144 celebrate Riley Brilliant’s first birthday

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 13, 2009

By Susan Shinn
For The Salisbury Post
ROCKWELL ó Riley Brilliant turns a year old this week, and 144 of his closest friends helped him celebrate Saturday morning.
The family life center at Grace Bible Church was transformed into a carnival ó complete with big-top flags, colorful balloons, a bounce house, face painting, balloon animals … even a pie-in-the-face for Riley’s dad, Jason, courtesy of mom Michelle.
Big sister Lizzie found a icing-covered doughnut that seemed bigger than she was.
Grandparents held Riley tight, while their friends fussed over him and said over and over what a good baby he was.
Clearly, this was not your typical 1-year-old’s birthday party.
“People have asked us if we’ve started getting ready for Christmas,” Michelle said. “Christmas will come every year. This is something we never expected to come.”
On Feb. 21, Riley was diagnosed with a glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) brain tumor. Doctors at Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte didn’t give them any hope. Jason and Michelle decided to have Riley treated at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.
Last Wednesday, Riley and Michelle visited St. Jude’s. Riley’s latest scans revealed no signs of tumor or disease.
The family had cause for a huge celebration.
Several months ago, Michelle began making plans for a big party.
“If it makes her happy,” Jason said, “then I’m happy.”
Debbie Suggs donated the food for the morning’s brunch. Warren McClure donated the bounce house and cotton candy. Cheerwine and Junior Bost donated soft drinks. Students from Grace and from Mount Pleasant High School, where Michelle taught chemistry, volunteered their time. Many individuals and anonymous donors helped fund Riley’s big day.
In lieu of gifts, guests brought new toys for Toys for Tots. Several large boxes were filled by the end of the morning.
“This is great,” Michelle said of the event. “We are on our last round of chemo. This is a celebration of how far we’ve come in 10 months.”
“It’s a joyous day,” said Rick Driscoll, one of Michelle’s dad’s hunting buddies.
Riley’s doting grandparents are Bill and Paula Haynes and Frank Brilliant.
“He likes the women,” Frank said, as Riley lit up after an especially pretty blonde greeted him.
At 6 feet 5 inches, Bill is a big man who always stands out in a crowd. On Saturday, his dayglo orange hunting shirt made him even more prominent. Bill and Paula have made the trip to St. Jude’s several times with Michelle and the children.
Bill is grateful to God and the doctors at St. Jude. But what really won him over in Memphis, he said, was barbecue. “They got the best barbecue in the world!”
Bill has hunted in Kansas, and Paula got after him to go to church while he was there. In Kansas, Bill met the Rev. Jim and Diane Wagner, of Wilson, Kansas, who each pastor two churches. They flew in especially for the party.
“He’s so loving, so precious,” Diane said of Riley. “He just cuddles right into you.”
Joey Phillips is Grace’s associate pastor. He donned a balloon hat for the occasion, along with Brandon Basinger. Brandon’s cousin, Joe, had his face painted. The trio was more than happy to pose for pictures.
“To see the testimony of the Brilliants and how they have undergone this trail has brought people in our church together,” Joey said. “It’s been an amazing experience.”
Riley didn’t seem especially fazed by all the hubbub. Of course, he was the baby of the hour, er, the morning. He didn’t mind in the least being passed around from lap to lap to lap. He never cried but instead offered plenty of his lopsided smiles and happily babbled when anyone spoke to him ó which was a lot.
He flaked out around 11 a.m., sleeping in Frank’s arms for a few minutes, until it was time to prop him in his high chair for his official birthday picture with Mommy and Daddy.
Riley beamed as folks crowded around with cameras.
Jason said that his son’s first birthday was “a relief.”
“It’s just a celebration,” he said. “We didn’t think we’d make it. We went to St. Jude’s with no answers and no expectations. As we got there and started seeing some progress, we really started to build up hope.
“There are no guarantees, no closure to this. We still really don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t think too far into the future. We go week to week and month by month.”
For more on Riley Brilliant, log onto www.caringbridge. org/visit/babybrilliant.
Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.