Tyler’s Story

Tyler Armstrong Keister

Tyler was born at the Christiana Hospital in Newark, Delaware and grew up in Hockessin, Delaware, the youngest child in his family. Tyler was a good athlete, smart, funny and witty, with a great sense of humor. Most importantly, he was a kind, compassionate and loving person.

Involved in a lot of activities, Ty enjoyed playing soccer for the Hockessin Soccer Club, baseball for Piedmont Babe Ruth, football for the Hockessin Hawks, and swimming for Sherwood Park Swim Club. He was an active member of Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church, where he served as an acolyte, an usher and attended work camps. With his entire family, he aided in raising three service dogs for Canine Partners for Life. Living in the Red Clay Consolidated School District, he attended Linden Hill and Warner Elementary schools and H. B. duPont Middle School. As a freshman, he enrolled at Caravel Academy where his dad was Headmaster. Tyler quickly became involved in school activities, developing new friends, and sharing his great personality with both staff and students. He was voted as Homecoming class “Prince” for 3 of his 4 years. He played baseball as a freshman and was on the track team for the next three years; however his real love was football. He was extremely proud when his team won the State Football Championship his senior year.

When Tyler was in the 8th grade, he began to experiment with alcohol and pot. For years, he claimed they weren’t the gateway drugs that lead him to the opiates that eventually cost him his life however, in the last couple of years as he battled addiction, he began to acknowledge that this humble beginning lead to his drug problems. He, at some point, gradually began using prescription pain pills.

Ty graduated from Caravel Academy in 2006. After being recruited to play football, he went to Wesley College, however he spent more time partying than going to class. He had a promising future as a college football player but would skip practice to party instead. His first attempt at college ended after one semester. In March of 2008, he admitted his problem was more than he could handle and together we searched for help. He found a sober living house in Loveland, Colorado. We put him on a plane and he was on his own to fight his disease and recover. He did a great job, and we believed that his addiction was not too bad at this point as within a few weeks he had gone through withdrawal and was looking for a job. After a year and a half of sober living and finding success in all aspects of his life, he missed his family and was ready to return home.

Upon his return to Delaware he completed two years of college and spent time working some part time jobs. He had a relapse during 2011 and he was now snorting heroin as it’s cheaper than the prescription pills and both are opiates. He knew that he needed to be well and went to a clinic where he was put on a methadone program. Every morning, six days a week, he went to the clinic to get his dosage. He was now controlling his addiction with the prescribed methadone and was able to pass a drug test to work full time at a local bank, his dream job! He spent 8 months working as a top sales person, not only at his branch, but also in the entire division. He had purchased a used Lexus from his grandparents and finally his most precious possession arrived, his puppy, Tedi Bear. Life seemed good!

During the summer of 2012, his addiction entered a new level when he started injecting heroin. Tyler was no longer doing this because he enjoyed it. By late summer, he knew he needed to take a leave of absence so that he could work on becoming drug free. After 6 weeks in detox and rehab, Tyler was excited to be coming home to his family, his dog and his job. Several weeks after returning to the bank though, he knew he needed to concentrate solely on his recovery and regretfully resigned from his position.

Although he had only used drugs for 4 or 5 days between September 3rd and December 18th, his family’s worse fear came true when he overdosed on December 20th. He had spoken with a friend to arrange for a ride to detox so he would be out for Christmas. Unfortunately the ride was in an ambulance to Christiana Hospital where he spent the last four days of his life in a coma surrounded by hundreds of visitors, family and friends.

Tyler’s eulogy given by his dad,
something that no father should ever have to do.

I am here today to celebrate the life of my youngest child and it is my hope that none of you will ever have to experience the pain of this life-changing experience. It will help you to know as I speak of Tyler, that I am the headmaster of Caravel Academy where Tyler attended high school and that he was addicted to drugs. His life was short but special, what a great person he was, witty and funny.

Yesterday Wayne, his grandfather, and I came up to place pictures and artifacts around the sanctuary for the viewing.  As I moved through the building many memories were conjured up: this is where Tyler was baptized and confirmed.  I taught him in Sunday school class from the time he was in Kindergarten to about 5th grade, this was his church. Being in the church reminded me of many good times and I would like to share one quick story about our time at this church.  Ty was in 1st or 2nd grade and during the service he came to the front of the church for the time with youth.  It was near Easter, or it was Easter Sunday, and the minister began by asking the children what today was and what happened on this day.  Ty immediately answered that it was Easter and Jesus was raised from the dead.  The minister continued to ask questions and he continued to answer, soon telling the story before the questions could be asked.  I leaned over to Jeanne and said “He must have a good Sunday school teacher.”

Many of the pictures displayed here today will show people laughing because of something Tyler had said or done while posing for the picture.

Playing with his nephew and nieces in the driveway, Tyler had drawn a magic carpet with chalk on the macadam and the kids, Tyler included, were flying everywhere.  Jeanne came out and asked Ty’s friend Ricky why he was not on the magic carpet.  Tyler piped up, “Because there is a weight limit!”

During a T-ball game Tyler was able to complete an unassisted triple play running to tag out base runners.  Coach Towe said “Tyler, that was a great play but the next time you should throw the ball to first base.”  Tyler replied “I would but they can’t catch.”

Coworkers at the bank said he would always make them laugh.  He was working the drive through window at the bank when he saw a dog in the car and passed out a treat only to find out it was a small child with a lot of hair.

Not only was he witty and funny but he was kind and compassionate, with a sense of fairness.  He thought it was completely unkind for students to leave trash on the lunch tables for Mr. Glynn to clean up but he didn’t seem to worry if I was on duty and had to pick up after students.

Our cafeteria manager would allow students and staff to charge lunches and I would pay my bill, which included Tyler, every week or so.  Some weeks that bill would be high enough to feed his whole table, and I think he did.  But I never minded that he would volunteer his dad to make sure his friends had lunch.

His compassion for others is described in an email I received yesterday from a teacher no longer at Caravel:

I am so terribly sorry to hear about Tyler, for your sake, for his, and for everyone who knew him.  I still remember enjoying having him in class.  I remember his creativity and his sense of humor, and his willingness to take a stand for fairness.  I remember especially overhearing some students gossiping about a classmate and Tyler immediately speaking up on that person’s behalf and pointing out the impoliteness of gossip by reminding them to think about what it was like to be gossiped about.  The other students immediately stopped, and it was clear to me that they did it as much out of respect for him as for his argument.  I remember thinking that he would make a good teacher.

Tyler loved others and was loved by those that knew him.

I can’t tell you the number of people who stood with me around his bed this past week, and relayed stories of the kind things Tyler had done for them or the fun they had being with him.  There were classmates talking about the Ferris Bueller of Caravel, just what every headmaster wants to hear about his son.  When Tyler was a sophomore the football coaches were upset with the freshman because they would not lock up their football helmets after practice.  Tyler decided that he would help the coaches make a point so he hid a number of loose helmets in the ceiling of the locker room.  Now this in itself was not too bad, Tyler could tell the players where to find their helmets and the point was made.  Unfortunately, when it was practice time, Tyler was in detention and would not be at practice until late.  All connected with the team considered this a horrific event: another team must have broken into school and stolen our helmets; one was even seen being thrown out of a car travelling down Del Laws Road.  The police would have to come, The AD was investigating, I was investigating, we had to search all of the cars in the parking lot, and the coach was having a heart attack.  After detention, Tyler was informed of the terrible event, did he have his helmet?  At a team meeting after practice Tyler told the captain where to find the helmets.  A remorseful, and tearful, Tyler called and apologized to the coach.

Many of his friends involved in recovery also, stopped in to visit Tyler.  They would stand around his bed and tell us how much he would support them and I quote “he talked me into going to the clinic” “he would give me a ride to work” “we would go out after meetings” “he made me laugh” “he was a great guy” “he would do anything for you” “you couldn’t find one person who would say something bad about him.”

During Tyler’s battle with drugs, he spent a majority of the time sober. His 2 years in Colorado and almost a year when he returned home were drug free in addition to other shorter periods of time.  He was even able to complete two years of college attending Wilmington University.  During one extended period of sobriety he spent 7 months working for a local bank.  Once he was at an established branch he spent month after month as one of the top associates for his division.  He was the leader in selling new accounts, credit cards, loans and a host of other products.  I asked Ty how he was able to open these new accounts and he replied, “It’s easy, you just have to strike up a conversation and get to know them.”  He held his job during a month’s leave of absence but felt he had to resign his position in order to spend more time working on his recovery.  While attending to business at one of the branches, I informed one of the personnel bankers that Ty was no longer with the company.  She replied “Oh, I thought he was going to be the CEO.”

Last Christmas was one of the best I had enjoyed in a long time.  I have never seen a person so excited about a gift as Tyler was about the dog Courtney gave him for Christmas.  He had wanted a dog for a long time but was not able to be in the right place or time to get a dog.  Well, he was living at home so the time was right. He repeated “Really, really, really many times when he realized his gift.  The dog arrives within a couple of weeks and Tedi Bear was the love of his life.

His ultimate display of love occurred after his death.  A male in his 30’s will receive his heart and liver, a twenty something male will receive one kidney, and a 50-year-old woman will receive the other.  He was listed as an organ donor and had indicated even before he got his license that he would be listed as such.  We pray that these recipients will be able to use Tyler’s gifts to continue their lives with health and dignity.

One can see the impact of Tyler on others as his sister told him in a letter written in 2008 while Tyler was in Colorado doing his best to be drug free.

“I miss the days that we would just hang out. I miss when you would come and sit with me and my friends and do nothing but entertain us for hours. Just by your being there and talking and being yourself. Everyone I know is totally in love with you. You are able to charm anyone into having things go your way.  When you walk into a room the whole room brightens up just by your being there.  It’s not like that for everyone.  You are blessed to have these qualities that God has given you.”

Tyler’s room was the center of our universe for the past four days.  Besides his friends others would come to pay their respects: relatives, parents of his friends, family members, our friends, and coworkers would talk about their interactions with Tyler.  Text messages, hugs, emails, face book and phone calls all sending prayers our way.  We have had many offers of help; food left on our porch and brought to our home.  I can’t tell you how much each of these acts of kindness has meant to our family.  It was so hard being in his room with all of the memories hoping for a miracle, but knowing only God could save him, as the swelling of his brain continued.  But we could touch him, kiss him, hold his hand, rub his face, and tell him we loved him.

Tyler told us many times that his addiction was not our fault and that he loved us and appreciated all that we did for him.  He was embarrassed by his addiction and his biggest hurt was that he was letting us down.  He tried many times to stop through detox and rehab but this disease; he was not able to beat.  In a letter to us just prior to his trip to Florida for rehab he wrote: “I am going to put this in writing  because I can’t bear the thought of telling you this in person, there’s just no way I would be able to hold myself together.  But I am glad I can finally not have to lie and worry anymore, because for a long time I wanted to die every time I got high because it would be easier than this.  You are the two people who had helped me the most and I have betrayed you the most, and it just kills me inside.  I know I was the one who did it, but it wasn’t really me.….I love you both more then I have shown and idk if you can believe me or not but it is true, I’m just so sorry I’m not the person you raised me to be, or who you thought I was, or could be.”  These were beautiful words for us to hear as parents. This disease was a demon that Tyler wanted to beat, but couldn’t.  His brother Matt spent the night of his overdose traveling Wilmington to find Tyler but couldn’t.  Tyler had prearranged a ride to detox after one more time to get high.  Wednesday afternoon we picked up his belongings from Troop 2, and found a text on his phone sent to the person who was to take him to detox.  It read “Will I be out by Christmas?”  This is not what he wanted.  I believe he is at peace and in a better place.  Our miracle was that we were able to spend 24 years with a most amazing person.

Special words spoken by Ty’s sister…

Ty has always been my baby.  There’s nothing a 3 year old could want more than a real baby to play with all of the time. And even though this baby was a boy, he was still my living, breathing doll, who allowed me to dress him up and do his hair, until an age that is much later than you would have thought.

As we sat in the hospital last week getting to talk about all of the good times, his friends had us in stitches.  Laughing, at a time of such sorrow. Everyone knows that Tyler was the exact same way; he could make people laugh no matter the situation. There was a different side of him that I saw though, one that was much more subtle and humble.  I don’t know when he made the transition from Ty to Tyler, probably once he learned how to spell it, but to me Tyler was the clown, and Ty was my baby, the one I grew up with in our perfect little home, having a few run-ins with Tyler along the way.

I found it very difficult to put my thoughts about Ty into words, not only knowing that my dad will do a great job with it, but also knowing that I don’t have the words that go along with the connection that we had.  However, I knew that speaking on his behalf is exactly what my Ty would want me to do. As some of you may know, he passed away on my birthday.  That afternoon as his vital signs began declining, and knowing the powers of modern medicine, my parents asked me how I would feel about him passing away on that day.  I certainly was not keen on this idea, mainly because I wanted to hold on as long as possible, but also a little because I didn’t want to share my day with this tragedy.  Tyler, and his hardheaded self, had other plans.  He was officially pronounced dead at 11:55 pm.

This summer while I was babysitting my nieces and nephew on the beach, I watched them play, remembering back to my childhood.  I longed to be trapped with my brothers on a beach without a cell phone or any other distractions, enjoying simpler times.

Many of our simpler time occurred right here in this very church.  I can remember walking together over to Grandma and Poppop’s for lunch after Sunday School.  I always walked around on the sidewalk like we were supposed to, but Matt and Tyler usually cut through somewhere around the Yanaitis’ so that Grandma wouldn’t catch them.  We spent many great times together at Grandma and Pop’s, completely adoring when Poppop would pick on us.  He was able to get Ty out of his seat with one very ticklish finger.  Ty would play dolls with me in Poppop’s handmade dollhouse, with grandma’s hand-sewn accessories, even though Tyler may have practiced his golf swing on the furniture that was once inside. Many overnight visits there also allowed us to deepen our bond with them, something he felt very fortunate to have.  Including the last night of his life, in which they were able to watch over him until morning.

Not only did we enjoy overnight visits with our grandparents, but we also enjoyed them in our own home.  In order to help Ty with his fear of being alone at night, Matt and I used to argue over whose room he got to sleep in, and sometimes we would just both ask to sleep in the hallway with him instead.  Before finding our nightly resting places, we enjoyed being read bedtime stories.  Dad read a book of nursery rhymes from which he allowed us to pick two stories each.  The Tyler that we know started emerging with his story choice.  Tyler always wanted to have the same one read twice, it started out, “Taffy was a rich man, Taffy was a thief, Taffy came to my house and stole a piece of beef.” I can’t remember all of it, the two characters continued to torment each other through the whole thing, but the end was the part he liked best, “I went to Taffy’s house, Taffy was in bed, so I took a marrow bone, and beat him in the head.”  After this line we would all laugh as if it was the funniest thing we had ever heard.

While reading these stories in my parents’ bedroom, I can also vividly remember a hole in their vinyl pull-down shades.  This hole, obviously, came from Ty, who thought he was Peter Pan.  He had too quickly pulled his sword out of the boxers that he wore over top of his diaper, for the sole purpose of being his holster.  Even though this was a classic “I didn’t mean to” incident, I’m sure my mom was laughing about it the whole time.  Dad used to tell us that he saw Ty fly around the house, just like Peter Pan, to which of course he always agreed.

His love of Peter Pan and pirates, made if very easy to buy him Christmas presents as a kid.  Every year Matt and I were excited to give him a new sword or a gun.  Christmas morning, of course, required us waiting at the top of the steps, with more teasing from Poppop at the bottom.  The best Christmas though came last year when we were able to actually surprise him, for the first time ever, with his beloved puppy.  The thought of Christmas brings us right back to where we started, in this very Church, when Ty was a shepherd in the Christmas pageant saying “Glory to God in the highest and on Earth, peace, good will towards men.”

(Courtney Beth Keister 12/28/12)

We are not alone and neither are you!

Below are some words that we’ve received from friends, and complete strangers.  Addiction is affecting far more families than we ever knew about.  Sadly, it brings a lot of pain to the addicts and their families.

Mrs. Keister, To begin I would like to offer my sincere condolences. I cannot imagine what you have and are going through. You meet certain people in your life who will always have an impact and Tyler was definitely one of them. My mother says that the Chinese have a word “Ji Clen” that cannot be translated to English but means “Good Face, Good Heart”.  When I met Tyler I knew that he was Ji Clen.  The past two weeks I have been thinking a lot about him, and has also made me consider my own struggle with addiction. It is time to stop.

I did not have the privilege of meeting your family face-to face, but I wish I had. My heart breaks for you, because your family could have been my family and your son mine. Our child also struggled with addiction overdosing several times.  He is in recovery now and doing well, but you know as well as I, that the threat of relapse is ever present. I know the pain it causes the family to watch your precious son/brother struggle against a demon that desires to take his life. I’m so sorry for your loss, but am grateful that Tyler is truly free and your family can begin the process of healing.

I know Tyler was a remarkable young man, loving, kind, and compassionate. I know he wanted to live differently. I know that addiction affects good people from loving families. I know that so many don’t understand addiction, and that addicts are often viewed negatively as “drug addicts” and not people with great potential, who are caught up in the fight of their lives against their own will. I want you to know that I understand, and I applaud you for being transparent about Tyler’s struggle and for your efforts to educate others on the true nature of addiction. May you find peace and healing through you efforts.

I never thought anything would happen to me and seeing what happened to Tyler and actually passing away from a direct result of addiction has really helped me see how serious this is. Some people are not lucky enough to come back to meetings after they relapse.  His story will help a lot of people actually see how serious addiction really is. What you guys are doing is the best possible way, in my opinion, to honor his death and actually turn a bad situation into a way of helping others who are struggling. Your son did not die in vain.  His death has meaning and will help a lot of people.

People need to know that addiction is a “family disease” and we, the family, need  the Experience, Strength and Hope which can be obtained from participation in Al-Anon, which is for families and friends of alcoholics–and addicts.

I want to thank you for your truthfulness about Tyler.  Sometimes, families like to hide these truths because they don’t want to be judged, but I know that your honesty will help so many other people and teens.

I am convinced that our “war on drugs”, waged since I was in high school, is ineffective.  We put those caught up in this terrible vortex of dependance in the “enemy camp” and make them the “other”.  We wish and imagine they are unlike us.  But they are us.  Our siblings, our children, our parents, our friends.

Your entire family is an inspiration to us all, as you showed all of us how to live and how to love.  I have learned so much from both of you about life.  Life is short, children are precious, and unconditional love cannot fix everything.  However, I also learned that living life to the fullest, being present in every moment, and enjoying all the little things in life and making memories are the most important parts of life.  For, when we pass, those memories and those moments are what comforts those left behind.  The strength of your marriage and your commitment to your family is an example to us all, and I aspire to achieve the same with my family.  Tyler will always hold a very special place in my heart.