The gathering of several hundred people on Jan. 3 to remember Riley Davis wasn't a funeral. It was a celebration of a life.
The two-hour tribute featured speakers, local singers and a cloud of yellow smiley-face helium balloons that floated over poster-sized photos of Riley.
Riley, 13, of Phoenix, died on Dec. 28 after fighting leukemia for four years. He had a bone marrow transplant, a stem cell transplant and underwent chemotherapy and dozens of procedures. His parents, John and Mary, and older brother Cole, were at his side when he died.
"Riley had an old soul," said his uncle, David Healy. "He was mature, caring, considerate and introspective. He could read people. We always used to say, 'There's something about Riley.' "
His parents used that phrase for his page on the website http://www.caringpages they updated frequently to keep people informed about Riley's struggles.
Everybody who spoke at the service at the Grand Lodge in Hunt Valley mentioned two things: Riley's fiery red hair and his positive outlook.
"Riley never complained. Not once. He met everything he went through with a sense of humor," said a family friend, John Albert.
Riley was diagnosed with leukemia in February 2008, while in fourth-grade at Jacksonville Elementary School. Just before he became ill, his teacher, John Brown, gave him a nickname.
Brown told the story of a day when the students ate lunch in their classroom instead of the cafeteria. Riley sat next to him, sipping on a Sunny Delight orange drink.
"All kids love nicknames, and I looked at him and said, 'You're not Riley D. You're Sunny D.' The name stuck and it really fit his personality."
Riley's Uncle William "Trip" Davis said Riley was an aspiring artist who wanted to design basketball sneakers and a night owl who could often be found reading in bed under his covers with a flashlight.
Students at Jacksonville Elementary and Hereford Middle schools sent Riley so many cards and posters that his parents constantly brought older ones home to make room for new ones in his hospital room.
Although Riley never attended Hereford Middle School, friends made sure he knew all about it. John Lewis, now a sophomore at Hereford High School, videoed "A day in the life of a middle-schooler" and gave it to Riley.
The poignant celebration ended when dozens of his fellow students sang, "Keep Your Head Up" while Hereford High School freshman Emma Avila sang and played guitar.
As the song ended, each student gave Riley's mother, Mary, a long-stemmed white rose and a hug.
She thanked the "incredible community" that supported her family during the past four years and had one request: "Please carry Riley in your hearts."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun