Ivan MaiselESPN Senior Writer
IRVINE, Calif. — I came of age in the wake of Woodward and Bernstein, when young journalists were taught to be as neutral as the painted highway stripe. After nearly four decades as a sportswriter, I have learned to negotiate a middle ground between my training and my life experience. Some stories demand more of the latter.
I understood that the moment I read last January that Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski ended his life. He was a college junior, 21 years old, the second of three children, hundreds of miles away from home.
Almost three years earlier, my son Max ended his life. He was a college junior, the second of three children, 21 years old, hundreds of miles away from home.
Like a winemaker trying to create a structured red, how much of the skin you leave in the juice changes the color and character of the final product. I’ve got a lot of skin in this one.
There’s often an immediate intimacy among parents whose children have ended their lives. We get it. The loss of a child is an awful subject, so awful that it makes people uncomfortable. They don’t know what to say. One of the many secrets of The Club No One Wants to Join is that we love to talk about the children we’ve lost. Talking about them keeps them present.
But people hesitate, sometimes under the guise of protecting the feelings of the bereaved. I would say, always with a smile to smooth the delivery of the sarcasm, “You know, if you hadn’t brought Max up, I wouldn’t have been thinking of him.”
When you live with the awful every moment of every day, the awful becomes everyday. It is no longer so daunting. When someone told me I was living “a parent’s worst nightmare,” I responded, “No, you wake up from nightmares.”
The first time I called Mark Hilinski, Tyler’s father, we spoke for 1 hour, 10 minutes. “I had never talked to anybody — in my spot,” Mark said later, with a mirthless laugh. “Got emails, got letters, got cards, read a ton. … But that was the first time I had talked to anybody that kinda sat over here, and I appreciated it.”
Mark’s wife, Kym, Tyler’s mother, sounded a note of grace. “I’m actually happy that [people] can’t understand,” she said, “because I would never, ever want anyone to really understand what you and I are going through.”
Mark is a bear of a man, personable in the way that most successful salesmen are personable. He is a traditional American Dad. He responds to problems in the stereotypically American Dad way: looking to fix them. Except that this problem, the biggest that he and Kym have ever faced, can’t be fixed.
He hates that he can’t fix the problem, and he hates that he feels self-pity because he can’t fix the problem, and once you go down that rabbit hole it can be a long time before you see sunlight again.
He understands that he is not the first father to lose a son. He understands we live in a world where bad things happen. He and Kym recently attended a memorial for a 20-year-old struck by lightning.
“If you can muster it, that’ll put some perspective on you quick,” Mark said, “but it doesn’t lessen the sadness for me.”
Seven months in, that sadness wafts off of Mark and Kym like pollen on a springtime breeze, its residue on every object. I recognized that melancholy. When our son died, his older sister returned to her California home after six weeks. A year later, she confided to us that the house had been so sad she had to leave.
Kym remembers sitting on the plane to go to Pullman after they learned Tyler was gone.
“I didn’t mean this against anybody else,” Kym said. “I just meant it for me. I said, ‘Lord, can you just let the plane crash? Can you just let it crash? I don’t want anybody else to die. I’m just fine if I go. I’m fine if I go if I can just be with him.’
“And the plane didn’t crash, of course.”
For the first month, Kym said, she didn’t brush her teeth. She didn’t wash her face. Mark wore the same jeans every day. When I heard that, I didn’t flinch. The week that Max disappeared, I didn’t eat. I lost 8 pounds.
As Kym looks back, she understands they are making progress. But one of the first rules of grieving is that everyone grieves differently. Mark feels that all time has done is pile more pain at his door.
Take the spring, when he would get reminders on his phone about Washington State football practice, calendar entries he had made months earlier, before the earthquake that made a debris field of his life. His phone has been a font of sadness. He loved the FaceTime calls from Tyler after practice, or the simple excitement of glancing down and seeing a bigger text bubble from his son.
“That’d mean he had something to say and you were interested in whatever that was,” Mark said.
You think about those things when they don’t happen.
Mark and Kym Hilinski, as did I, chose to open the door to their grief. I decided to respond to questions because I didn’t want anyone to believe I was ashamed of Max. Suicide is an act, not a person. I don’t much like the word. It carries more baggage than an Airbus. Our son, and the Hilinskis’ son, were so much more than their final acts.
The Hilinskis also speak about their loss in part to publicize the foundation they created in the aftermath of Tyler’s death. They already have donations and pledges of more than $100,000 for Hilinski’s Hope. The foundation has begun to fund mental health programs for Division I athletes, including at Washington State. Mark and Kym will raise the Cougars flag at Washington State’s home opener Saturday, and a Hilinski’s Hope flag will hang in Martin Stadium this season.
Mark and Kym go through their phones and computers, looking for pictures of Tyler to post on the foundation website or to provide to news media.
“You go to the hard drive and find the stuff,” Mark said. “And then it hits you. There’s a finite number of those. You can [post] three a week and you’re gonna repeat at some point because there are no new pictures.”
They try to stay busy. Kym awakens before dawn and begins to do the work of the foundation, reading and responding to emails, writing thank-you notes for contributions. Mark has dived back into his work, selling software to retailers that curbs employee theft. And they have the football career of their youngest son, Ryan. He is a senior at Orange Lutheran and one of the most sought-after high school quarterbacks in the nation.
On the kitchen counter of the Hilinski home one day last month sat a letter from USC coach Clay Helton, offering Ryan a four-year athletic scholarship. On the tabletop below the TV screen sat a letter from an undergraduate at South Carolina, where Ryan has committed to play, with a healthy donation to Hilinski’s Hope. Those are the two poles of the Hilinskis’ lives — the loss of Tyler, the rise of Ryan.
“He deserves every bit of the excitement and fun and enjoyment that he’s getting,” Mark said of Ryan. “That’s a good reminder for us to sorta dial it up a little bit.”
Maybe the time that has continued to pile pain at Mark’s door, will turn out to be his friend. As much as you want your life to stop and return to the last time you thought your dead child was safe, the last moment before you got that phone call, it does not. Your life goes on. That continuance includes good moments. The last thing you want to do is acknowledge them or, God forbid, celebrate them. But your emotional muscles respond to happiness without realizing you have no interest in being happy. You catch yourself having a good moment, and then a good hour, and then maybe even a good day.
That might be easy for me to say because I have lived this loss for 3½ years. But I remember. For the first year after Max died, I poured my grief into my laptop. Writers write. I woke early, when the house was quiet and I could hear my thoughts, and I typed — at first nearly every morning, then two or three days a week, tapering until I didn’t need to type any more. As I flew out to see the Hilinskis, I returned to my entries seven months after Max died, trying to get a sense of where they were, and read in reverse order chronologically. I read how fragile I was, how slowly I walked, how, on my first reporting trip after returning to work, Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich brought me to tears just by asking me how I was doing.
Ryan is three games into his senior season, what should be a crowning experience in his young life. But hovering over the family is the role that football might have played in Tyler’s death. The Hilinskis had Tyler’s brain sent to the Mayo Clinic, which discovered evidence of CTE. It is impossible to know the precise effect of football on the condition of Tyler’s brain. But it is easy to make assumptions.
“I remember sitting there just crying, just thinking how did I even say he could ever play football?” Kym said. “Why did I ever even say yes? And, then, I remembered why. … They [their sons] fell in love with football. And so that’s probably why. I mean, you — when you fall in love with something, you fall in love with something. Right?”
This season, Ryan switched his uniform number to Tyler’s No. 3. When he threw his first touchdown pass of the season, his first touchdown pass wearing Tyler’s number, Ryan came off the field bawling. Mark went down to the sideline and wrapped his son in a bear hug until Ryan could compose himself.
Orange Lutheran has begun this season 2-1. Ryan plans to graduate in December and enroll at South Carolina in January. Shortly afterward, Mark and Kym will move to Columbia, or maybe Charleston, two hours away. It’s an adjustment. Then again, Kym told Ryan that she couldn’t bear to set foot in all those Pac-12 stadiums where they had gone to see Tyler.
Wherever Kym is on Mother’s Day, she will continue her tradition of skydiving on that day. This year, she and her oldest son, Kelly, went together. They called it Ty-diving. For some people, milestone days can be the hardest. On Easter, Mark, Kym, Kelly and Ryan distributed Tyler’s ashes at a lighthouse on Kauai where the five Hilinskis had distributed Kym’s mother’s ashes several years ago. On Tyler’s birthday — May 26 — Kym and Kelly climbed Mount Rainier. Tyler had promised Kym they would climb it before he graduated.
He was a son who liked spending time with his mom. In high school, he referred to her as Kymmy Kym. The Tyler that Mark and Kym describe is a sweet boy, the peacekeeper among three brothers, the friend and son who tried to help his brothers, his teammates, anyone in his orbit. When the Washington State coaches compiled a list of the players’ cell phone numbers, Tyler gave his mother’s number. Every time the team received a text blast about a meeting, or a reminder to show up for training table, or anything else, Kym received it.
“I know you love knowing where I’m gonna be, Mom.” Tyler told her. “I know you love getting those texts. And so I’m not gonna put my number down.”
These days, Kym spends time with Tyler by walking a mile and a half to the post office. That’s when she talks to Tyler. That’s when she gets mad at him. She tries to save her tears for the walks. She tries not to cry in front of Ryan any longer. It’s hard for any child, even a 17-year-old in a man’s body, a leader in the locker room, to watch his parents fall apart.
The other day Mark, Kym and Ryan went to see a movie. Tyler loved movies. On the days he didn’t want to be an NFL quarterback or a football coach, he talked about becoming a director. “I was sitting in the middle. Ryan was on my right. Mark was on my left,” Kym said. “And we were seeing ‘Mission Impossible: Fallout.’ You know, shoot, shoot. There’s car crashes. Right? But they’re fun. And ordering food is fun.
“I remember looking over at Ryan. And he had his hands on his ears like this,” she said, raising her hands, elbows jutting forward. “And I thought, ‘What is Ryan doing? It’s not a shooting scene.’
“And then, I went, oh my gosh, I’m crying. And I’m crying loud. I’m crying because we’re at the movies, those things that we loved to do with Tyler that I knew he loved.
“And Ryan was sitting there going, ‘My mom was crying. I don’t want to listen to my mom cry because I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to make it better for her. I can’t bring Tyler back. She likes going to the movies. She loves sitting and eating popcorn with me, and Red Vines.'”
She sputtered for a second, and stopped.
“That was not a good day,” Kym said.
When the boys were younger, any time they requested to go somewhere — a weekend breakfast, the movies — Kym would say, “Yes, if we ride bikes,” or “Yes, if we walk.” It was a mom’s way of stretching out time with her children. She remembers when Tyler reached the crest of a hill and started coasting down, he would yell, “Downhill freedom!”
He is free now of the demons that plagued him. That’s how I think about Max. It has sustained me through many sad moments.
In her fantasy world, Kym is living on a beach with Tyler.
“I don’t know how I came up with this phrase. I always say ‘coconut and straws,’ man, ‘coconut and straws,'” Kym said, her eyes glistening, her voice catching. “We would’ve sold coconuts with straws for the rest of our lives in our swimsuits. And we would’ve been together. And nothing else would’ve mattered except he would’ve been with me, so coconut and straws.”
In her fantasy world, Kym Hilinski has kidnapped Ryan and gone to the same beach, or maybe a different one. She has taken his passport from him. He will never play football again.
“And trust me, I’ve really thought about this,” Kym said. “I’m not joking. And I say, ‘You can’t get back. You’re stuck with me.’
“I can’t do that. Right? But I have played that scenario out a few times.”
I hope those fantasies sound nonsensical to you. That would mean you’ve never lost a child.