Alex Arrieta’s death stuns community that loved him

Teachers struggled to read the announcement.

Some could not say the words at all — their own grief having already taken hold.

“It’s OK if you cry,” counselors told students at Hilton Head Island School for the Creative Arts on Wednesday morning. “Whatever you’re feeling is OK.”

Their friend, Alex Arrieta, a gregarious fifth-grader who was greeted like a rock star whenever he walked the halls of their school and who ran beside them on the soccer field and who joked and laughed with them in class, had died hours earlier.

The acute myeloid leukemia that Alex, 10, had warred against for much of the past 14 months had been beaten once more, but the damage it left in its path was too much to survive.

It was the wrong conclusion to his story, and one that few could accept.

“I really thought he’d be the kid that would get through that door,” Principal Gretchen Keefner said Wednesday. “If there’s a kid who will get through, it’s Alex. (If there’s a 10 percent chance of survival) Alex is that 10 out of 100.

“If there’s a 1 percent chance a kid would survive this, Alex is that one kid who could do it.”

He almost did.

Alex’s name is one that has inspired action, from his family and friends, of course, but also from celebrities, politicians and the hundreds of strangers who clicked “Like” on his Facebook page so they could receive updates on his progress, plan fundraisers and appeal heavenward when prayers were needed.

They were friends of friends, community members, and mothers and fathers who are now holding their own children tighter because they were reminded how precious life is.

They had prayed for a miracle long past Alex’s last breath.

On Wednesday, Alex’s fellow fifth-graders, at first stunned by the news and unsure of what to feel and how to act, poured their emotions into projects that would show how much they cared about their friend.

They wrote cards, planned 5Ks in Alex’s name and painted pictures.

“My son said, ‘He was my funniest friend, Mom,’ ” said Stephanie Cauller, who, along with PTO members and in between tears, helped drape the school’s entrance in orange flowers, orange balloons and orange bunting, a tribute to Alex in the color used for leukemia awareness and that has become synonymous with support for him and for the campaign started by his family to get more federal money dedicated to the eradication of childhood cancers.

Earlier in the day, two moms had been dispatched to the Arrietas’ Hilton Head Plantation home to prepare it for the family’s return.

Alex’s mother, Caroline, has not been home since early January, when Alex was first admitted to MUSC Children’s Hospital in Charleston. His father, Brandon, had returned home only once during that time.

Family friend Kris Vigh was the first to arrive at the home, where she encountered something she had not expected to see.

A bunch of other moms.

“(They) kept arriving,” Alex’s aunt Andrea Hayes said. “We had thought just two people would go over, but they kept coming.”

It was reminiscent of the response to Alex’s call earlier this year for stuffed lambs.

His own lamb, Lamby, had been by his side through every needle poke, every queasy moment and every restless night. It was a sacred friend that he had come to regard as holy, a representation of Jesus.

He wanted other kids with cancer to have something cuddly and soft to cling to as they navigated their own recoveries, so that they would never feel alone.

Within just a few weeks, well-wishers sent more than 1,000 lambs.

It was one of the many kindnesses not soon forgotten by his family.

“God bless the entire community and beyond for your prayers and support, which helped Alex win several tough battles,” Brandon Arrieta said in a written statement Wednesday.

The family, he said, are beyond heartbroken.

This past Monday — four months after Alex’s cancer had relapsed — they received the good news that Alex was finally free of the leukemic blood cells that had taken residence in his bone marrow.

He could now have the bone marrow transplant that was so critical to his survival. That had been the goal all along.

But his body had been ravaged by the aggressive chemotherapy he had received two months earlier.

He was left with two forms of pneumonia and a heart battered from infection.

His right lung had collapsed.

The family asked for prayers to help bring strength to the little boy who had fought so hard thus far.

But the outlook was not good. They knew this.

They knew it was the end, that he most likely would not make it till May 20, when he was to receive the transplant, but they wanted Alex to know that he had won.

He had crossed the finish line, bearing the scars of his battle.

“The whole family came in and said ‘You did it,’ ” Hayes said.

Another aunt and Alex’s sister, Leah, made a poster for him to celebrate that victory.

“We wanted him to keep remembering that even though he was feeling crummy and that he’d felt so crummy for so long, that he beat this unbeatable cancer,” Hayes said.

“That he did it.

“That he beat it.”

Memorial information

▪ Funeral arrangements will be announced.

▪ Donations can be made through lambsforlife.org, TD Bank or Alex’s GoFundMe account. Stuffed lambs can be sent to P.O. Box 6143, Hilton Head Island, SC 29938.

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