Death came to the fighter in the dark, in silence.
The mother and father, who had so many times found the courage to share their daughter's fight against a brain tumor with the readers of this newspaper, were at the bedside Wednesday in the little girl's room. The room where Bon Jovi and Tim McGraw had blasted through speakers as she danced. Two nurses, off shift but still at the just-finished new Friddle house, stood by.
Riley Friddle, 4 years old, with the white-blonde hair and the trademark bow, couldn't fight anymore.
It had been five days since she had been awake. But the four years and two months and two days of her life made better the lives of everybody who met her, or read about her.
Because Riley fought. Her parents, Andrea and Todd Friddle, fought, too. The chemotherapy that started when she was about 5 months old. The radiation that bludgeoned Riley. Yet, she didn't quit. Instead, she smiled and wowed. The scalpels cut open her head and took out most of a tumor, and her response was to come home and eat fried chicken with the skin crispy like she loved.
People read about her, the tiny girl who lived on Hope Street, and the floodgates of joy opened wide. People from as far as New York wanted to meet her.
Source of inspiration
A month later, she came home, and a community came home with her.
She inspired. She grew to 55 pounds and 3 1/2 feet tall.
Every person with a pulse felt their own hope grow, too.
Finally, two weeks ago a magnetic resonance imaging test, called an MRI for short, showed new growth on her existing tumor and a spot on her brain stem.
"There was no other medical treatment left," Andrea Friddle somehow was able to say Thursday morning a few hours after her daughter died.
But get this. Riley, bloated from the medications, still getting radiation, fought to the end.
Riley Lee-Ann Friddle wanted to go to school.
So she did.
Last week, Wednesday and Thursday, she started pre-school. Andrea and Todd and Andrea's mother, Joyce McGuirt, dropped her off the first day. Riley couldn't walk, never was able, and needed a stroller.
Riley steamrolled right through the front door. She never looked back.
The teacher sent home a note that first day. Riley threw Play-Doh.
"Awesome," Todd said.
That night, Todd and Andrea were able to talk with their daughter about the first day of school. The last milestone in a life of milestones.
Bon Jovi, who had snuck into the top spot next to Tim McGraw -- McGraw was so struck by Riley that he brought her on stage last year -- blared.
"Like always, she shared so much more with us, gave so much more, than we gave her," Andrea said.
On Thursday, Chuck McGuirt, the grandfather with the hard hands from a lifetime of work, dropped Riley off at preschool. Andrea and Todd had to work. Chuck made sure Riley had on the red pants, the red Crocs shoes, the red bow in her hair that Andrea wanted and Riley demanded, too.
Chuck was supposed to pick Riley up at 2 p.m. He arrived a half-hour early. At least.
What he found was a tiny little boy almost attached to Riley's stroller, following her everywhere she went.
"She made friends right away, like she always did," Chuck McGuirt said.
But Riley was tired that afternoon. She came home, ate her new favorite of fish sticks.
By Friday, she was unconscious. A hospice service for children came. The nurse from Carolinas Medical Center children's hospital, where Riley spent far more days and months and years than any 4-year-old kid should ever have to spend, came. Family came.
And still, Riley fought.
Wednesday night in that dark, some might say the fight was lost.
But her parents say the fight was always won. The time they had with their daughter, the life Riley lived, the lives she touched, never had the word loss attached.
Through all this, Andrea and Todd Friddle never asked why them, why their daughter. They just said yes to me so many times to come over and talk and write a story, and yes to have pictures taken of their daughter with the brain tumor, and yes to share with strangers so some other family might find hope at their former house on Hope Street.
"Riley had a mission on earth," Andrea said. "We always knew we were blessed."
Touching many lives
Todd said so many people have contacted them through calls or visits or cards and more than 80,000 visits to a Web site. Prayer sheets came from churches, unsolicited and covered with the beautiful handwriting of the old and the shaky printing of the young, as recently as this week.
"We could never thank all the people who brought us into their lives," Todd said.
You shouldn't thank them, Todd. They, like me, need to thank you.
And they should thank Riley Friddle, who danced and never quit.