Posted 6 hours ago
As you can imagine, a lot has happened since our last update. The passing of both Riley and her grandfather on the same day was actually a blessing, but the travel along with back to back funerals really delayed our ability to start healing. We arrived home late last Thursday and our new reality has started to sink in. This has been a very hard update to write and may be even harder to read as we try to share our thoughts.
Today is 3 weeks since Riley died and it is also her 11th birthday. The past few weeks are a blur, but at the same time certain things seem so clear as if it all just all happened. We are trying to figure out what our new “normal” is as we deal with normal grief. The children have done well, but there are periods of real pain and struggle. Ashlyn at 5 has been a great spokesperson for our emotions and thoughts. She states everything very matter of fact: I wish Riley was here when I lost my first tooth; This is our first trip without Riley and I miss her; We all miss her and we ALL want attention; Riley’s things did not make her special-it was Riley who was so special; Riley won’t be coming with us to bible school today; and the list goes on and on as she forces us to talk about Riley and our feelings. Paul, at times, seems normal then at other times we can see that he is lost without his best friend. He is wanting to be with us more and he doesn’t even want us to run quick errands without him. Ella and Ashlyn have been playing a lot together, but when things don’t go just right Ella will get irritable fast. We believe this is all normal and we continue to reassure them with the One True Hope that is greater than this world.
We had been planning to update the carepage for a week or more prior to Riley’s passing but we just hadn’t found the energy to describe what was happening in our home. Riley had begun to be symptomatic with her tumor. She would get short of breath easily with any physical activity and she would have coughing spells that would make us pray for her relief. At times she would have trouble sleeping due to the cough. We had been trying to work and be “normal” but thankfully 10 days before she died, we decided it was time to let her stay home so she could be more comfortable. And we stayed home with her for the week prior to her passing. Riley would never complain that she felt poorly, but she did modify her activity and started entertaining herself with more sedentary activities. With modification of activity and a small amount of medicine to take the cough away Riley seemed to be doing much better. We almost felt silly for staying home with her, but thankfully we both felt greedy and we stayed home with her any way.
We often checked how she was doing and always got her typical sweet “fine” or “good” response. As usual we would ask if anything bothered or scared her and her response was always “No.” Then on the Saturday before she passed, for the first time in her five year journey she admitted she was scared. When asked, Riley shared she was scared of cancer and when Kelly asked what scared her about cancer she said, “Because I might have to go to heaven.” She said she was scared to go to heaven because she didn’t know what it was like because she had never been there before. So that night we began reading about heaven and we started the story “Heaven is for Real”. The only thing about leaving us that was upsetting to Riley was that we would miss her. This was the only thing that ever made her cry. Monday, I felt the need to let Riley know that whatever happened along our journey it was not her fault in anyway. She had done more than we could have ever asked and whatever the outcome it was in God’s plan. She said “okay.” And after expressing her fears, she seemed to rest better at night.
I returned to work some the final week, but found it most difficult to focus. Riley would let us know if we could run a quick errand and she even let us go to Ashlyn’s preschool graduation Tuesday before she died. Rachel from the Collide Christian service group from ECU sat with Riley while we were at Ashlyn‘s graduation. Apparently while we were gone she spoke with Rachel about heaven. Later that day Rachel told a mentor that she felt as if she was on hallowed ground while she spoke with Riley of heaven. After graduation Riley wanted us home with her. She loved on us while we watched Ashlyn‘s graduation and laughed at some skiing video with my parents who came in town to celebrate Ella‘s 7th birthday.
That night she had a serious conversation about Jesus with Kelly. She wanted to know why the Jews thought that Jesus was just a prophet and not the Messiah. She ask what sin they thought Jesus had done to make Him just a prophet. She said all the prophets sinned and she proceeded to tell each prophet‘s sin, but then she did not know how the Jews could think Jesus was just a prophet because He never sinned. He always did what God asked of Him. Well, as common for Riley, this question was too deep for us to be able to give an answer so we just left it to ponder for the night. I guess we will be pondering it for a lot longer than a night and Riley I’m sure got her answer the next day.
Wed morning she told me I could go to work. My parents were visiting and Riley enjoyed their company - especially snuggling with PopPop. Even with my parents present she would not allow Kelly to run even the smallest errand. I called to check on her during lunch that day as I wanted to come home to be with her, but since all was well I felt it would be silly to come home. It was less than 10 minutes after my call that Kelly phoned back to let me know Riley had died.
Riley’s passing was so quick and unexpected that day. She had been resting well at night and had even more energy for the last few days. That afternoon she was watching movies and cuddling on the couch with PopPop. She was waiting to have her pizza put on a plate for lunch when she got up from the couch without a word and walked to the kitchen. PopPop very calmly called, “Kelly I think she wants you,“ but neither seemed to be in any distress. She walked around the living room and Kelly came out of the kitchen. Arms raised and Kelly said “Just relax, you‘re okay” as she picked her up into her arms. When Riley was to Kelly’s chest, she went limp and Kelly knew before she was even able sit down that Riley had died. In our medical experience we haven’t heard of a passing like Riley’s. The images haunted Kelly for days as she felt helpless because she couldn’t do anything to help and she felt that Riley must have been walking to her for help. I wasn’t home for her last moments, but I have told Kelly I feel differently and that she wasn’t walking to Kelly - she was walking to Jesus. Riley was able to walk far enough to reach her mother’s arms before leaving this world for her Father’s arms.
After she passed, we rocked her and sang songs. She appeared to just be asleep in our arms. It seemed odd, but the only prayer that I could sing at the time was Riley’s favorite for everything “God Our Father, God our Father, We Thank You, We Thank You, For Our Many Blessings, For Our Many Blessings, Amen. Amen.” After the neighbors got the kids from school and we broke the news to them, we laid her in her room. I struggled with why I wasn’t home when she passed, but later I realized it was to be able to comfort Paul when he was upset about not being around when Riley died. When we asked the kids if they had any questions, Ashlyn broke the tension with her 5 year old honesty, “Who gets Riley’s Ipad?” We said we could share her Ipad and that nothing would happen to her stuff until we all agreed on it. She was relieved, but then anxiously asked “Does anyone know her Ipad’s passcode?”
Our priest came to bless her body. We were surprised by how many came to see her at the house. So many were shocked as they had just seen her a few days prior acting “normal“ and even swimming for a bit in the pool. Paul had a very difficult time and didn’t want us to take Riley from the home. He wanted us to wait 3 days to see if she would rise again. He wanted to know if it was possible, and of course it would be possible for God, but we tried to explain to Paul that there was a difference from those raised from the dead in the bible. Lazarus nor Jesus were in Heaven when they were raised from the dead, but since Jesus’s resurrection and promise that we would be in heaven with Him, we could not even bear to think that Riley would want to return to this world from heaven to suffer again.
As we were talking with Paul, came the shocking call that Kelly’s dad was also passing. Kelly’s family had gone to the nursing home to break the news of Riley’s death and when they arrived he was already in distress and having trouble breathing. The nursing home wasn’t even aware he was in trouble. The family in town was able to be with him and he was able to talk to the others by phone. Grandpa Mark had been ill for the past couple of months (since Riley’s last lung surgery), and although many medical problems were found, nothing explained his trouble breathing or his sudden death. Kelly finds peace that her Dad didn’t pass alone because they had gone to him to tell him the news of Riley.
In Grandpa Mark’s last few minutes, he began to sing “A Bushel and a Peck” in the middle of the song. He said, “It’s Mom and Riley’s song.” Grandma Marge had always sung that to Riley before Marge died 3 years ago. (When Kelly had gone home to spend the last few weeks with her mother and we told Riley that Marge was going to die, her only response was “Who is going to sing me “A Bushel and a Peck” anymore?” We videoed Marge singing the song before she was too weak and Riley enjoyed the video.) Kelly’s sister then asked if he was ready to go with Riley and Mom. With his last word, he replied “Yes” and died soon after.
After many visited, the funeral home came for Riley‘s “earth clothes“. With our children and others around, we asked that they come in a van and not bring in the stretcher so as not to upset the kids. We met Chris from the funeral home and he shared that he had wanted to take care of Riley when he had gotten the call earlier in the day. He wasn’t supposed to be working that late, but he waited until we called to come take care of her. He had never met her, but his wife had cared for Riley in the hospital a few years ago and he remembered. His wife died suddenly in Nov. 2009 of a pulmonary embolism after work one night. Chris told us he wanted to care for Riley like his wife had care for her before. I carried her out of the house and walking to the van I told Chris that I would hand her to him and then we would walk away and what ever they needed to do was fine. He so graciously offered to cradle her in his arms for the drive to the funeral home. I could not think of a more beautiful gesture at a time like that.
That night was hard especially for Paul. I think Paul was the one most in denial that his sister and best friend was getting sicker. He cried inconsolably and finally fell asleep from exhaustion. The morning she died, Riley said she decided what she wanted for her birthday. She asked for the kids to make her something from Accidental Artist (paint your own pottery shop). We decided to go make her gifts the day after she died with hopes to have them ready to be given to her by her visitation. Amazingly, the store had planned to call us to come as a way to heal as a family and we came in so quickly they hadn’t even had the chance to call.
We all decorated a box that we filled with hugs and kisses. Ashlyn made a cat to represent sparkles; Ella made a dog to represent Sunrise; Paul made a turtle (the animal he collects). We talked about Riley, the things she liked, her favorite colors and it was truly a healing experience. Paul’s was so good he said “It’s so good she won’t even believe I made it.” The other special thing was that Riley had gone to Accidental Artist for a birthday party the weekend prior and she painted a cute little dragon. When we got home after painting I opened Riley’s dragon and Paul thought it was just beautiful. I asked if he would like it and he said, “yes”. We are certain Riley would have loved to have given it to him herself, but this last gift from her was extra special and Paul cuddled up on the couch with it and he quickly fell asleep that night. Later, on the night of her visitation we placed her gifts in the “cradle” with her.
The next few days were a whirlwind of activity. The newspaper and television stations were calling for interviews. All publications did a wonderful job and didn’t dilute our family’s faith for the reporting. How weird it was to be doing interviews after Riley’s death. I didn’t think “normal” people did this after a loved one died, but we know Riley wasn’t normal. Telling her story for others to hear was the beginning of healing for us.
Riley’s service was absolutely perfect for her. Both the visitation and the service were at the church. She was beautiful in the “cradle” (our kids term for the casket). She looked just as she was lying on her bed. We insisted on not having the traditional positioning (staring straight up) and Riley was turned slightly to her side as if she were sleeping. Pink flowers and her favorite pink pillow were part of the decorations.
Her visitation was long and we are sorry if you came and weren’t able to stay to visit. We found visiting with the kids and friends who came to be helpful for us and for those who visited.
The burial service was just what she would have picked. The casket in a catholic service is covered with a “Pall”. The pall is white to symbolize the white clothes worn during baptism, and the joyful triumph over death brought about by the Resurrection. The pall will often be decorated with a cross signifying the sovereignty of Christ's triumph over sin and death on the cross. Riley’s Pall was decorated with a purple and pink stained glass cross made by Kelly’s sisters.
Father Michael gave a moving homily that told of one of the last Riley moments about faith. On trips to NY we saw many signs about the coming of the end of the world on May 21st. To many the rapture seemed silly, but the ending of this world and our family being together seemed like a peaceful plan. God only knows when and how, but we still hope we all get there someday. Kelly was speaking to Paul a couple of weeks before the supposed end of the world and she asked him “If Jesus were to come tomorrow and say come with me - what would you say?” He replied “Well, I don’t want to die, so I would say no.” Riley stormed in from the other room and proceeded to let him know how wrong he was. “You don’t say no to God because if you say no to God just so you can live here longer you will be dead forever. If you say no to God then you will go to hell and you will be dead forever.” Paul at that time then changed his answer to “Most certainly”. Obviously Riley knew her answer in advance. If we all could be so sure - always.
Her graveside service was beautiful too. Ms. Lucille Gorham, a sweet little African American lady who is the matriarch of our church, was with us as we laid Riley to rest. Long story short, we were visiting St. Gabriel’s church the week before Riley’s birth and we went again 3 days after Riley was born. We hadn’t met Ms. Lucile before Riley’s birth, but she greeted us at the door of the church, took Riley in her arms and then proceeded to pass her around the tiny church for all to hold. She told the church to look upon Riley as she was the future of the church. We never left St. Gabriel’s after that day. Ms. Lucille shared a final message at her grave. She said Riley had lived a life that taught us all so much. Jesus’ final call to come home and she excitedly said yes with her arms raised up. Ms. Lucille also said Riley helped show we were all one big family in Jesus just waiting to share eternal happiness with Him.
The final moment at the grave, we announced we would be lowering Riley’s “earth clothes” to their final resting place and many stayed with us. As they began lowering her, Kelly noticed and said “She’s slipping.” The third time she said “She’s slipping” the funeral workers realized and stopped the belts lowering Riley’s “cradle” but it was too late. Her metal casket slipped off the belt and flipped 180 degrees and landed with a huge boom face down in the grave. Everyone was shocked. As someone said today, that only happens in movies because “It never happens.” Chris (funeral director mentioned above) was in the grave faster than anyone could imagine. He was so upset, we thought he might cry. We felt bad because we knew he had cared for her in ways above and beyond and this was not his fault. As Chris was standing in the grave Kelly said, “Yeah, it’s not the first time she has been dropped. I dropped her when she was six weeks old and I was bawling then, but I am not bawling now. I remember calling my sister crying when I dropped her when she was six weeks old and she said, ‘If that’s the worst thing that happens to her you’ll be just fine.‘ And we’re just fine.“ This statement set a new stage of calm and then our nephew Chase climbed in the grave with Chris and amazingly the two lifted the casket and flipped it over in just one motion. (Remember - small hole, heavy casket and only 2 to lift it). We all stepped away and Chris checked to make sure everything was okay. He said not a thing had been disrupted and none of the Accidental artist figurines broke. When we got to the car, the girls were laughing at what had happened. They said “Riley just got tired of waiting. It was taking so long, so she just jumped in on her own.” Only folks that know Riley would know that to be so true and only Riley could take one of the most tearful moments and turn it upside down - literally. Remember, she said she didn’t want us to cry or miss her. We thank Wilkerson’s Funeral Home for their wonderful care of Riley and us.
Today is Riley’s 11th birthday. We will visit her grave and bring her a few balloons. We will order her grave marker and celebrate the day God blessed us.
Always and Forever,
Kirk & Kelly
We have many more stories to share, but will close today with 2 final writings. The first is “Riley’s Song” which we wrote and finished when she was 2 weeks old. We used to sing the song frequently to calm her when she was little. We actually sang her song to her the night before she passed. The next piece “Riley Is” is a poem written by our friend Amy Ellis the night Riley died.
Riley, Riley you’re the one,
You make my world so much fun.
Riley, Riley you’re a doll,
You truly have blessed us all.
Riley, Riley you’re so sweet,
Where’d you get those great big feet.
Riley, Riley with so much hair,
For a Philpot that is rare.
Riley, Riley with big blue eyes,
I love to sing you lullabies.
Riley, Riley the love I felt,
Your smile alone can make me melt.
Riley, Riley sent from above,
You remind us of God’s perfect love.
Riley is all rainbows and rejoicing;
She is warmth and wisdom and wonder,
Winds that play chimes and carry wishes.
Riley is all butterflies and becoming;
She is in His arms and in the moment,
A twinkle in the sky or in a loved one’s eye.
Riley is all dandelion dust and dancing;
She is excellence and earthiness.
Rare places of loveliness and no limits.
Riley is all tee shirts and timeless truth;
She is freckles and fun and family,
Fairies and fairness, and the faith of a child.
Riley is all pinks and purples and peace;
She is purity, pinwheels, proper perspective,
The pauses we take to pray or to play.
Riley is all glow sticks and gratitude;
She is gentleness, generosity and goodness,
Lips laced with “Great game!” and grape￼ jelly.
Riley is all cozy quilts and compassion;
She is curiosity and candy and cleverness,
Close communion with angels and animals.
Riley is all abstract art and amazing grace;
She is acceptance, adventure and assurance.
Arms that reach out – and reach up.
Riley is all sandcastles and celebration;
She is strength and selflessness and soul,
And story – our story and His story.
Riley is all heroes and humility;
She is hope and hard kicks and holy kisses,
Hands held high to praise – and to point us.
Riley is all birthdays and being;
She is our present.
And she is present.