Hansen: From depths of despair, he clawed his way back - Omaha.com
Published Sunday, October 6, 2013 at 1:30 am / Updated at 4:36 pm
Hansen: From depths of despair, he clawed his way back
“Realer Than Real”
What it is: Ryan Wilkins’ nonfiction and faith-based account of his family’s past decade. The book’s foreword is by Tom Osborne, who writes, “ ‘Realer Than Real’ is a captivating story that any person of faith will find inspirational.”

How to buy: The book is available at the Bookworm, Parables and Barnes & Noble in Omaha and online at Amazon.com. An e-reader version is available through Kindle and iTunes.

He needs to go to the corner of 222nd and West Center.

He needs to go to the dark and wet and empty field, to the site of the accident, to the spot where his life came apart.

He needs to go. Now.

So they drive there on a rainy night in May 2004. Ryan Wilkins slams his car door and staggers into the field.

That's when he hears the buzzing. That's when he wonders, for the first time: What is that sound?

Every day until this night, Wilkins has lived a life that looked like something very close to perfect.

Homecoming king and valedictorian and student class president at Millard West High School.

A wildly popular fraternity boy and a 4.0 student and the youngest-ever student body president at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Every day after this one will be marked by every manner of tragedy: addiction and abuse. Bulimia and brain trauma. Divorce. Death.

The grief will crash in tidal waves, and Ryan will be flung this way and that, and he will feel the undertow, feel the darkness … and then one day the waters will calm. One day Ryan Wilkins will see the shoreline and start to swim.

But on this night — this first, worst night — Ryan Wilkins is focused only on the buzzing.

Is that your phone?

He is asking the woman who will soon become his first wife.

Is that your phone?

He is asking his best friend.

They check their phones.


His heart races. His breath comes in jagged bursts. He starts to jog through the field. He starts to run.

For Kayla's 15th birthday, mom and dad had bought her a present and asked her older brother, Ryan, to hide it.

This is the sort of thing he does perfectly. This is the reason everyone loves him.

He designed a scavenger hunt, and he hid clues, and Kayla raced around the yard finding them and getting closer to her prize.

Finally a clue instructed her to pick up the family phone and dial a number, and she did — and her hidden present started ringing. “Happy birthday!” everyone yelled.

Ryan is falling. He is crawling on his knees. He is flailing in the dark, weeping, clawing into the wet soil.

This is the spot from which they life-flighted Kayla to the Nebraska Medical Center and hooked her up to machines and came out grim-faced and told her family the news. This is the spot from which the family will crack apart.

This is the spot where her body had been thrown.

He is digging with his hands because he can hear the buzzing and nothing else. Because it is deafening. Because he knows.

Because now he holds the buzzing in his hands. It is the present his little sister had pulled out of his shirt sleeve on her 15th and final birthday.

It is the thing he had hidden from her in plain sight, the thing that had been lying here unnoticed in the wet dirt for 30 hours as firemen and police and EMTs scrambled past.

It is Kayla's phone. And it is ringing.


He sits in his favorite chair in his Chicago living room.

It is 2010 now, and from the outside it looks like things are as perfect for Ryan Wilkins as they have always been.

He's a well-liked young associate at a hotshot Chicago law firm. He works 70-hour weeks. He's used to constant movement.

But now he sits completely still. Five minutes stretch to 10. Ten minutes to 20.

He doesn't speak, because there is no one to speak to. He doesn't think, because thoughts require energy.

He stares at the apartment's beige walls.

Twenty minutes stretch to 30. And then Ryan crosses his right arm to his left side, and he grabs a handful of flesh between his thumb and forefinger.

He sits silently in his favorite chair, and he pinches himself.

It is hard enough to believe what has happened to his tight-knit family since Kayla's 2004 death.

His mother believes God is punishing her. She goes catatonic over her cereal and falls asleep during conversations.

His father is terrified they will never be happy again. One day he finds the bottles of painkillers his wife has managed to hide for years. The pills she takes to numb the daily pain.

He dumps them into the toilet.

Ryan's other sister, Amber, has fallen deeper into bulimia. She has an on-again, off-again boyfriend — the father of her child — who beats her. She leaves and goes back so many times that Ryan finally cuts off contact with her. He can't stand to see the family functions, can't stand to see her bruises.

Ryan marries only three weeks after the car wreck. He sobs through the ceremony.

He refuses to go to counseling and works like a maniac. Sometimes after work he sits in his car and cries so his wife won't see.

They fight, make up, and Ryan can't imagine making it a day without her.

Then she tells him: I'm leaving.

His father flies to Chicago to help him pick up the pieces.

They're in Ryan's apartment when his father's phone rings. Dad answers. And then he screams.

Amber had a green light. She drove through a Papillion intersection. A man driving a dump truck ran a red. He didn't see her, never braked.

Now Amber is being lifef­lighted to the med center, just like Kayla. She is being hooked up to machines, just like Kayla.

His father hangs up and rushes to the airport.

Ryan means to pack and leave, too. Instead, he sits in his favorite chair, silently staring into space, pinching himself again and again.

After a half hour he calls his pastor. With the pastor's help, he gets out of the chair and accepts a ride to the airport.

And soon enough he is back in Omaha, standing over another sister's hospital bed. Soon enough, he is holding his mother's hand.

Maybe this is the moment Ryan Wilkins finally comes apart. And maybe it's the moment when Ryan Wilkins starts to put himself back together.


After 48 hours, she moves her hand. She makes a weak fist. She raises her thumb into the air.

Amber spends weeks in intensive care, more than a month at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln, and then a year at QLI, an Omaha rehab center specializing in brain injuries.

At first she cannot walk or hold objects. She tells people she is 20, even though she is 25. She asks Ryan how college is going, even though he graduated a half-dozen years ago.

She cannot remember holidays or birthdays or much of anything, except for one story that she repeats over and over to Ryan. The details never change.

I remember the helicopter ride to the hospital. Kayla rode with me on the helicopter. She stood over me. She kissed my nose. And then I was calm.

“It is the only thing she has consistently known since her accident,” Ryan says. “The only thing.”

Amber takes her first step with a walker. Then she takes her first step on her own. Then five steps.

In August, she walks her son to his first day of school.

She will never be back to normal, probably never do complex math or run a half-marathon. But Ryan wonders: What is normal, anyway?

“She has told me, flat out, that her life now is better.”

Ryan noticed a change in his parents, especially his mother, on the day Amber came out of her coma.

After rehab they moved Amber and her son into their home.

They still fight the grief, and his mom still struggles with the nagging guilt: Somehow they should have prevented Kayla's death.

But those fights seem easier now, more manageable. They need to be there to take care of Amber. They need to be there to take care of their only grandson.

On Thanksgiving 2010, three weeks after Amber's accident, Ryan posted a long online update about her health and some thoughts about what he and his family were thankful for.

A woman that he had never met responded, and wished Ryan and his sister well. He thanked her.

They started chatting over Facebook. They traded emails. Ryan mentioned that his sister struggled with brushing her teeth.

The woman was an Omaha dental hygienist. Can I bring your sister a late Christmas present?

In January 2011, Jenny showed up at the hospital with an electric toothbrush.

You could say that was Ryan and Jenny's first date. After Ryan moved back to Omaha, he got into counseling and got a job as a senior associate at Baird Holm. They married in March 2012.

Not long after the wedding day, Ryan's dad asked a favor. We need somebody to record everything that has happened to our family, everything we've endured.

Would you write a book?

“Realer Than Real” came out this summer. It's not your usual self-published memoir. Most aren't written in the predawn hours, written while his new wife still slept and before Ryan had to go to work.

Most self-published memoirs do not have a forward written by Tom Osborne. Most do not sell 2,000 copies in the first two months based solely on word of mouth.

The book is about hardship and hope, scars and spirituality. But Ryan does not want you to think the ending is perfect.

Some days he feels angry. Some days, when he calls Jenny and she doesn't answer, he's convinced she has been in a car accident.

“I think more about death than I used to,” he says.

But here's the thing Ryan has learned to do: He has learned to be imperfect. Because being perfect, or trying to be, turns out to be part of the problem.

“Saving my sister, saving my marriage … I couldn't. The harder I tried, the worse it got. …

“But there was something about being at the lowest of lows and praying for a strength that I didn't have, a hope that I couldn't even see.

“That's when I was just broken down. That's when I was slowly, in a process, built back up.”

Nearly a decade later, he can't forget that night in the darkness, the night he found his sister's cellphone in the muddy earth.

It should have been crushed by the collision. The battery should have died.

And yet it buzzed. It buzzed again. And so he picked it up. Maybe what happened next was a coincidence. Maybe it was a sign from above. Maybe it was the cosmos, winking.

He held the cellphone in his muddy hands and he saw the message.

It was a text from one of her friends, a text meant for Kayla. But maybe the message was also meant for Ryan. Maybe it was meant for all of us.

I love you.

Contact the writer: Matthew Hansen

matthew.hansen@owh.com    |   402-444-1064    |  

Matthew Hansen is a metro columnist who writes roughly three columns a week focusing on all things Omaha.

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