I had been working with a little boy named Tyler Graebner for a number of months. Tyler was 8, loved wrestling, and had this infectious love for movies, video games, and anything else you might think a little boy would be into. I have written a lot about Tyler over the last few years, this little trooper left a lifelong impact on me. I hope to one day write a book about the little guy that brought the wrestling world together as family, if only for a brief period of time.
Tyler had pancreatic and liver cancer. He fought the tough battle for around nine months before the cancer finally took his life. I live in Wichita, Tyler lived in Hutchinson, almost an hour away, and he was in the Mercy Children’s Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, some 3 hours away during the last couple of months of his life. Tyler had been in the hospital for some time when I made my last visit at the hospital. I’ll never forget watching I Robot with Will Smith with him the last time I saw him in the hospital. It was the week before he was to come home for good although we didn’t know it at the time. I knew he wasn’t doing well so I called good friend and World USA wrestling competitor Eric Akin who lived near him to let him know that he and his wife Steph needed to visit him at the hospital. Eric has always been great about things like that, and I knew that he and Steph would pull through.
World Competitors, Olympic Gold Medallists, USA World Team Members within the wrestling community, and even others in the sports movement like Michael Vick and LeBron James had heard about Tyler but I can’t think of a world class athlete that did as much as Eric Akin, even USA National Champion TC Dantzler had dedicated his USA World Team Championships to Tyler, but Eric was there to donate time for clinics, and so much more to help with costs. It was on a Friday morning after making that phone call to Eric and Steph that I received a phone call from Eric.
Eric had gone to see Tyler one week after my last visit and that day I had made the phone call to him on Thursday night. He called me that Friday morning and it was one of the toughest but best calls I have ever received. Eric was crying and it wasn’t long before we were both in tears, barely able to carry on a conversation. In fact I would say, we were both weeping. Eric had called me to tell me about how he had seen Tyler the night before and it was all he could do to stay there and stay strong. It was evident to him that Tyler was on his last legs. This little wrestler had wrestled with cancer and given it everything he could give it. He couldn’t give it any more and it looked like the cancer was going to win. It was going to win despite the courage of Tyler and his family, and the prayers of hundreds if not thousands from around the world.
During that time I was going through one of the worst challenges in my life. There were people blasting away at me, and among those were people I had loved and served for over 4 years. My church had a few outspoken critics that were upset that I had spent so much time with Tyler. I was taking time away from the church to be around this little boy. To be honest, I never questioned God, but I was certainly questioning people who said they were followers of God. To this day, the bite of those comments still sting, and still hurt, especially when coming from people I loved during the time they came. I even received a sit down request for criticism the day I was to preach Tyler’s funeral. We, as a family were also starting to have the financial troubles of our house in Oklahoma (which we may now loose within the next 4 weeks) start to hit hard. I had invested most all of my retirement money in this house as a possible vacation home, and a home for my family to have after retirement, (as if one ever actually ever retires,) All of this was going on, plus now I was hearing from Eric that Tyler would be coming home that day, on Friday. We knew he was coming home and that it was to die. Eric was telling me this through both of our tears that Tyler may not make it through the night and would live through the weekend at most.
After that conversation I begin to question God, not for all of the crap I was going through, but why it was that an 8 year old little boy had to die of cancer and be in the type of pain he had been in. I literally fell on my face in the hallway of the home we were living in and cried for what seemed like an hour asking these questions. Why God, Why? Please tell me why? I later came to have an answer for those questions but none of the things helped change my heart from breaking, my grief seeing this little boy die. The pain, the gentle spirit, the hurt, the decent little guy, all of these emotions, all of these thoughts, I was hurting like I don’t think I have ever hurt in my life.
I struggled all through the day as I notified the wrestling world and close friends of the fact that Tyler would likely not make it through the weekend. My son was wrestling in a regional state qualifying tournament on Saturday and had weigh in that night. We had made plans to get him weighed in, and then take the 1 ½ hour drive over to Hutchinson to spend time with Tyler and his family. After weigh in, a quick run through the drive through at a local restaurant, we were off towards Hutchinson at around 7:00 PM. I turned that hour and a half drive into an hour and five minute drive. I was going to see Tyler, in fact, I had to see Tyler before he died.
We arrived at Tyler’s house around 8:00 PM. Tyler was semi conscious and obviously in a lot of pain. His mother, Father, Brother and Sister were all there along with a house full of relatives. He was hooked up to oxygen, and was wearing a little mask. He was so small that the mask barely fit, it was almost too big, but there he lay, propped up, not making any noise, not making any motion. He would only occasionally open his eyes and glance around the room. I didn’t bother greeting anyone; I walked immediately over to Tyler who was in a hospital bed in the living room of the Graebner house. I spoke with him for awhile, he was unable to respond to me, but I finally bent down, prayed with him, prayed that God would receive him and asked him if he was ready to see Jesus. I tried to stay strong, but it was hard. I did stay strong though, not crying around those who loved him most, they needed someone to be strong for them, I guess I was the person God put in the place to do that.
It was approximately 35 minutes later when Tyler died. I was there with him and have always considered that 35 minutes of time one of God’s greatest gifts to me.
I guess that is what I focus on now, more than anything regarding the pain of the moment, not that Tyler died, not that we continue as a society to do irreplaceable harm to each other and the planet where things like pollution, starvation, disease, and in Tyler’s case, cancer, occurs, but that God cares enough about us to give us time, if only 35 minutes when we need it. To think about how God will make us strong when we need to be strong, and to think about how God does the things that only God can do when he chooses to do those things. Some will talk about coincidence, some will talk about any variable of things to take away the credit that God fully deserves, but for me, I know, I don’t guess, I don’t assume, I know, that regarding the strength, regarding the gift of 35 minutes, it all came from God.
I know we all tend to look at what is bad in life, I do, I know I do that often, but I also know that we have all had good happen and it is that good that we need to focus on. We need that focus when we hear about political turmoil that affects the lives of millions if not billions of individual human beings. We need to focus when there is turmoil that will affect a mother or father which may end up loosing a son or a daughter in a war that takes place in Iraq. Maybe the bad is the loss of husband or wife who has just lost a spouse to a car accident. There are all kinds of bad in life, including loosing a house, having an argument with a child, and even having something stolen from your home, or a relapse of an addiction. Yes we can focus on those things and we will feel miserable most of the time if that is where the majority of our focus is at. I challenge each of you though, don’t focus on the one little thing that has brought heartache for the majority of your time, don’t focus on the bad, focus on that which is good, focus on that which God has done. Look for the places where God has been there, if only for 35 minutes, only 10 minutes, only 5 minutes, focus on the goodness of God. Now don’t get me wrong, we will have times we have to look at, think about, and dwell on that which is bad, but the ultimate focus, the ultimate realization has to be on that which is good, for our own sanity, and the sanity of those who are around us.
It has been over 2 years now since Tyler died. I continue to share his story, even in situations like this. I have shared it in the introduction to a book in an article called Movies and the Good They Can Do. I think of him often, that little 8 year old boy who suffered from cancer. I also think of him when I asked the question of if he was ready to see Jesus, not just the 35 minutes prior to his death, but in the hospital talking about all kinds of things, including the movie I Robot. I’ll never forget his smile, his response of “yes”, and then the reply of “Now can’t we just finish watching the movie?” He seemed to have it right. While in pain he didn’t focus on the pain, when hurting emotionally, he didn’t focus on the emotions, when contemplating his certain death, he didn’t focus on death. Instead, he focused on being a little boy, and living a fun filled, eventful life, even if it meant telling an old man, in a nice way, to shut up, things are taken care of, now let’s watch the movie.
Now the following was Tyler's favorite songs. It was played at the funeral home and at the grave side service. If the video don't appear just click on the following link:
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