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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Family in Virginia copes with loss of man found in Spokane River

An artist’s rendering of Donald E. Nyden, whose body was found June 4 in the Spokane River near 2209 W. Falls Ave. His brother Tim Nyden said Don moved around a lot and relapsed into drinking and drug use. (Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office / Courtesy)
An artist’s rendering of Donald E. Nyden, whose body was found June 4 in the Spokane River near 2209 W. Falls Ave. His brother Tim Nyden said Don moved around a lot and relapsed into drinking and drug use. (Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office / Courtesy)

Tim Nyden hadn’t heard from his brother, Don, in 16 months.

This time.

Donald E. Nyden’s disappearances were part of a decadeslong cycle: He would vanish into a storm of drinking and drugs, bottom out, and return to family members for help, looking for the bridges that hadn’t been burned. He’d sober up, get help and then “he’d start drinking again. And that was that,” Tim Nyden said.

This time, Tim and his sister thought Don was somewhere in Oregon. Or maybe the Seattle area. He moved around a lot – bus trips here and there, “checking places out.” A few years earlier, he had left Lynchburg, Virginia, where Tim lives and works in construction, following a four-year stretch of sobriety and reconnection.

“It was the most harmonious period we’ve had,” Tim said.

This time, Don didn’t call from some motel, broke and desperate. This time, the call came from an investigator with the medical examiner in Spokane. They’d found an unidentified man in the river June 4, caught up in the limbs of a downed tree near 2209 W. Falls Ave., and used VA records to track down a possible next of kin. When Tim heard that the man had “Judy” tattooed on his left shoulder, he knew for sure.

It’s not clear what happened to Don before he drowned, and police are still investigating. He didn’t have marks or injuries on his body, nor did he have a wallet, Tim said. It appears he was living or spending time around some of the homeless camps in the hidden, brushy areas along the Spokane River. When he was found, he’d been in the river for two or three days, and police issued a call to the public to help identify him.

For Tim, it was heartbreaking to learn of his brother’s death, alone and anonymous and unsolved, in a town all the way across the country.

“Me and my sister, we did love him,” said Tim Nyden, 66. “My wife loved him. My son loved him. I just think of that: that he died alone.”

Thursday would have been Don Nyden’s 69th birthday. Instead, Tim and his sister and some other family members are flying out to pick up his ashes and take them to Olympic National Park, where they will scatter them from a plane over Hurricane Ridge, as they did with their mother’s ashes.

Don, Tim and a sister and brother grew up in a Navy family and moved around a lot. They spent their high school years in Boulder City, Nevada, and Don enlisted in the Air Force after high school, serving as an air traffic controller, Tim said. He had his heart broken by a girl – the “Judy” of his tattoo – and never again had a real relationship with a woman, Tim said. He never had kids, rarely if ever worked or paid taxes.

Tim said he earned an education degree and worked briefly as a substitute teacher, but could never land a job or abide the requirements of the workforce.

“He just lived outside the system, completely,” Tim said. “This was a guy who was as bright as he could be. … All he did, when he was sober, was read. Read, read, read.”

But he didn’t stay sober for long. He would binge on drinking and drugs – sometimes holing up with prostitutes in motels until the money ran out. Every few months, he’d get in touch with Tim.

“He’d sober up, and he’d call me, and he’d be OK,” he said.

But, of course, the cycle of addictive behavior is ruinously hard on families, and Don put his family through it for decades. Don tested his family’s patience and willingness to help, but Tim never gave up on him completely.

The last several years of Don’s life partook of all of it – the bingeing, the disappearing, the sobering up, the glimmers of hope and the return to the bingeing. In late 2007 or early 2008, he moved to Virginia to be near his brother and try to get sober, taking what Tim wryly called “the geographical cure.”

Don came with $13,000 he’d saved up from working at a church in Bellingham, and he lived with his brother for a while. Tim gave him a job.

But when Don got his own apartment, Tim found him there “drunk as a skunk” the first day after he’d moved in – the first step in a $13,000 binge. When the money was gone, “He called me, crying, saying, ‘Please don’t abandon me,’ and I said, ‘I won’t.’ ”

He could no longer employ Don, but he helped him get into a shelter, and from there into a home for addicted men, where Don lived for three years. Then Tim was laid low by an infection related to a knee replacement. He was off his feet, using a wheelchair and walker.

Don, who had achieved his certification as a nursing assistant though he didn’t find work as one, became his brother’s keeper for those months, helping him get around, making sure he got his antibiotics and keeping him company.

“We really drew closer together,” Tim said. “He was my nurse.”

They talked a lot about God, and eventually Tim baptized his brother into his nondenominational church in Lynchburg.

But in June 2012, Don told Tim that he was leaving for North Dakota. Tim didn’t understand it, but knew what was likely to happen. It wasn’t the last time he saw Don – that would come the following year – but in many ways it felt like goodbye.

“I hugged him, and I cried,” he said. “I was so grateful for what he’d done, and I hated to see him leave. … I never hugged my brother in all these years. That was the first and last.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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