Goodbye, and Thank You.
“It's so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.”
~ John Steinbeck
To be 20 years old. To live in West Lafayette, to attend Purdue University. To get a little too drunk on the weekend. To skip class to screw around with your friends. To exist in the wonderful world that lies so carefully between childhood and adulthood. Grown and yet not. The greatest in life likely ahead of you.
I feel old, but not too old to remember what it was like to be 20 years old and a student at Purdue. Filled with self-doubt yet an unearned confidence. Worried more about what a girl might think of me than whether I’ve studied enough for a Physics test. Accomplishing nothing, contributing nothing to world around me. So wrapped up in my own frivolity that the greater good, my ability to positively affect those in my community, slipped by me, unnoticed.
Nothing of the sort slipped by Tyler Trent. He was smart, and capable, and strong. Yes, stout with the strength that comes with being long familiar with the scourge that is cancer. He battled that cancer in ways most could not understand, and carried his foe around with him unflinchingly. He wore his worthy foe publicly, as he did the scars of their battle. Not to seek sympathy for his trials, but to show people exactly what he and so many others like him were up against. And, by showing his strength, to remind us of our own strength, our own ability to make the world just a little bit better. Because well, if you do a little, and I do a little, and everyone chips in with what they can, before you know it, big, impactful changes start to be seen.
I only met Tyler in person once, at the Missouri football game. When we found out that he was in the stadium, I wrestled with Ross-Ade’s poor reception to send enough Twitter DMs to find out where he was watching the game. During a break in the action we went over to his section where we found him, in his wheelchair, in one of the best seats in the house, holding court to the endless flood of admirers. A normal kid one minute, watching a football game and cheering his heart out, a tenacious face of the fight the next, graciously stepping out of boyhood to be the public warrior we needed.
I first chatted with Tyler after the Journal and Courier ran a story about him, about a boy fighting cancer waiting in line - with tent and crutches in tow - for tickets. Amused by his humor, obvious charisma, and a story I heard about him helping sneak a very large, very inappropriate prop into a football game, I reached out over Twitter DMs. By morning BDowd had sent Tyler a t-shirt (“Come to our house, get hammered,” very appropriate for a college freshman of course) and we joined an already long and growing line of admirers.
For most, the story would end there. A feel good story, a light article or two in local papers and we go back to our lives, ignorant of the the fact that he would have to go back to his. But Tyler would not let that Mike Carmin article be the end of it. How could a cancer survivor, diagnosed with bone cancer for the second time just five months prior, a few weeks removed from a 10-hour surgery, waiting outside the stadium in crutches, symbolize a simpler time? But he did, and he wrung every last drop of impact out of that moment as possible. The year-plus long journey that followed, the public and private struggle with his disease and treatment, the elevation of his profile to a national and even international audience…that was Tyler’s doing, brought about through sheer force of will. That was his triumph: he got people to stick around. To hold on to the story after the moment had passed. To raise his profile, to elevate this wonderful young man, to care about his story, and while busy caring about his story, to learn about and care about the stories of others. Tyler knew that if you were looking at him, he could probably get you to look at the others he brought with him, and deepen your understanding of the struggles faced by the brave men and women, girls and boys, who live that fight day-to-day. And in deepening your understanding, maybe you could be moved to care enough to volunteer, to listen, to donate money if possible. To know that we are in this fight together, that we all have something to contribute to the fight. Tyler might have passed due to this terrible disease, but his life’s work will help ensure that one day no family will have to experience what the Trent family is experiencing.
I am grateful for Tyler, grateful for how he has enriched my life and the lives of those around me. Grateful for what he did the make the world a measurably better place in his 20 years. Inspired by what he represented and how he lived his life. Changed by it all.
Thank you, Trent family, for setting aside your grief to provide Tyler the support he needed to fulfill his calling. For being the smiling, supportive family who cleared the way for Tyler. For being exceedingly generous with your time, opening your house for all those whose lives Tyler touched. Doing, however painful, what was needed and sharing the light that Tyler brought to his world. You are not forgotten either, and the Purdue family, and the college football family as a whole, loves you and supports you.
And thank you, Tyler. For all that you’ve done, for being who you are and showing us all that being who you are is enough, as long as you recognize your gifts and your place in the world. And for being, until the end, a fighter. For rooting yourself in history so firmly that you, and your calling, will never be forgotten. You are loved, and we are, forever grateful.
“You died in the end, but you fought first.”
~ Carsten Jensen