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‘It really touches our hearts’: Lindale Middle graduation parade celebrates superfan Mo Gaba, Riley Marshall

Technically, the parade of vehicles strolling through Ferndale on Thursday night was dedicated to all the eighth grade graduates of Lindale Middle School.

But the minute cars came around the corner of Rippling Ridge and Furnace Branch roads, you wouldn’t know it. In those moments, the band of cars became the Mo Gaba parade.

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Mo, on Thursday decked out in a Spongebob cap and shirt, is a regular caller on sports talk radio, known and beloved as the Orioles and Ravens superfan by the sports and broader community. Last year, he became the first person to ever announce an NFL draft pick from Braille.

On June 11, Mo and his family received news that his cancer had reemerged, for the fifth time.

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Mo had battled various forms of cancer, from bilateral ureteral blastoma to its genetic mutations since he was nine months old. Recently, it’s hit his lungs. That’s the thing with cancer treatments, Mo’s mother Sonsy said. It becomes something else. And once it sinks into your genes, there’s no getting rid of it.

Sonsy said they live each day like it’s his last.

“It sucks. There’s no way around it,” Sonsy, 33, said. “It’s awful, cancer is awful. He’s not giving up, so we won’t either.”

In those seven days since, Mo’s spent most of his time playing Mortal Kombat and a 2000s-era copy of LEGO: Batman. His family — uncle, cousins — keeps him company. Breaking coronavirus rules, he’ll say, in a good way.

“Mo’s still Mo. Nothing’s changed about him. He just appreciates everything a little more now,” Sonsy said.

The pandemic has laid added pressure on Sonsy, who works an essential job at Home Depot. Coworkers urge her not to bring anything home to their “little man.”

Sonsy is always suited up in protective gear. The minute she’s home, she showers, changes clothes and greets her son. That’s all she’s worried about.

Thursday’s parade had been another highlight of an exceptional week for the Ferndale resident. Just two days ago, people milled past Mo’s apartment complex to shout their love and congratulations, including members of the Ravens organization and entertainment, as well as Orioles players Austin Wynn and Trey Mancini.

Mancini received a diagnosis of stage-3 colon cancer in March.

“They’re best friends, I love it,” Sonsy said. “They give each other strength. That’s what matters. Mo’s worried about Trey, making sure he’s OK through his treatment because he knows how bad it can be sometimes.”

Thursday’s affair presented much more humbly than Tuesday’s fete, but, according to his mother, being surrounded by friends and family is what Mo craved, and both of those quantities came out in abundance. Neighbors arrived with posters, tambourines and candy pink roses. Practically every car that drove by had a “Mo” sign. They’d come back around, just to pass another “I love you, Mo” through the windows.

A line formed on the street corners, just to talk to the little star.

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“How much everybody loves him, I think he knows it, but I don’t think he realized how big it has been,” Sonsy said. “All the people coming out to support him, in prayers and everything. People that don’t even know him, but they love him.”

Holding a basket of snacks was Justice Armstrong, a rising sophomore at North County High, who ensured Mo that their date for homecoming this fall was still on: he’d be in an Orioles’ orange suit, she in a Ravens’ purple gown.

Armstrong and Mo came into each other’s life by chance. Sonsy knew Armstrong’s mother Lindsey Bruce in high school. Then, her son Damien became Mo’s blind aide.

Mo always came over Justice’s house for sleepovers, movies, video games. When he got too sick, she visited him in the hospital.

Mo, who will start at North County in the fall, has asked Bruce’s blessing.

“Cause we’ve known each other for so long, he said me and him are going to get married one day,” Justice said.

Damien calls Mo every other day while Justice sends him Facebook messages. Mo messaged her yesterday, “I can’t wait for you to come and see me.”

“It’s really hard because we’ve known Mo for so long. My family, we believe in prayer. He’s in our prayers constantly,” Justice said. “It’s just different. We love him. He’s a part of our family.”

Riley Marshall, age 14, graduated from Lindale Middle School and waits for the graduation parade to come past her home.
Riley Marshall, age 14, graduated from Lindale Middle School and waits for the graduation parade to come past her home. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

‘I can handle it and I’m going to change this world’

A five minute drive away, Lindale graduate Riley Marshall waited for the caravan to pass her by with her family and her unwelcome guest of five years, whom she’d named Rodger.

She’d rather call it Rodger than what is: an astrocytoma inoperable brain tumor.

Riley has fought Rodger, which is lodged between her pituitary gland and optic nerve and was diagnosed within two hours back on Aug. 25, 2015, since she was 9 years old. And yet, this year has proven the most difficult, between keeping up with classes from her chronic migraines and the pandemic.

Her mother Dawn worked at Giant until a few months ago, back when the pandemic first arose into relevancy in the state, Riley came down with a fever.

It wasn’t coronavirus-related. But it was enough of a scare for Dawn, who knew, as an essential worker, she could bring the virus home to her immunocompromised daughter any day.

Because she wasn’t technically laid off, Dawn struggled to attain unemployment until two weeks ago. Her husband was still able to work, but their income was slashed.

“The bills don’t stop. But I needed to make sure she was taken care of first,” Dawn said. “I’m still worried because [coronavirus is] still not gone, but my time’s up. I have to go back to work because I have to keep my medical insurance for her.”

In five years, Riley and her mother have never missed a blood draw, doctor’s appointment, or anything of the like. Most kids, Dawn said, go through four chemotherapy cycles in a year; Riley, an active bowler and former dancer, did seven in 2015-16. They didn’t think she’d lose her hair, but she did, around the fifth cycle.

Recently, Riley went in for her 19th MRI. She’s used to them.

“When they ask me if I need to be sedated, it’s an insult now,” Riley said.

She never has been sedated.

“I’m in awe of her,” Dawn said. “She got this diagnosis, and you think when will she say, ‘Why me, why me?’ She never did say that. She said, ‘I know why God picked me. He knows I’m strong and I’m a fighter and I can handle it and I’m going to change this world.’ That’s what she said in the hospital.”

Not every day is that bravery so willful. It often comes in the form of dealing with a migraine or headache that will last days, or months. Sometimes, it’s taking her pills, prescribed to her indefinitely, when she doesn’t want to. Some, it’s just struggling through the online version of math class.

Riley had been taking a harder class, algebra, but this year, her chronic migraines made keeping up with her studies impossible, and she’d transitioned down to regular math, which was hard for mother and daughter. Riley had always treasured her straight-A marks.

Before the pandemic shut school down, her teachers’ accommodation and support boosted Riley along. E-learning itself isn’t so much of a hardship for Riley, who blazes through most of her assignments by Tuesday. But not math.

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“I don’t have that person to meet with me and explain things to me like they’d normally be able to,” Riley said. “Now, we just get a video explaining it to us, versus our teacher explaining it to us with hands-on tools. I’m a visual learner. We don’t have any of that in our house. The video would say ‘use these tools,’ and I don’t have any of that.”

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Thursday’s parade served as a chance to break the chain of hardships just for a moment. Rodger, or the tumor, is also in remission, having shrunken. The family hope it stays that way.

“It’s nice to finally see her get recognition for what she goes through every day — headaches, migraines, sometimes lasting months, days, constantly hanging out in the ER, getting medicine. So it really touches our hearts,” Dawn said.

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