Death is so final. We hear this often, but I don’t know if we can understand, truly, what it means until it happens. It is the end of so much here on earth. Ritual, familiarity, sensory experiences, and traditions, can all die with your loved one. I found the weight of this especially difficult to handle in the days following his death. I knew I had to speak up for him, about him, one last time. I had to choose my words carefully because, like we all know, this was very final. I thought about a lot of things as I wrote these words, in the dark of my bedroom in a quiet house in which everyone else slept. I thought of the times that I had expected to speak on your behalf in the normal course of your life: graduations, your wedding, parties and toasts for milestone birthdays and work accomplishments. There is nothing normal about our relationship now. I will never get to toast you and your bride, or wait anxiously for my turn to meet and hold your children. I have been robbed of so many of these experiences. I had to condense all of my thoughts, all of the processing my brain had been doing about you, your life, and your death, into a few minutes’ time speaking aloud in front of the people who had gathered to say goodbye to you. They tell me there were 600 people there that day. I remember looking out at them, but I wasn’t nervous. I was just terribly, terribly sad. I was angry that I was doing this at all. I can’t explain how difficult it was for me to stare at the blinking cursor that taunted me underneath the words “Riley’s Eulogy.” I have never found the blink of a cursor taunting. I have had writer’s block, certainly, but this was not my problem. Quite the opposite. I had so much I could say, wanted to say, will never get to say. I do not like the idea of condensing your multifaceted life into a few short minutes of talking, but I knew I had to. I had to speak for you, about you, one last time.
Because I put so much thought into it, I want to post it here and share it with the world outside of the 600 people who listened that day. I want you all to know who Riley was, who he was born to be, and who he will remain in my memory. I want you all to know the love I had for this complicated man. I wish I could save it all, in video format, and play a reel of moments that would explain everything about this situation, about him. I wish I could share what is playing in my brain over and over. I wish I could purge some of it. If only I could share it and release it; give it away and absolve myself. I wish I could pull up the images that I see when I close my eyes and give them away, replace them with only the good memories.
But I can tell you all what he was, who he was, from my perspective.
Hello, I am Riley’s older sister, Korey. There was a time that I was known as “Riley’s sister” more than my own name. It used to irritate me, in fact. Today, I wonder how many of his most recent friends even know who I am. I am the one who chauffers his nephews, if that helps to identify me.
First of all, I have to say that I don’t want to be doing this. I can’t believe that I am speaking at my brother’s funeral. It is unimaginable. It is wrong. But I couldn’t say goodbye without speaking up for him. Ever the big sister, I want to speak for him now just as I did when he was little.
Some of you knew Riley when he was small, others were there for the teen years, and some were friends that he met in the last decade. I don’t know how many of you knew him entirely, and it’s for this purpose that I wanted to speak.
Riley was an extremely cute child. I know, because it made me mad! People were always meeting us and then commenting on the “twinkle in his eye.” It used to drive me crazy. He was charming and friendly. He always had a way with women (and I’m talking about when he was a little boy). My dad would take him for a bike ride and meet young women on the trail who knew Riley’s name. Inexplicably, somehow he met them and they remembered who he was.
He was absolutely fearless. He would fly down a ski slope or ride his skateboard off of a curb before he could tie his shoes. He wanted to do everything the older boys in the neighborhood did, and he usually could.
When he put his mind to it, Riley was a very determined and hard worker. Except when we had just come home with a car full of groceries from Costco, because then, miraculously, he always had to poop. And he was done with that task just in time for us to close up the trunk and be finished unloading the car.
We taught him to say “hoo-hoo!” when we poked his round little belly: just like the Pillsbury Dough Boy. Once after a bath, he threw off his towel and, clad only in tightie-whities, ran out front and declared himself to be “Captain Underwear.” The common theme I’m hearing in stories about him is his laugh: it was awesome. He had this high-pitched giggle that didn’t seem like it would come out of his body, and it was absolutely contagious. He was goofy and irreverent. He would sing in a funny falsetto just to make me laugh. I could always make him laugh. Sometimes we would play this game in the car where he would try not to laugh, and he would just look at my face, and all I would have to do was flare my nostrils and he was rolling.
We were very different children. He always found a way to get dirty, and I’ve never climbed a tree. He would go out to play and end up underneath someone’s car in their oil pan in under a minute. It was amazing.
He put up with me, most of the time. My dad called us “the Instigator and the Terminator” for my propensity to get him in trouble, and his habit of destroying everything in sight. Once I dressed him in one of my little pink shirts and called him “Elizabeth” for a while–until my mom told me that no matter what I called him, he wasn’t going to be a sister (and that is an understatement). Once on a road trip, we started playing this game where I would slap the inside of his forearm, he would make a face, and we would laugh and laugh. After doing that about a million times he told me that it was really hurting, but he had been playing along for the laughs. He would do anything to make me laugh. He used to make this terrible face at me and make a neck-slashing gesture when no one was looking. Being the tattletale that I was, I always tried to get my parents to see it, and when they looked, he would have a completely normal expression on his face, as though it had never happened. One of my favorite memories is singing the duet to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” with him in the car. A lot of times he sang the high girl part. I don’t know why, but he did.
A few years ago, we all went on a Duffy boat during the Newport Beach Christmas parade. One of the boats that we passed over and over as we circled was playing some Kenny G Christmas album–over and over. It became a running joke between us. This person owned a fancy boat–couldn’t he afford another CD? One Christmas CD, and it’s horrible. We would try to get each other to listen to a Kenny G song without knowing it. He would send me a link saying “check out the preview for this movie! I think we should see it, it’s based on that book you love” and as soon as I clicked on it, the familiar saxophone strains would start and I would laugh hysterically. In fact, in our meeting with Chris (the pastor), when he asked me what kind of music he liked, I almost wanted to say “Kenny G” because he couldn’t stop me.
You may think you knew him, but he may have surprised you. He was one of the most sensitive people I have ever known. He would call me, had called me, in the middle of the night because he had gotten in a fight with our parents and he was just upset. Whenever he turned to me for advice or help I felt completely honored. I always wanted to be a big sister that he would turn to for advice. It didn’t happen often, but I can remember every instance. I can tell you that when he turned to me for the older sibling tradition of buying him alcohol when I turned 21, and I said no, and if you know me you can probably imagine why. I know that didn’t earn me any points. I was just too worried about what would happen, and couldn’t handle it being my fault. Sorry all of Riley’s friends. I’m lame. I know you’ve known that for a while. When he was in junior high he had a baking phase. He loved to bake. I can still see him wearing oven mitts and pulling a tray of cookies out of the oven. He just couldn’t have been any cuter. As he got older, I started to turn to him for the standard “brother duties.” I remember one day there was a huge, hairy spider in my medicine cabinet. I yelled for him to come and get it for me. He came to my rescue, took one look at the spider, and let out a shriek, and ran away. He would find a song he liked and listen to it on repeat for weeks or until I took the CD and hid it. He would eat the same thing for every meal if he had his way. For a while, it was turkey sandwiches for every meal. One trip to Michigan he ate ONLY chicken fingers at every restaurant we went to. For a long time, he would eat Chipotle every chance he could get. Daily, if he could afford to. If he had money he would go there. If you asked him what he wanted for a holiday, he would tell you Chipotle gift cards. He used to say that his goal in life was to be rich enough to never have to wear a pair of socks twice. He loved to get brand-new socks for Christmas, and we had funny games where we would pretend to give Josh bags and bags of new socks and save Riley’s for the end. One Christmas, in her zeal for this funny game, my mom accidentally didn’t have any socks for Riley. he kept saying “okay, enough fun, where are my socks?”
Did you know that he saved my life? I was about 13, he would have been about 10. We were walking to Dairy Queen together. As we crossed the large intersection in the crosswalk, he suddenly grabbed my shoulder and stopped me. Just then, a car ran the red light. I felt my shirt move, the car was so close. We couldn’t see it, and it us, due to the line up of cars by the crosswalk. When we had safely crossed and could catch our breath at the close call, I asked him why he had stopped me. “I have no idea,” he said. “I just suddenly felt like I should.”
One thing people keep telling me is that he “just wanted me to be proud of him.” It has been very hard to hear. I worry that he felt my standards were too high, or I didn’t think he measured up. I just wanted the best for him. I always wanted the best for him. I wasn’t always happy with the choices he made, but I always, always loved him. Riley loved to read. Somewhere along the line, he got ahold of my copy of The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo, and fell in love with the book. It wasn’t one that I specifically shared with him, but I couldn’t have chosen better if I had. I want to share a line from it, for him:
“One is loved because one is loved. No reason is needed for loving.”
That’s just the thing: I did always love him. Sometimes I nagged him and pushed him, but it was out of love. I wanted him to have a wonderful life, and more than anything, I wanted him in mine. When people say that he “just wanted me to be proud of him” I worry that he missed the point. Because I just wanted him to be proud of himself. I wasn’t going to love him any less.
I didn’t love Riley’s disease, and I didn’t love the way it changed him as a person, but I never stopped loving my brother. I never gave up hope on seeing that familiar smile, hearing that familiar laugh, and getting my Riley back.
In the book of Matthew it says “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Riley’s heart was always with his family. I think he lived the last years of his life more for us than for himself. He loved being an uncle, and knowing the joy that my children brought to his life makes me happy. They will get us through this time of sadness.
It’s been a painful week. Sometimes the pain seems too hard to bear, and I think it will crush me. When I think of all that has been, and all that could have been, I worry that my heart will break, but it already has. It shouldn’t be able to feel much worse.
I could torture myself with my thoughts, but I can’t. I have to focus on the fact that Riley is no longer in pain. He suffered greatly in the last third of his life. Each day was a struggle for him, a battle against his addiction and the havoc it wreaked on his life. Some days he lost the battle, and he was harder on himself than we could have been or would have been. And so, while it pains me to do this, because i never thought I would, I have to say goodbye to my little brother. I have to let him go. Because I know now, at last, that he is at peace. You don’t need my tears, Riley, although you can’t stop me from doing whatever I want. You are beyond pain, beyond guilt and shame, and beyond regret. So I’ll tell you for the last time: there ain’t no mountain high enough. I love you, I miss you, my life will never be the same without you, and Riley: I will see you again.