The Old Paths: Making a difference

By Leslie Bray Brewer - Special to The Stokes News

“If Joe started watching a half-hour TV program at 7:30 p.m., what time did he finish?” For some reason, my youngest son was having trouble with this very basic math review problem. I explained it and explained it again, drawing pictures of a clock, using fractional representations.

In the time it took him to finally understand, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to pluck out the hairs on my arm one by one or listen to Leo Sayer sing “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” on a continuous loop. Painfully tedious.

Then my teenage daughter told me I would have to check her algebra homework from scratch since the answer key was missing those particular lessons. Add to that the fact that my teenage son did not empty the trash as I had told him to do before he left for his after-school job, and you get one very frustrated mommy.

“Hey, look,” my daughter noted. “It’s raining again.”

“Yeah, for about 52nd day in a row,” I sighed.

To soothe my sunshine-starved soul, I decided to escape to Facebook. When I did, I saw that my friend Tammy had posted a YouTube link to a song based on the Scripture in which the tragedy-stricken Job says, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.” I felt as if a vise suddenly gripped my heart. This faith-filled post was coming from a woman who had just lost her 19-year-old son in an automobile accident on September 19.

The atmosphere in my house suddenly changed. With new eyes, I saw the tiny blue flower my teenage daughter had just brought me from her time outdoors. I noticed the picture my little boy was drawing for me during his breaks from troublesome math word problems. I recalled that just last week my teenage son had dedicated a song to me about a boy and his mother.

And suddenly my heart sang for joy….at the same time that it ached for mothers who have lost their children. I wondered if I would have the same strength of spirit that Tammy has as she walks out these horrific days of her loss.

I met Tammy on the old paths when she was a 16-year-old in the high school English class I taught at NW Guilford. I was drawn to her—not just because she was stunningly beautiful and didn’t even seem to know it but because she had a sensitive inner beauty that simply made her glow. I remember her writings in my class—sometimes in first-person when they should have been more impersonal, due to the depths of her soul, and always poignant enough to touch something deep within me.

She was mature enough to make great decisions early on. When I saw her walking down the hall with a cute freshman boy one day, I foolishly questioned why she was “bothering” with him. I am thankful she ignored my advice and ended up marrying that stellar young man who became a star football and basketball player at Wake Forest before spending several seasons in the NBA. More importantly, he was a good Christian man whose beliefs complimented Tammy’s strong faith.

I lost touch with this precious couple for many years. What joy it would have been had Tammy and I known we were pregnant with our firstborn sons at the same time! My Elijah was born 45 days before her Riley.

Tammy and I rejoiced when we found each other via Facebook several years ago. Riley was now one of four children, and Elijah, one of five—both of them fine Christian men with promising futures, both of them deciding to take time after high school to seek God for their course in life.

And the very day I was in Iowa at the Field of Dreams for Elijah’s long-awaited high school graduation trip was the day I got the news that Riley had passed away. Words cannot convey what my heart felt right then. I had just enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime day with my precious son on the baseball field we had long dreamed of playing ball on. Even nature itself seemed to mirror our joy—vividly blue skies, vibrant golden sun, lush green grass, the pleasant warmth of late summer.

That made the news of Tammy’s loss cut me even deeper. I felt almost guilty for savoring such joy while she was battling such grief.

A few days later, Elijah and I had just lived out another dream—visiting the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. He stuck by my side all day long as we discussed the various exhibits. As we traveled that night, I searched for Riley’s obituary online to see if I could get back home for his funeral.

What I found was not the typical, matter-of-fact obituary. I found a masterpiece of writing penned straight from a mother’s heart. Suddenly I was a young teacher again reading the soul-stirring words of 16-year-old Tammy….except that the sensitive girl had now become a courageous woman. And now instead of me inspiring her, she was the one inspiring me—in the very maelstrom of her gut-wrenching grief.

She wrote: “How does one sum up the life of her son? It’s too much to ask. I keep waiting for the words, and they seem so inadequate. So trivial. He was so many exquisite things that cannot be captured with mere symbols on paper.”

Yet those “mere symbols on paper” brought me to tears. Those words that seemed “inadequate” and “trivial” lit a fire in my very soul—the desire to make more of a difference in this world. She wrote that “he wanted everyone to love. Just love. He tried so hard to teach me that.” She added that “he hated injustice and prejudice and suffering. He wanted to make music that could help us deal with the pain of this world. He had huge dreams.”

Riley didn’t get to fully live out his dreams. As Tammy wrote, “God decided Riley was done on this earth last Saturday morning. He took his last breath here and opened his eyes to the indescribable glory of Heaven. It all makes sense to him now. The sound, the beauty, the suffering.”

It does not yet make sense to me. But I do know one thing. In one way, Riley did live out his dreams. He wanted to make a difference in this world, and in his short span of life, he did. His numerous friends testified of the many ways he strove to end injustice, prejudice and suffering by reaching out in the love his mother said “he tried so hard to teach” her. His kindness and compassion changed the lives of those that knew him. That is the epitome of making a difference.

Thank you, Riley LaRue, for helping change my life. I vow to treasure my children even more than I have in the past, and I vow to show even more love and compassion to help end the injustice in this world. And thank you, Tammy, for giving me a shining example of how to react to tragedy in this life.

Changed lives lead to a changed world. And that, my friends, is what we are all striving for, isn’t it?

Leslie Bray Brewer can be emailed at Her blog is at

By Leslie Bray Brewer

Special to The Stokes News

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