Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Life of Ethan, part 1


I have been procrastinating writing this because it is so painful, but that is no excuse. It all has to be said and you can skip over it if you want, but you will be missing out on an extraordinary human being.

My nephew Ethan Runnels, born in 1983, was a cherubic blond child who eventually went through the typical teen-aged angst...and then some. I hope I do not offend anyone by mentioning that Ethan dropped out of high school (but later got his GED). And that he sort of "borrowed" his father's car in Indianapolis without permission. The police in Nebraska were kind enough to inform my brother that they had located my nephew and the car. But hey, whose kids are perfect?

Okay, there were some other incidents, too. Some of them a bit scary. But no matter. It was a phase Ethan was going through and not one that we condemned him for, because he was a good person at heart and we hoped he would find himself, as they say. I mention that he had issues, because it will make this story all the more meaningful to you when you learn how he later turned out. I can't have you reading this and thinking, "Oh, yeah, sure, those privileged kids always have it made. He never had to suffer."

Ethan did suffer although we are not entirely sure how or why. He was a typical, middle-class kid. Things were not handed to him on a silver platter. He had a good home and good parents and went to a good school. But that boy had major issues. Perhaps another person, in his shoes, would have gone straight into alcoholism or other serious problems, dragging everyone down with him. But Ethan took the time to think. His introspection served him well and he overcame many of his issues. And with his good heart, he blossomed into an even better person over time.

By the time he was in his early twenties, he was picking apart bicycles, tinkering with them, developing an appreciation for nature, getting a feel for his Native American roots--although by my estimate, if I am 1/32 Native American at the most, that puts Ethan at 1/64. No matter. There is a segment of our clan that loves gardening, nature, all things botanical, Native American lore, etc. And Ethan was part of that mindset. No, he was more than part of it. He was a leader for those who bothered to listen.

So when Ethan participated in some kind of Outward Bound program to get his head on straight, and evolved from there to participating in other nature programs, we were all proud of him and started to have wonderful conversations with him. My husband and stepson had many long talks with Ethan about camping and survival skills.

And when Ethan chose to spend half a year honing those skills out west in 2008, his family and his friends all said, "Cool! Go, Ethan!" I received sporadic updates on his adventures, including a rented house that accidentally caught fire and an incident with some road kill. See photo of Ethan with a deer. He did NOT kill that deer nor did he feel insensitive about its death. But he found it dead and simply did not want to pass up the photo op. That's why he is mugging for the camera.

In late August, 2008, Ethan announced that his car was kaput so he decided to sell it and ride his bicycle from Montana back to Indianapolis. This trip was at least 1,800 miles. And despite some issues I have about visitors--which are completely unrelated to Ethan or this story, so I will not elaborate--I insisted that my nephew stay with me in the Chicago area in his last few legs of the journey home. Up to this point, it felt to me as if my husband and stepson had bonded with Ethan better than I had. I felt left out. Something told me that I MUST spend time with him, find out what made him tick, what he valued, who he had grown into. He was 25 and it was time to re-meet my own nephew.

So in the last days of August and early September, Ethan kept me posted as to his whereabouts. He emailed me from libraries and checked his cell phone once in a while as he got close to Chicago. This cell phone, if I am understanding correctly, was one of the few electronic possessions Ethan owned. In recent years, he had been giving away possessions and paring down his life to keep himself connected to That Which Mattered Most and this was just one of a long list of attributes I wanted to learn more about.

And learn I did. When Ethan was about to leave Wisconsin, I emailed maps to him to help him find his way down a bike trail from Crystal Lake, Illinois, along the Fox River, down to my home in suburban Chicago. The man who rang my front doorbell was lean and unevenly tanned from being on a bike day after day. We watched him eat two hamburgers, half a pizza, two pieces of apple pie and numerous bottles of water. We talked until we were all hoarse. We made him spend the night. (Oh, yes, we insisted he shower first, as he was so rank!) And then we talked his ears off the next day, too. We literally did not want him to leave. Please believe that I am not exaggerating when I say that I was awestruck by his persona. I hugged him goodbye with tears in my eyes and told my husband that we had been given a precious gift. That was how I viewed two days with this man--September 10 and 11, 2008--a precious gift. Roger took photos of him right before he left and as he rode away. (See below.) A few days later, after some of the heaviest rains seen in the midwest in a long time, Ethan soggily made it within 50 miles of Indianapolis before too many bike repairs made it necessary for him to call his dad for a ride.

I saw Ethan very briefly once more, in Indianapolis, but I was too preoccupied with a family crisis to give him the attention he deserved.

Then on February 14, 2009, my mother, Ethan's grandmother, called to tell me that there had been an accident. Ethan had gone canoeing with a friend in the White River that runs through Indianapolis. If you want to know more about it, google the name Ethan James Runnels and you'll find plenty of hits.

Please remember, Ethan was a very accomplished and confident survivalist. He took classes in survival skills and taught these skills to others. He had given a class in hypothermia two weeks prior to the accident, wherein he cut a hole in the ice in this same river and jumped in, then showed his students what to do in case such a thing ever happened. If you google his name and read about the accident, you will learn that the media focused heavily on the fact that Ethan was not wearing a life jacket when he drowned. Yes, he should have worn one, but perhaps due to overconfidence, he didn't. He got in the boat that afternoon and skillfully navigated six miles in choppy water, wearing hiking boots and a winter coat. Then just as he reached his destination, he got caught in some low tree branches and capsized a few feet from shore. His companion, a strong swimmer, made it out. But the strong current exerted thousands of pounds of pressure on Ethan and pulled him downstream and underwater. The winter coat and hiking boots probably absorbed a lot of water. A life jacket may or may not have saved his life, but we will never know. His body was found two months later, on Easter Sunday, washed up on a sandbar near the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

I will say no more about the accident, nor will I allow any insensitive or disrespectful comments to be written about it on this blog.

The family is still in shock. We cannot fathom how the best survivalist of our family did not survive. Valentine's Day and Easter Sunday are forever ruined for us. Many people grieve for Ethan, especially his father, mother and sister. But also my brother's extended family... my sister-in-law's extended family... Ethan's many friends.

I am just one of many people who feels the grief and I do not place myself high in the pecking order of those who are saddened. Yet I think of him every day. I cannot see a bike without thinking of him. The river near my house reminds me of him. Any discussion of bicycle parts or mechanics upsets me. I cry when I see a canoe, even if it's on TV. Yet I am willing to sit here with tears running down my face and dredge up awful memories and fill you in on the background of this story because the world deserves to know what an amazing person Ethan was. And in my mind, still is. His philosophy lives in us still.

So to paraphrase my cousin Allen, I will talk no more about how Ethan died. I will talk about how Ethan lived. And this story will continue in a blog post that I will entitle, The Life of Ethan, part 2. And it will continue until I have said all I can think of, but even then, I will never be able to say it all. I love you, Ethan.

aunt dj
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