Rachel and Tyler Fracassa always did things too soon.
They became inseparable when they were 12 and married at 16. At 18, they had a house in Raytown and another child on the way.
Last year, the couple built a homestead on a 16-acre plot of land in Urich, Mo. The one-room house was enveloped by three pastures, a winding creek and a spring-fed pond.
It was as beautiful as it was secluded, and it embodied the couple’s biggest dream: to live as simply as possible so they could spend lots of time together and, someday, save enough money to take their kids all over the world.
Delivering their third child at home was wrapped up in that dream. But like many things in Rachel and Tyler’s life, Arlo came early.
On a hot July day, Tyler raced his mom’s minivan down Missouri 7 as Rachel, now 26, rode out worsening contractions in the passenger seat. Also in the jam-packed car: the couple’s daughter, Gwynneth, now 10; son Eliott, 7; a cat; two dogs; an overflowing laundry basket; an infant car seat still in the box, and an inflated exercise ball.
Between contractions, the whole family laughed at the absurdity of the situation. But when the pain came, Rachel panicked. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.
“I don’t want to have the baby in the car!” She remembers saying over and over as she squeezed Eliott’s hand.
Just past Harrisonville, Tyler pulled into the empty parking lot of a meat market. He ran around the minivan, opened Rachel’s door, saw a tiny arm and caught his baby boy.
What happened next was a blur. The cat bolted from the car, and Gwynneth stopped screaming to chase after him. Rachel cleaned the cat hair off of Arlo and wrapped him in towels from the laundry basket. Then the family, with its new addition, drove 17 miles home.
The Fracassas’ life never went exactly as planned. But it was full and exciting and uniquely theirs. Knowing that comforts Rachel now that Tyler is gone.
On the night of his 27th birthday in September, Tyler was driving his Honda Element home from work at Michael Smith Restaurant in Kansas City when he dozed off and drifted onto the shoulder. He swerved left and then right before the SUV left the road and hit a tree.
Tyler’s life ended about 10 miles from where his son’s began.
Tyler and Rachel met when they were kids, at the Kansas City church their families attended. They started “going out” when they were 12.
“It was totally innocent,” Rachel says. “It was nine months before we held hands and a year before we kissed.”
She was outgoing, and he was more reserved. She never listened to the radio growing up — her favorite CD was the soundtrack to “The Sound of Music” — but he loved Jimi Hendrix and was always playing the guitar.
“He was just different,” Rachel says. “The epitome of cool.”
Even as a child, Tyler had so many layers, his mom, Rene Fracassa, says.
“It wasn’t just that he was smart,” Rene says. “He was artistic, he was sweet. He was a very deep soul.”
Tyler and Rachel were on the phone so much that their parents had to get a second line, which was a big deal back then.
At that age, most relationships last a week or two, tops. But Rachel and Tyler were serious from the start. That worried his parents, who sent Tyler to live with missionaries in Peru for a whole summer when he was 14.
“It was horrible,” Rachel says. “Horrible!”
They had no way of talking while he was away. But as soon as Tyler landed in the United States, he called Rachel. She still remembers how good it was to hear his voice.
Tyler came back with a composition notebook full of letters. He had written to Rachel every day he was away.
After that, Rachel says, “we were closer than we’d ever been before.”
When Rachel was 16, she got pregnant. She and Tyler were ecstatic about the adventure ahead. It didn’t matter that it was an accident — they wanted to get married right away.
Their parents were dumbstruck.
After the initial shock, Rachel’s parents approved of the marriage idea. Tyler’s thought he should wait until he turned 18, but that wasn’t an option for the stubborn young couple.
“I would’ve married him at 14 if I could have,” Rachel says. “But that’s just not something that people do.”
When Rachel was about 4 1/2 months pregnant, she and Tyler skipped school and flew to Georgia with her parents. It was one of the only states where they could get married without parental consent.
After a short courthouse ceremony, Rachel’s parents drove the married couple to a hotel for a one-night honeymoon. The workers at the front desk almost turned them away because they were so young.
“That was extremely awkward,” Rachel says.
When they returned home, Tyler’s family disowned him, and Rachel’s family was kicked out of their church. Rene Fracassa remembers it as an extremely difficult and painful time for everyone.
“He was our child, and then overnight he was gone,” Rene says. “It was almost like we had to go through the grieving process then.”
Everyone told Rachel and Tyler they were making a mistake. But even at that age, under so much pressure, they knew what they were doing was right.
“People looked at them and said, ‘They’re too immature to make that decision,’ ” says Tyler’s childhood friend Joe Chadwick. “They proved everybody wrong, because they were happy.
“Not everybody in life gets to experience that.”
A couple of weeks after the wedding, the Fracassa family accepted Tyler and Rachel back into the family. Gwynneth’s birth a few months later brought everyone even closer together.
“We committed at that point that we wanted to do whatever we could to help them make it,” Rene says.
Tyler transferred to Rachel’s high school their junior year.
When teachers at Raytown South mistook them for cousins or twins, they proudly announced that they were married.
They knew some people expected them to fail at their marriage, or at school, or both. The fact that they were happy and got good grades made them feel like they were defying the odds.
Tyler’s quiet charisma won people over quickly. He was named Mr. Raytown South after he stood on stage in front of the whole school in his underwear, with a guitar, and sang the Britney Spears song “… Baby One More Time.” He didn’t have a lot of singing experience, but he joined choir with Rachel. They teamed up on a duet of the Blur song “Tender.”
Come on, come on, come on,
Get through it
Come on, come on, come on,
Love’s the greatest thing
Rachel says that before Tyler came to her school, she was an outsider who secretly wanted acceptance. She had problems people didn’t know about.
“I was borderline anorexic,” she says. “I was popping diet pills. I was a wreck.”
Tyler helped her find confidence and happiness she’d never known before.
“He swooped in and rescued me,” Rachel says.
“He turned me into a whole person when I was so broken.”
Being together always felt like an adventure. In the spring of their junior year, she and Tyler checked themselves out of school, left Gwynneth with her grandparents and drove to Chicago for their first vacation together.
They slept in their car and showered at the YMCA. They walked for miles and miles through rain, exploring the city until their feet hurt.
Even then, they loved the thrill of doing something on their own.
Being married so young wasn’t always easy.
When they were 18, Rachel and Tyler bought a house with their own money and decided to have another child.
Tyler enrolled in a competitive six-year medical program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He made excellent grades but didn’t always make the most grown-up decisions.
One day after a snowstorm, Tyler dropped Rachel off at Price Chopper for groceries. When she came out, she saw a truck pulling their Honda Element out of a giant pile of snow. Tyler had rammed the pile like it was a ramp.
After Eliott was born, the family outgrew their house, so they moved to a larger town house where the rent was cheap. But the town house was infested with black mold that made the kids sick, so the family had to move in with Tyler’s grandparents for a few months.
The Fracassas moved a lot — they also tried a loft in the River Market — but never felt truly settled.
Rachel couldn’t settle on a career, either. She considered studying mortuary sciences before she signed up to attend a school for raw food chefs in California. After a couple of years as a chef, she became disillusioned with the raw food community, which she saw as too judgmental.
Figuring out what you want to do at that age is hard, and it’s even harder when you have two young kids and a husband who’s sick.
When Tyler was a kid, he took a trip to Mexico and came back with a mysterious illness that stumped doctors. It drained his energy and caused searing stomach ulcers that left him curled up in a ball for days.
Sometimes he’d go six months without getting sick. But it always came back, and living under that constant threat was exhausting in so many ways.
After 3 1/2 years in medical school, Tyler decided he wanted to drop out. Rene, his mom, admits she and Tyler’s dad, Rusty, were disappointed, especially because he was doing so well in his classes. But they understood his motivation.
“He sacrificed being a doctor because he wanted to spend more time with his family,” Rene says.
Eventually, the Fracassas supported their son in this decision, too.
“At this point,” Rene says, “I feel very fortunate that we made the choices we made when life was not going exactly the way we wanted it to go.”
In late 2008, Tyler got a job at Extra Virgin, a new restaurant in the Crossroads Arts District.
Until the restaurant opened, Rachel says, she and Tyler were “totally and completely broke.”
They would scrounge in their parents’ cabinets for food and sell music equipment on Craigslist for cash.
One night around the holidays, when the kids were with their grandparents, Tyler picked up his guitar and told Rachel to grab a scarf. They headed to the Plaza.
“We stood in the cold on the corner and sang our hearts out for about an hour,” Rachel remembers.
By that time, they had enough to pay for dinner and a decadent Chocolate Bag dessert at McCormick & Schmick’s. They even had money for movie tickets.
“We never did anything like that again,” Rachel says, “but we were so pleased with ourselves for finding a way to have our date night.”
Things got easier when Tyler started working at Extra Virgin.
Tyler loved his job — he was a hard worker who could talk to anyone and liked to keep his mind occupied, even when the restaurant was slow.
Nancy Smith, who co-owns and manages the restaurant with her husband, Michael Smith, says Tyler would read a book or work on the New York Times crossword puzzle during breaks.
He was calm, even in stressful situations. But he didn’t smile much, and Nancy and Michael were always on him about that.
Tyler’s mom says he was always reserved. As a kid, he would open presents with his tongue stuck in his cheek, like he was trying hard to suppress a grin from spreading across his face.
“That was part of his personality, not to give anything away,” Rachel says. When Tyler did smile, he smiled big, with his face tipped up to the sky.
His co-workers say Tyler cracked them up all the time. One Halloween, he showed up to work dressed as Michael Smith, in glasses, a ponytail and a chef’s coat. Nancy Smith still laughs when she remembers what Tyler said when she asked him to smile at a staff meeting.
“107.3 The Tyler,” he said in a slick radio voice, “All Smiles, All the Time.”
As Tyler grew more knowledgeable about food and wine, he started working next door, at the more expensive Michael Smith Restaurant. The Smiths also asked Tyler to perform on the patio on warm nights.
He would play his guitar and tambourine and sing along with Rachel. They called their two-person band Kiddo and the Condor.
The restaurant was like a family, says Extra Virgin server Aaron Couser.
“He was a nucleus,” Aaron says. “He became like my brother.”
Aaron and Tyler bonded over their love of the Chiefs and Boulevard’s Tank 7 beer.
Rene Fracassa, who had previously worked with Michael Smith at the American Restaurant, became a manager at Extra Virgin in 2010. Working there with Tyler allowed Rene to watch as others discovered all the things she loved about her son. It allowed her to watch as he achieved his own kind of success.
“I remember one time,” she says as emotion swells up, “I said, ‘I’m so proud of you and the things you’ve done, and the way you love your family.’
“He put his arm around me and said, ‘I’m so proud of you, too, Mom.’ ”
After a few years at the restaurant, Tyler had saved more than $10,000.
He and Rachel planned to use it to take Gwynneth and Eliott to Peru for a year. They home-schooled the kids and believed that traveling and experiencing other cultures was the best education.
The couple also dreamed of expanding their family. When Rachel got pregnant with Arlo, she and Tyler decided to postpone their Peru plans and invest their money in a homestead.
They had already purchased the 16-acre plot in Urich. They bought a $15,000 kit with everything they needed to build a yurt, a type of portable dwelling modeled after the houses Mongolian nomads live in.
The yurt had no bathroom, electricity or running water.
“The first time I went out there, I thought he was out of his mind,” says Tyler’s friend Joe Chadwick.
Tyler and Rachel loved it there.
He was always working on a project, building a deck or a shelter for the generator. He taught his kids how to rig machines in new ways.
Gwynneth says her dad showed her how to build an “alarm system” out of a fan, string and golf balls. As she tells the story, her blue eyes light up, and her arm swings around in circles, like the golf balls did.
Tyler and Rachel planted apple trees and drew up plans for a well, a picket fence and a bathroom.
Tyler wasn’t just sitting around dreaming up ideas, Michael Smith says. He was making them happen.
Because Tyler worked evenings, his days were spent with the family. At night, they all piled into the same bed, two twin mattresses pushed together on the floor of the yurt, and formed a cozy tangle of arms and legs.
Tyler felt good.
“When we were here, he was never sick,” Rachel says. “He was the healthiest he’d ever been, the happiest he’d ever been.”
In September, Rachel asked Tyler what he wanted for his 27th birthday. He told her he wanted the house to be really clean. Rachel, Gwynneth and Eliott stayed up until 10:30 mopping the floors and cleaning out every nook.
That night, Tyler worked at Michael Smith. He waited on his co-worker Aaron Couser, who was there with his girlfriend.
“It was his birthday, but he gave me a couple of gifts,” Aaron says. Aaron liked to drink, so Tyler gave him a shirt with a mug of beer on it and a koozie for a wineglass.
After work, Tyler had one glass of wine with his co-workers, then headed home.
Tyler wasn’t afraid of dying.
“He said regularly that he’d be lucky to make it to 30, and he definitely wouldn’t make it to 40,” Rachel says.
“Mom,” Eliott interrupts. “How did he know he wasn’t going to make it past 30?”
“I don’t think it’s that he knew,” she tells her son. “I think it’s that he was OK with that.”
Maybe, Rachel says, it was because Tyler was used to being sick all the time. Or maybe it was because he had a near-death experience as a teenager.
Tyler was driving on Interstate 470 with Joe Chadwick when a truck ran their car off the road. The car flipped and landed in a creek.
Joe remembers hanging upside down from his seat belt as water poured into the car. He kicked out a window and helped pull Tyler through.
The boys survived with minimal injuries, but Joe says the experience made them both more determined to chase after what they wanted in life.
Joe loved cars, and now he runs a successful auto parts store in Shawnee. He says he thinks that for Tyler, happiness meant having the freedom to live a creative life. It meant having lots of time to spend with family. It meant Rachel.
“He wanted to be with her,” Joe says. “There was no question about that.”
Rachel never questioned being with Tyler, either. She pictured them growing old together. So when she lost him, she lost a spouse and so many dreams.
“It’s so easy to wish that it was you instead of them,” Rachel says. “It’s way harder for whoever’s left here.”
She says love for him is her greatest source of strength.
“It’s like,” she starts, then pauses to find the right words: “I’ll do this for you.”
But the little family isn’t alone. Rene takes care of the kids during the day so Rachel can go to massage therapy classes. Friends and co-workers from the restaurant came together to help Rachel construct a fence and finish a couple of other projects around the house.
After the accident, Michael and Nancy Smith held a benefit at Extra Virgin to raise money for the Fracassa family, and more than 300 friends, family members and customers showed up. The Smiths also created a website, tylerfracassa.org, with Tyler’s photos and music, a message board for memories and a page for donations to a memorial fund that benefits his family.
Tyler’s restaurant family is still healing.
“What happened after he died was extremely powerful for me,” says Aaron Couser.
“I quit drinking,” Aaron says. “I quit smoking. I go see a therapist every other week. I live my life in a much more positive way than I ever have before.
“I’ve had a lot of people die in my life, but there was something about Tyler and the way he lived. … He knew what he wanted, and he didn’t care what anybody thought about him.”
Rachel is glad that she and Tyler did everything so soon.
“Even though we had more plans, I feel like we did live a lot,” she says. “It would be so much harder if you hadn’t started your life yet.”
At night, the young mom snuggles up with Gwynneth, Eliott and Arlo. She stretches her body over the empty spot on the bed so the kids don’t feel it.
“He’s missing, but nobody’s alone,” Rachel says.
The little family Tyler left behind is an enormous comfort to Rene.
“Most moms that lose a 26-year-old son, they have nothing except for memories,” Rene says. “I have Rachel. I have her babies. To see his face every day … how lucky am I to have that?”
Rachel and Tyler were always remarkably open with their kids. That didn’t change when Tyler died.
Before the funeral, Rachel and her kids combed and braided Tyler’s long hair. Gwynneth and Eliott painted his casket, a simple pine box, with rainbows and flowers.
They buried him on the land, in the center of a field next to an oak sapling. About 100 people made the hourlong journey, past the spot where Arlo was born, past the spot where Tyler’s car left the road, down a narrow drive bordered by scarlet sumac bushes and cottonwoods with shimmering leaves.
The ceremony was short and simple and deeply meaningful.
The next day, Rachel took a pregnancy test. The baby is due in the spring.