McCOOK, Neb. -- Week in, week out, Tyler Bieck listened to his mother's wishes to die.
Through fifth grade, sixth grade and half of seventh, Tyler served as his mother's confidant.
He heard about her boyfriend trouble, her weight-loss struggle and her chronic pain from a 1991 car accident.
Tyler locked her pain and her wishes in his heart. There was no one to tell.
A custody battle loomed between his divorced parents, and it was messy. Tyler didn't dare tell Dad. It would jeopardize his plan to leave Dad and move in with Mom. His two brothers? Forget it. Shy at school, Tyler kept to himself.
At first, Mom told him she hoped God would take her. Maybe an embolism would pop in her brain.
Soon she talked of suicide.
Whenever it came up, Tyler countered with a threat: "If you kill yourself, I'll have to kill myself, too, " he'd say. "You're my life."
"Tyler, " she would respond, "just let me go."
Tyler couldn't fathom life without Mom.
She was his best friend. The only person with whom Tyler felt completely himself.
On good days, she'd pick him up from McCook Junior High and treat him to Mac's Drive-In.
Sitting inside her white Mercury sedan, Tyler felt safe. Appreciated. Chatty, even.
Over sodas -- she always got diet -- and mozzarella sticks -- he liked them dipped in ranch dressing -- Tyler could open up about his day.
He told her about the older boy at school who called him fat.
That stung. It wasn't like grade school, when kids said he looked like Drew Carey. Then, Tyler laughed about his round face, black-framed glasses and blond buzz cut.
"You're not fat, " Mom told him. "People like that? Don't even listen to them. Jerks."
Tyler soaked up their time together, riding his bike to her latest rental in McCook.
He felt honored that she counted on him, a 13-year-old. The two talked at night in her bedroom. Tyler phoned often.
Knowing the extent of her pain made him sad -- and it scared him.
Once, a couple of years back, Mom flopped to the floor and shook.
Tyler, a fifth-grader then, called 911. He didn't know her address but directed paramedics to her door by giving the operator familiar landmarks.
What a change from the days when the five of them lived under one roof like any ordinary family. That started slipping after the 1991 accident.
Mary Jo Bieck was hit from behind. Slammed so hard she left her teeth marks in the steering wheel of their Buick LeSabre. She walked out of the car without a bruise but couldn't talk to anyone, couldn't respond. She was flown to Lincoln in a medical helicopter for tests.
No one could make sense of it.
Tyler's dad, Bill Bieck, was bewildered.
"She looked fine, " he said.
She didn't act fine. She would drive the car but forget where she was headed. She'd call Bill at the golf course where he supervised the grounds and say: Come get the boys.
Bill took his wife to every specialist he could find while folks from the Evangelical Free Church in McCook pitched in. Church members brought meals, watched the boys. Mary Jo stayed three months at a brain-injury center outside Kansas City, Kan. Two weeks at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Her diagnosis remained unchanged. Mary Jo had a head injury like a concussion. Possible brain damage. It could be managed.
Mary Jo took pain pills and antidepressants. She saw a therapist. Her head pounded. Her back ached. No one seemed to care.
Mary Jo told her husband: I think I need a place to live. It's nothing about you. I just need my time alone.
Bill talked her into staying. He picked the kids up from school, cooked dinner, tried to keep the house up. He couldn't believe his wife wasn't getting better, wondered how real her pain was. He wondered whether he somehow enabled her.
In frustration, he moved out.
Bill had meant for it to be temporary. He bunked in the employee lounge at work. He still drove the kids to school, paid bills, ran the house.
But separation turned into divorce as the boys -- Ryan, almost 12, Tyler, 8 1/2, and Tony, 3 -- bounced between their parents. Bill eventually got the house and the boys. But Ryan moved out in a huff and settled in with Mary Jo. Tyler wished to be next.
Tyler didn't have Ryan's problems with Dad or his rules. He just wanted to be close to Mom. He and Mom got each other -- she told him so.
She told him the accident had made her realize how tough Tyler had it at age 4. How tough he had been when he was diagnosed with a rare bone disorder that required sleeping with his legs in traction.
Tyler felt special around Mom. But he had no idea how to relieve her pain. They cried together. A lot.
When Mom spelled out her plans -- she'd drown her misery for good with wine and pills -- Tyler acted. When she fell asleep, he crept into her kitchen.
Tyler grabbed the wine bottle and snuck outside to the backyard shed. In the darkness, he placed the bottle behind the lawnmower.
The following week, Tyler was at Mom's watching TV when Dad called.
Time to go home.
As always before parting, Tyler gave Mom a kiss.
"I love you, " he said. "Always."
"I love you, too, " Mom replied. "Goodbye."
Home at Dad's, Tyler picked up the phone at 11 that night and called Mom. No answer. But it was late.
That next morning, he tried again. Twice he thought he dialed the wrong number, because a strange man answered.
He tried a third time. Connie Jo, Mom's friend, answered, saying she'd be right over.
"I knew it, I knew it!" Tyler cried.
For two days, Tyler wasn't allowed to go to Mom's.
Once there, he ran past relatives cleaning up.
Ran to the shed.
The bottle? Gone.
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