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Moving through sorrow

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[Times photos: Maurice Rivenbark]
Kaleb Mikiel Moreno-Griffin, 4, playfully runs through his back yard in Williston this week holding a tree branch.

By JENNIFER FARRELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 22, 2000


A recent accident recalls the story of a boy who was born, and immediately orphaned, after a car crash in St. Petersburg. Today, 4-year-old Kaleb blows a kiss to his parents' picture every night.

WILLISTON -- Sifting through the wooden memory box stuffed with snapshots and poems recalling his parents, 4-year-old Kaleb's chubby fingers went straight for the teal pager buried at the bottom.

Turning it over, he held it out to his grandmother and asked, "What's this?"

"That was Mommy's," answered Debi Griffin, looking down at the ruddy-faced child at her feet. "It doesn't work anymore."

The pager, now stubbornly silent under Kaleb's insistent prodding, buzzed non-stop with messages from worried friends on the night of his birth, the night a pickup truck ran a red light and collided with the car carrying his parents, Lisa Griffin, 18, and Benito Moreno, 19.

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Lisa Griffin and Benito Moreno
Four years after the accident that killed the teenage couple, leaving Kaleb an orphan, Debi Griffin, 47, relies on pictures and a handful of token possessions to keep their memory alive for the grandson she is raising.

"I think that's how he's going to know them," she said in the living room of their Levy County home. "And I have lots of stories."

A Sept. 10 crash in Orlando sent Griffin back to the day two police officers showed up at her door in St. Petersburg with news of the fatal accident.

The similarities were eerie.

Like Kaleb, Jacob Gadd was delivered by Caesarean section minutes after a truck ran a red light and smashed into his parents' car, killing his father at the scene and his mother a short time later. (The driver who hit Jacob's parents was charged with DUI manslaughter; the driver in the St. Petersburg accident was not impaired.)

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[Times files 1996]
Debi Griffin burps her grandson Kaleb after his first home feeding in 1996.
Like Kaleb's parents, Jacob's mother and father were not married but had just moved into a new home together and were excited about his impending birth.

Jacob was scheduled to be born Sept. 11; Kaleb's due date was Sept. 15.

"It brought everything back," Griffin said Tuesday. "It made my heart hurt for those people."

But it also recalled the kindnesses of strangers, from the nurse at All Children's Hospital who saw Kaleb through a 17-day hospital stay, to the man who drove from St. Petersburg to Williston with his son's outgrown toys and race car bed, knowing Kaleb could use them.

"People just came from everywhere to help us," she said. "It renews your faith in mankind to know there are good people out there who really care."

In the aftermath of her daughter's death, Griffin and her family have learned to separate the grief from the joy that permeates holidays and special occasions. They have learned to celebrate without Lisa and Benito, neither of whom had any brothers or sisters.

Knowing that's what Lisa would have wanted, they go out of their way to show her son happiness.

Kaleb's birthday presents an exceptional challenge.

"You put the sadness away until later," Griffin said. "I try to make it his day."

Griffin also likes to remember a message she found on her daughter's pager after the accident. Left earlier in the day by Benito, it said simply, "I love you."

This year, as they have every year since he was born, Griffin's family gathered to celebrate Kaleb's Aug. 17 birthday with a party. Packages arrived from Minnesota, where Lisa's father, Bill Griffin, lives, and from Texas, where Benito's mother, Deborah Moreno, has moved since the accident.

Adding to the already sagging shelves in his bedroom, friends and relatives in the area brought loads of toys and a model train set.

A settlement from a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the driver of the pickup truck that hit Lisa's car has ensured that Kaleb will be provided for financially. Griffin purchased their two-bedroom home in Williston with a portion of the money, and they live on a monthly stipend that allows her to stay home with him until he starts school next year.

Inside, the house is full of Lisa. Photos line the walls, her childhood and adolescence on proud display. In one, she is standing in cap and gown next to Benito after her 1996 graduation from Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg. In another, she is dressed as rabbit for a grade-school Halloween. Nearby rests a picture of Kaleb, made up as a clown last October.

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Kaleb holds a photograph of his mother and father. His grandmother says he brings the photograph to his room every night.
One picture, a portrait of Benito and Lisa, holds particular resonance for Kaleb. Before bed each night, he carries it to his room and blows his parents a kiss before prayers. In the morning he brings it back to its daytime resting place on a table near the living room sofa.

A full explanation of the tragedy will wait until Kaleb gets older. Helping a 4-year-old comprehend death is a journey measured in small steps, Griffin said. And for now, Kaleb thinks of his parents as alive, but far away. "He knows that Mommy and Daddy went to live with the angels," she said, holding the portrait by its frame. "He's comfortable with that."

In the meantime, Griffin holds Lisa and Benito close through the photos and by staying in touch with several of their friends, some of whom are now married, with children.

"To me, they are here. They are always close by," she said. "The way we get through it is to remember them."

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Debi Griffin gives Kaleb a hug after the two look at photographs and other things that hold memories of his parents.
For Griffin, raising Kaleb has proved a delicate balance of moving forward and keeping a link to the past. Before her death, Lisa had scribbled the name Kaleb Mikiel Moreno on a scrap of paper and left it in her purse. Griffin found the note later and added Griffin, with a hyphen, to her grandson's last name. Kaleb Mikiel Moreno-Griffin.

In his face she sees a combination of Lisa's outgoing wit and Benito's easy charm, and she does her best not to be maudlin.

Still, Griffin knows there are some things she will never be able to give Kaleb, such as a lullaby from his mother or a bedtime story from his father.

"There's just so much that he'll miss," she said. "He has other people, but it's not the same."

Mary Griffin, Debi's mother and Kaleb's great-grandmother, said her heart goes out to the family of Jacob Gadd.

"It was just so much the same," she said. "We just look at him and think, God, I hope their baby turns out as good."

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