I first met DJ Riley when I was in 8th grade. We were both from Elk River, MN, but we went to different middle schools, so we met each other through basketball. In 8th grade, you're in this weird phase of wanting to hang out with people from other schools and people of the opposite sex because it makes you feel cool for some reason.
After meeting through mutual friends, we really hit it off (as friends). I had a secret Myspace account (sorry mom & dad) and you may remember that on your Myspace page, you could have a song. I remember having a Daughtry song on my page and he messaged me telling me how much he loved it. He then made it the song on his profile page and it made me feel even cooler than I already thought I was. (Let's be honest, really I was a big ole dweeb.)
As we got into high school, DJ & I stayed friends. Despite having a small crush on each other around the beginning of freshman year, it never became anything more than just best friends (Thank God!) My best friend Annie also had a crush on him freshman year, but DJ wasn't interested at the time. Even though Annie had a crush on him, it was never weird when we would all hang out together. Our friend, Laura, dated DJ's friend, Ben, so the five of us hung out a lot for the first few years of school, along with many other friends - Dylan, Rachel, Makenzie, Derek and too many others to name. I don't have too many photos from high school anymore, but some of the ones I do have with DJ are from when I became super involved in YoungLife, and I made him come with me every week.
Fast-forward to junior year, DJ pretty much just fell in love with Annie. In fact, he was pretty dramatic about it. We called him "Deej-ball cheese-ball" because you wouldn't believe the cheesy things he would say. Annie wasn't interested for a LONG time. Towards the end of Junior year, DJ tried to make a move by putting his arm around Annie and she pretty quickly rejected him. Luckily, Laura convinced her to give it a shot. DJ had already planned on asking her to prom and they've been together pretty much ever since.
After this, Annie & DJ were always a package deal, but not in a way that was annoying like some couples. Annie & DJ were BOTH always so incredibly fun to be around and it didn't take long for me to become their 3rd wheel (I was a late bloomer when it came to boyfriends.)
After high school, we went to different colleges, so though we weren't as close, we always remained friends. Annie & DJ went off to Mankato and I went, well, everywhere. Started at ASU, followed by UMD and finished up at the U of M. When I moved back to the cities to go to the U of M, I reconnected big time with Annie & DJ. Annie had also moved home to finish nursing school and so it just seemed that we were always together again.
Between my junior and senior of college, I went through a break-up and I relied on those two more than ever to not feel lonely. Pretty much wherever they went, they (luckily) invited me to tag along.
During my senior year of college, Annie was living at home and attending nursing school, so on most weekends she either visited me at the U of M or DJ at Mankato. One weekend I went to Mankato to see them both. After this, I saw even more of them because I started dating one of DJ's friends from school, so I was even there for DJ's graduation.
Even though that relationship didn't last for me, Annie & DJ were always there for me and they never "chose sides" in the break-up. A few months later, I began dating Matt (my now husband) and he fit like a glove with our group.
I still remember the day that Annie called me to tell me that her & DJ had gotten engaged. It was a Tuesday morning, around 9am to be specific, and she called me (which she never does while I'm at work) to tell me that DJ had (finally) popped the question! I say finally because we were only 23, but they had been together forever, so it had felt like we had been waiting a lifetime.
They were married on March 4, 2017. While it was a bit windy, it was a beautiful day. Getting to watch your best friends marry each other is a pretty incredible thing. And even though they were getting married, I never felt like I was losing either one of them. I knew that we were friends for the long haul. Selfishly, the only thing I was a little bummed about is that they were going on a honeymoon right away and would be missing my birthday the following weekend. (Still a loser all these years later).
I'm happy to say that I was right. After Annie & DJ got married, nothing changed. We still did everything together - concerts, being hotel roomies at weddings, Friday night Captains, etc. Matt started joining us more too when we realized he'd be sticking around for a while.
The day that Matt & I got engaged, Annie was my first call. DJ wasn't there to hear the news, but I knew she'd relay the message. It didn't take long after we got married for Annie to tell us that she was pregnant with their first baby. We had planned a short getaway to Chicago that summer, so it looked a little different than our typical getaways because Annie wasn't able to drink, but we still had a blast!
About 7 months or so after that trip, Clayton was born! Clayton is now about to turn two and is the sweetest little boy.
Though life has looked a little different the last couple of years for all of us, one thing always remained the same - my friendship with Annie & DJ. They were still the people we shared a room with at a wedding, the people we called for a random happy hour, and arguably most importantly, our concert buddies.
My last memory with DJ is from New Year's Eve this year. The four of us attended the Thomas Rhett show at Xcel Energy Center and stayed at a hotel nearby for the night. We had the BEST time. In fact, even though they are terrible, one of our friends snapped these pictures of DJ & I. Like I said, they are terrible, but I am so happy they exist because I will cherish them forever.
On February 1, 2022, I received a text that would change my life. I had been informed that something happened to DJ while he was at a meeting and he had been airlifted to the University of Minnesota. DJ was a Type 1 diabetic, which means he was technically prone to health issues, but for as long as I had known him, he was very healthy. I immediately texted Annie to ask what she needed and how I could help. She later called me and informed that DJ had a heart attack and he had to be resuscitated multiple times in the helicopter. They put a stent in and placed him on ECMO for a minimum of three days to give his body the time it needed to heal.
Annie told me she was scared, understandably, but I was so sure that he was going to be okay. I just truly believed that he was going to wake up three days later and everything was going to be fine.
The next day, Annie went to the hospital again and while his heart had seemed to be stable, the concern was now with his brain. The neurological team had come in and said his pupils were not as responsive as they had hoped, so they ran another CT scan.
About 4 hours after Annie told us this, I got the worst phone call of my entire life. Annie called Laura, Rachel and myself to inform us that the CT scan determined that there was no brain activity. He was brain dead through no fault of his own at 28.
Annie and his family made the decision to take him off life support and donate his organs. They spent the next two days saying goodbye and being with him as much as they possibly could. On February 4th, they harvested his liver and kidney, in addition to other organs. We were informed that his liver went to a 34-year-old male, his right kidney went to a 55-year-old male and his left kidney went to a 71-year-old male.
These last two weeks have been emotional to say the least. Part of it still doesn't seem real, and then the moments where it does, it's heavy. Hard for us to believe that we're never gonna see our friend, husband, dad, brother and uncle again. DJ was so many things to so many people. He had the biggest heart, was so incredibly hard-working and had a smile that would light up every room. I would literally give anything to hit the dance floor with him one more time and to take this pain away from all of us.
Tomorrow, (Feb. 18), we will be celebrating DJ's life and I don't know if any of us are truly prepared for it. DJ was very much the glue that held our friend group together. Our get togethers will never be the same without him. I don't think any of us will be the same without him.
One thing I will say is how blown away I am by Annie's strength. She has no idea how strong she is even, but throughout these last two weeks, she has remained the best mom to Clayton, and she continues to be the BEST friend. Annie gave a few of us the opportunity to say goodbye to DJ at the hospital. While we were there, we made sure to tell him everything we could think of, but most importantly, that we will be there for Annie, Clayton and their dog, Wilson. She/they will never be alone.
If you read this whole thing, thank you. I just needed to get it all off my chest. I want people who didn't know DJ to understand just how incredible he was. I keep telling myself that we will never move on, but we have to move forward. That's a lot easier said than done. But, when I talked about his story on our show, someone sent me this message and I just found it really beautiful.
What I have learned is that grief does not go away. It simply changes. Like you said during the podcast, you won't move on. You'll move forward. But until then, don't be afraid to stand still and let God carry you. Grief is the price of love. Where there is deep love, there is deep grief.
One of my favorite songs from this last year is "Heaven Right Now" by Thomas Rhett and it takes on a whole new meaning now. Especially since my last memory with DJ was at the Thomas Rhett New Year's Eve concert. So Deej, as Thomas Rhett says, I look forward to catching up when my time comes around. We love you. ❤️