Letting Them Go

Griffen Riley, Class of 2019, Greensboro College.

He’s the second Riley boy to earn a college degree. And our bellies are full of red meat and the world’s finest macaroni and cheese — and maybe even a slice of cheesecake — after celebrating this feat on Tuesday night. I try not to make too much of this, because his mother and I always agreed that we didn’t want it to define him. Plus, we’ve got two other children to parent and were sensitive to them not getting lost in the drama of it all. But the fact is we nearly lost this kid twice to a childhood illness.

griffnavy

He was admitted to the children’s hospital countless times, including one via a rather harrowing ambulance ride at age 6 that he declared, “Fun!” He had a feeding tube as an infant and his specialists told us he had a 50/50 chance of being in a wheelchair by age 12.

But there he was, playing tackle football at 8 and travel baseball at 10 and earning his team’s MVP award in basketball at 14. He and I drove hundreds of miles, through a half-dozen states, as he worked his tail off to follow his true passion: baseball.

He was usually the smallest kid out there, no matter the sport, but try telling him that. Recently we were watching old video footage of him playing tackle football in the fifth grade. He laughed, “Good Lord I was terrible! Why didn’t you tell me I was terrible? Look at that! ARGH!”

He wasn’t terrible. But he wasn’t good either. And we know our kids, right? Like I was ever going to convince this one he wasn’t the next Dick Butkus. And, as a parent, what would be the point of that anyway?

So fast forward to him at 18, that day the public address announcer said “Starting at second base, a freshman, number forty-six, Grif-FEN RYYYY-leee!” and my 5-foot-6, 130-pound son charged onto the field and realized his dream of playing college baseball.

There are certain moments fathers need to themselves, and that was one I spent in the bleachers, sitting away from everybody else.

There was another moment Tuesday night, over dinner, discussing the next step in his journey. We’ve talked about this one several times already over the past several months. It’s not one for me, and for a lot of reasons — reasons that are very valid and real for any parent. But *my* reasons aren’t important. It’s about him, *his* dreams, and while it’s easy to tell my boys to pursue their dreams — to love and explore and work hard and not take themselves too seriously and that the rest of life will fall into place — it rings hallow if I don’t back up my words with action.

So I just listen to him. And breathe. And love unconditionally.

“I just feel like I probably shouldn’t even be here,” he says, cutting at his steak. “I feel like this is all the Bonus Plan. That I’ve been given a second chance in life, so I want to give my life back is all.”

I just nod. And look.

Those curls he’s had since birth. His mother’s beautiful smile. The blue eyes. My watery ones.

[I’m listening, but my mind is taken back to other old video footage, film I took of him at age 5, leaving for a walk on the Florida beach with his mom — her carrying a bucket for shells, him wearing his Army helmet and hoisting a stick in the air and talking about soldiers and Nazis and hand grenades …

… and the two of them returning an hour later, me firing up the camera to capture their return, and him *still* rambling about tanks and machine guns — his poor mother putting on her best “Uh-huh. Yup. Really? Wow!” Mom Face while looking wide-eyed at me with an expression of “Help me!”]

He chews his steak Tuesday. “I’m not afraid of dying. I really try to appreciate every day. It’s a gift. I mean, I’ve lived a great life. I mean, [he shrugs and reaches for his shrimp] so be it.”

Griffen Riley, Class of 2019, Greensboro College.

And Navy SEAL recruit.

👊

I’m not sure if the SEALs have room for a scrappy, 5-foot-6, 130-pound second baseman, but I wish them luck in telling him No.

Plus, while I’ve certainly got my opinions about war, I’ve also got my opinions about love.

And I do know one thing: If we gotta fight, I want this kid on my team. And so do you.

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Latest Comments

  1. Carol McCracken says:

    How many young men look squarely at their own mortality and declare their life a gift? Damn few. That awareness is in itself a gift and will serve Griffen well in his life choices. And others will be the benefactors of that awareness–I cannot imagine anyone experiencing and surviving the challenges that Griffen has not emerging with more empathy and compassion for his fellow beings. The world will be a better place for it, and God knows we need all the help we can get right now. Beautifully written, Jeff, as usual.

    Liked by 1 person

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