Riley William Davis

Thirteen-year-old Baltimore County resident loved to draw and make people laugh

  • Riley Davis
Riley Davis (BALTIMORE SUN )
January 02, 2012|By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

Riley William Davis, whose sunny personality and quick wit sustained him and his family through his four-year battle with leukemia, died Wednesday at Johns Hopkins Children's Center. He was 13.

Diagnosed with cancer at 9, Riley's life was turned upside down by treatment — including two bone-marrow transplants and hip surgery — but was not defined by it.

The Hunt Valley resident loved to draw, creating his own comic strips and sketching characters such as Spider-Man with such skill that adults thought he'd traced them, said his mother, Mary Healy Davis. During sleepless stays in hospital rooms, he watched "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" and laughed. And whenever anyone asked him how he was feeling — friends, family, doctors — he invariably said, "Good!"

"He was always worried about how other people were feeling," said his father, John Stephen Davis.

Riley was always like that, family and friends said. A fourth-grade teacher at Jacksonville Elementary School gave him the nickname "Sunny D" shortly before Riley learned he had leukemia, a reference to both his disposition and his golden-hued strawberry blond hair.

His hair kept changing through the course of his treatments as it fell out and grew back in. Once it was so blond it was white. Once it emerged a deep strawberry, the gold largely gone. And once it came in looking as if he'd gone to the hairdresser to get it frosted, his mother said.

What didn't change was his ability to find something to laugh about, despite it all.

"Throughout his whole illness, he always had a sense of humor about everything," said Lisa de Koomen, who knew him nearly his entire life and whose 13-year-old son, Seth, was his best friend. "In the midst of any anger or any sorrow, he could come up with something funny."

When she and her son visited Riley in the hospital several weeks ago, "he was cracking up, playing video games," said Ms. de Koomen, who lives in the Baltimore County community of Phoenix.

Hospital stays were so frequent that Riley spent many holidays over the course of four years in one, and birthdays, too. In order to continue his education, he was tutored in sixth and seventh grade by teachers from the Baltimore County school system, who came to him wherever he was. But by eighth grade, he was too ill even for tutoring.

Riley took an active role in his treatment, Mrs. Davis said. He knew all the medicines he was receiving down to the dosage, and if anything looked off, he would ask.

And he kept surprising doctors with his resilience, she said. He fought his cancer into remission. In the end, it wasn't leukemia but graft-versus-host disease — a complication that can arise after a bone-marrow transplant — that overcame his body.

Riley spent his final hours with his parents and older brother, Cole, by his side. He had earlier asked to be intubated so he could breathe more easily, a move that prevented him from speaking.

"I said, 'Riley, do you know what that entails — you won't be able to talk,'" Mrs. Davis recalled. "He said, 'I know, Mommy.'"

The last words she remembers him saying came as staff prepared to put the breathing tube in. "He pulled me over to him, and he said, 'Thank you,'" she said.

Mrs. Davis said community support through Riley's illness was "unbelievable." People organized benefits and fundraisers. Riley's former teachers sent text messages to the family during hospital stays, sometimes simply to wish them good night. And Riley's classmates from Jacksonville Elementary School sent him cards, posters and cookies.

"Riley never felt alone," his mother said. "I don't know how I'm ever going to thank this community."

Though he always found ways to have fun, Riley's fight with cancer kept him from some of his favorite activities. He couldn't play football. He rarely got to swim or visit the beach.

"He really felt that he didn't have a chance to be a kid," Mrs. Davis said. "But he never complained, and he always had hope. He never stopped believing that he was going to play football again; he was going to do these things. He always continued to have his dreams."

A celebration of his life will be held at 1 p.m. Tuesday at the Grand Lodge, 304 International Circle in Cockeysville.

Besides his parents and brother, Riley is survived by his maternal grandparents, John and Herta Healy of Shark River Hills, N.J., and his paternal grandmother, Virginia Davis of Fairfax, Va.

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