the best choice. Three weeks. No communication outside the country. Volunteer work and hiking. No immediate reminders of Tyler.

“I think the trip will be really good for her to get away,” Rich said. “I think it’ll be really good for the healing process.”

The family arrives at Terminal A, AnnaMarie and Cherron chat a few feet ahead of Rich who drags AnnaMarie’s 40 pound bright yellow North Face bag behind them.

The family stops just outside a gift shop so AnnaMarie can buy some magazines and M&M’s for the trip. They talk about the Bachelorette. They talk about how AnnaMarie thinks there is a hole in her shoe. After a few minutes of small talk, it’s time to go.

“I’m goin’ in,” AnnaMarie says, thumbs pointing toward the gate.

Rich gives his daughter a kiss on the cheek and a hug.

“It’s like a trial run for college,” he says, “except not in the states.”

Rich and Cherron are positive the trip will bring AnnaMarie home with nothing but good.

“I’m deeply, deeply proud of who she has become,” Cherron said. “And I’m excited to see what comes next.”

What comes next, according to AnneMarie, is continuing to heal and finding out how to do that, something she says she can’t do in Kansas City.

“It’s like a cloud, overcast, just a huge burden here,” AnnaMarie said. “I’m not supposed to stay here, I have to go find my life elsewhere. I don’t know where that will be yet, but I’m ready to find it.”

At 1:53 p.m., AnnaMarie boards her flight, taking off into the clouds, opening a new chapter.