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MENTORS IN MEMORY OF GUNNER RILEY
It must have been 1972. My family had just moved again, this time to our little house in Columbus from Joplin, Missouri, following a brief 3-month stint in Charleston, South Carolina. The rain kept falling. Sheets of water poured down for days. Steadily, the road in front of our house became a river. Then, the water rose all the way to our front door. A drunk woman drove up onto the stone marking the end of our driveway — it had become submerged and was invisible to her as she tried navigating her big old boat of a Cadillac down what she thought was the road. Our little sump pump died a quick death and our basement flooded, with nearly 5 feet of water collecting beneath our house. Our next-door neighbors were out of town, and my dad decided that he and I should go over there to shut off their power. In their basement, their half-full deep freezer bobbed in the water. As I passed it on my way to the breaker box, I felt the electric current from 10 feet away. That is a feeling like no other. It scared the bejeezus out of me, and I never forgot it. Fast-forward 28 years. As I pulled into my garage after work, I suddenly felt that same feeling again. I had learned things I never thought I would about my marriage and knew it was ending. I had three small sons, and it felt like my life was over. What was I going to do? I had no idea. God blessed me mightily through a man who recently lost a battle with fast-moving pancreatic cancer on April 29, 2018. I met James Frank “Gunner”Riley through a recovery program for families of alcoholics. The disease flourished in my family growing up, and it had struck again in my marriage in all its glorious devastation. Gunner, an architect 19 years my senior, had gone through the same ordeal with his wife. When I didn’t know how I could go on or what to tell my children, he shared with me what he had done. When suicide looked like an attractive option, he reminded me this was a permanent solution to a temporary problem. When I lost 85 pounds because I just couldn’t eat for months, he’d calmly tell me, “This too shall pass.”
As Gunner’s cancer ran its rapid course, I was reading Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s book, “Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court.” An odd couple those two — a 5’10”white coach from Indiana and a 7’2”black basketball player from New York City. Wooden had an enormous impact on so many young men over his 29- year coaching career and nearly 100-year life. His messages to his players were directed at how to be a success in both life and basketball, and they revered him for living what he preached.
I’ve had many mentors like that over the years — guides along the often-rocky path of life, men who’ve poured their wisdom into me and made me a better man. Sometimes it’s so hard just to remember to keep moving forward, to put one foot in front of the other. In these times, it can feel almost impossible to remember that yes, this too shall pass, and that our heartbreak — though it seems never-ending — is fleeting. Gunner helped me remember this when I needed it most.
R.I.P., Gunner Riley, and may I pass onto others in need the things I learned from you. I’ll always be grateful to you for helping keep me afloat during the flood.
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