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Moving through sorrow
By JENNIFER FARRELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 22, 2000
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.
"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.)
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.
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."
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."
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.