- Associated Press - Monday, May 30, 2016

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. (AP) - Alex Arrieta lived to be 10 years old.

He was not given enough time to finish elementary school.

Or to learn how to drive.

Or to find out why people care about prom or college or weddings.

But in his short years, he had amassed a fortune of friends more vast than those three or four or even seven times his age.

They were the classmates he made laugh when they shouldn’t be making any noise at all, adults who marveled at his mood-lifting, ear-touching smiles and strangers who continued to answer his call even after his death on April 27 from complications related to acute myeloid leukemia, a disease he had beaten twice in 14 months.

They were so numerous they simply could not fit under the large pavilion at Honey Horn, where the Hilton Head Island Elementary School for the Creative Arts fifth-grader was remembered with prayer, song, tears and laughter.

“You’re going to have an amazing experience this afternoon,” the Rev. Stuart Boehmig said at the start of the memorial service.

It was a bold statement to make to the mourning.

Nothing about a child’s memorial could ever be defined as amazing.

This, in fact, was not supposed to be happening at all.

Alex was not supposed to have died.

We were not supposed to be here.

Doing this.

But the crowd - most wearing orange, the color of leukemia awareness, Alex’s color - brought a spirit of joy with them, relief felt in between the shoulder-shaking tears and the realization that the happy little boy in the slideshow photos and in the pictures taped to the pillars of the pavilion was no longer here.

Just before the opening prayer, Alex’s friend Tristan Horup spotted himself in a photo and couldn’t help but tell everyone around him.

“That was when I won the jackpot in the arcade,” he whispered loudly to me.

In the picture, Tristan holds an armful of tickets, so many they’re spilling over in all directions. Alex stands beside him, his mouth and eyes open wide in celebration.

That moment was probably among the best days of their lives thus far.

“I told you you’d laugh,” Boehmig said when the audience reacted to an Arrieta Christmas photo, the kids dressed in holiday wear, the family dog beside them dressed glumly as a reindeer.

Kris Field, who introduced himself as Alex’s unofficial uncle, remembered Alex as “the sweetest baby anyone could ever have.”

He choked through his words.

“Alex showed us how to do (life) every day.”

Alex’s former drum group, BOOM, assembled behind tall drums, some almost as big as the boys playing them.

They pounded out a beat, unsteady at times but as solemn as a Maori Haka dance.

Perfect for the boy who has been described as a champion, a warrior.

Even Mr. T agreed.

“Keep fighting. Keep fighting. Don’t give up,” he said in a tribute video to Alex.

“How many of you thought you’d be hearing from Mr. T this afternoon,” Boehmig said to laughter.

Mr. T wasn’t the only celebrity virtually present. Frankie Sullivan of Survivor, the band behind Alex’s fight song, “Eye of the Tiger,” also spoke in a video.

“You probably have more of the eye of the tiger in you than anyone in my entire life,” he said.

Alex’s friends, gathered together under a speaker they kept accidentally unplugging with their wayward, restless limbs, were unimpressed.

“Who is this?” one asked the others.

“American Idol” contestant and Bluffton native Lee Jean Jr. played “Cat’s in the Cradle,” a song he had learned that afternoon.

He did not know Alex.

But “he would have been my friend if he was three years older,” the singer said.

Jean also did not know all the words to the classic song Alex would sing to his father.

The audience helped Jean fill in the blanks.

It could not have been easy.

But Jean knows loss. His own brother had died, and Jean wanted to do this for Alex.

Alex’s family sat up front, his parents clutching each other and Alex’s most faithful friend of all, Lamby, the stuffed animal that had been by his side from the time he was an infant to his final moments 10 years later.

At the end they released butterflies.

“No more suffering. No more pain. No more needles,” Boehmig said in his closing prayer.

“Free as a bird.

“Free as a butterfly.”

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