I thought I was going to have to bring home a stranger’s ashes.
I wasn’t sure if that was even allowed, and I couldn’t imagine how that conversation was going to go over in my house. But I didn’t know what else to do. No amount of digging led to living relatives of a reclusive North Philadelphia handyman I wrote about in 2017. The thought of leaving the remains at the M.E.’s Office didn’t seem right.
I first learned about Sebastian Riley through LaTanya Pierce, who’d hired him to do some work for her and her family. Riley, whom she called “Ralph,” was a private man who never shared much past his devotion to his mother, Julia, who died in 2006. But he’d recently asked Pierce for help to get his few papers in order, and they were enough to paint a picture of a man who didn’t have much, including running water.
When Riley collapsed one day in June, Pierce rushed to the hospital — she didn’t want him to be alone. She was too late. A heart attack, they told her. He was 62.
Pierce reached out to me hoping I could help find his people. If he didn’t have any, she at least wanted the world to know that a man who had lived under the radar had mattered, that “he was somebody.”
On the 2500 block of West Lehigh, where he lived in his mother’s house, I found a neighbor who thought Riley had a daughter and son somewhere. Maybe in North Carolina, he guessed. But I couldn’t find them. A detective who wanted to help poked around but didn’t get much further.
Maybe, I thought, there were just no people to find. Maybe this was the end of the story.
And yet, I couldn’t let him go, and pondered how to get those ashes from the medical examiner.
Then, out of the blue, an unexpected email in January. Subject line:
“Daughter of Sebastian Riley.”
I called Yolonda Keels immediately. She sent me an old photo of her, Sebastian, and his mother in their West Lehigh home.
Sebastian Riley had people after all.
Over many conversations and texts, Keels, 39, recounted bittersweetly how she had always felt different than her siblings. She was more social, more artsy, more of a free spirit. It all finally made sense when her mother, commenting on her ability to draw, let it slip that she must have gotten it from her father. Finally, she told the girl about Riley.
The two had met in Philadelphia after she’d separated from her first husband. Riley was handsome, a little younger, interesting — a painter and a poet. They moved to North Carolina when Keels was just a few years old, but Riley missed the pace of home.
He missed his mother even more. Riley left and never came back.
Over her mother’s concerns and objections, Keels reached out to Riley more than 20 years ago and traveled to North Philly to meet him. He was happy to see her; he called her “baby girl.” Her grandmother pulled $100 from her brassiere as a gift. Riley showed her his artwork and poetry. He told her about his love of chess and a half-brother.
Keels had expected to meet the young, vibrant man in the pictures she’d seen. What she found was a man with demons — including alcoholism and drug addiction. He told her he’d been in jail. Court records I found when I first wrote about him showed a few arrests for possession of drugs, one of which led to about a year behind bars.
He handed her some documents, including discharge papers from a hospital that listed his condition as schizophrenia.
For years, she worried that in addition to inheriting his creativity, she would also inherit his mental illness. Over the next two decades, she called him on Father’s Day and his birthday. He sent her intricate, handmade cards he embellished with his artwork and always signed, “Dad.” She shared the milestones in her life: college graduation, her wedding, the birth of her first child. She probably would have asked him to walk her down the aisle if she thought he could make the trip.
After Riley’s mom died in 2006, Keels, a mental health case worker, worried. But when she called him, he assured her he was managing. “I’m going to make it through,” he told her.
The calls and cards grew more infrequent until she stopped hearing from him.
An uncle in Philly who she’d occasionally ask to check on him had moved. The phone number that hadn’t changed in decades was disconnected. She thought maybe he’d relapsed, or landed in the hospital with schizophrenia.
She’d search for clues on the internet. No news, she thought, was good news. And then in January, she found my column online. She was shocked.
In her first message she said she wanted to know more, and for the next few months we kept in touch as she tried to come to terms with his death.
“I never felt like there was anything I could do,” she said. “I didn’t want to put any strain on him by asking him too many questions about his issues, and no matter how many times I asked, I knew he’d never come live with me.”
When I told her that her father had been cremated, she decided she wanted his ashes.
Last week, she sent a text with a picture of a black box holding her father’s ashes. He was home.
Keels wrote, “Finally.”