Brian O'Neill: He's walking across U.S. on behalf of late brother

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The most heart-wrenching aspect of his younger brother's suicide note is its mixture of genuine compassion and resolute self-centeredness.

Ian Cummins handed Ryan's note across the dining room table to me in their family's Dormont home. The page and a half of single-spaced, typed words was found in the car where Ryan left his life last November. One could still smell the sulfur on the paper, part of the homemade poison the 20-year-old mixed.

"Forgive me as I take this final leap to end my life,'' Ryan's message began.

"Although I don't feel the pain as much as I should, I know deep down that I am truly sorry. Nothing that you guys could have done would have changed this course of action.''

He wrote that he felt neither anger nor pain, love nor sorrow. "I just am.'' Then he praised and thanked each member of his loving family in turn -- his mother, father, brother, grandmother, even his brother's girlfriend -- as part of detailed preparation for a devastating act that none of them will ever fully understand.

To come to terms with Ryan's tortured soul as best he can, Ian, 22, intends to walk from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The other hope behind this transcontinental walk set to begin March 1 in Virginia Beach is to stimulate conversations about mental illness.

Hundreds walk across the country each year for one cause or another. What makes this one unique is Ian's blunt and loving account of his brother's life on ianwalksamerica.com. We see Ryan as a 5-year-old who can come out of a serious backyard spill laughing, as a teenaged trumpet player and cross-country runner who's also a technological wizard, and as a high school sophomore in inexplicable despair. Always, Ryan is a vital part of a loving family.

There was no denial of his illness. Ryan began seeing a psychiatrist in high school and was treated with a litany of drugs that did little good. He was admitted to Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC as a high school junior. Upon graduation from Keystone Oaks in 2012, he refused to take any more prescription drugs.

His troubles didn't abate when he entered the University of Pittsburgh. Though he earned good grades and got a job in an electronics store, he told his brother he couldn't concentrate.

The last time he saw Ryan, Ian was home unwinding from a 12-hour shift as an intensive care nurse at Mercy Hospital. As Ryan passed through the living room, Ian cracked a joke. Ryan rolled his eyes and walked away.

He was found early the next morning inside his parents' car in a parking lot a few miles from home. He'd mixed a couple of household chemicals in a bucket after posting notes on all the windows. Above a skull and crossbones ran this warning: "Stay Away! Deadly Hydrogen Sulphide (sic) Inside. Do Not Enter! 1 Breath Can Kill! Hazmat Team Required!"

A team came. Of the notes cautioning passersby, Ian said that "even in his darkest moments, [Ryan] believed there was someone out there who could use a bit of guidance.'' What Ryan couldn't figure out, Ian said, was "how to feel the love.''

Their mother Kathryn says the idea of Ian walking alone across the country worries her and her husband James, but it's something Ian has always wanted to do. Now it will be his way of grieving, and of reaching out to families similarly burdened.

His journey will get progressively tougher as he heads west: the Appalachian Mountains, the Rockies and the deserts of Utah and Nevada are between him and his Golden Gate Bridge walk into San Francisco. He's carrying a 38-pound backpack with four liters of water when he begins, but his parents will meet him in Pittsburg, Kan., with a two-child jogging stroller. That's to be loaded with water. He'll need to drink two gallons a day in those desert stretches.

Ian figures anywhere from six to eight months for this hike. He'll stay in motels and post videos when he can. His website already has links to organizations designed to help those with suicidal thoughts and their families.

On his back, he'll wear a T-shirt his girlfriend Megan designed. His brother's name is on the front. On the back, there's a Mahatma Gandhi quote that was on a card in his brother's wallet, encapsulating the journey Ryan could not complete:

"Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony."


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.

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