Timmy and Rocky, The Short and Long of It

The news stunned. To a parent, it was horrifying, unimaginable:

Dear Ones: I can’t believe I must do this but I must. Tell you that our dear sweet Timmy left this world yesterday, April 25, 2010. Timmy took a hard fall off his skateboard in the wee hours of the morning in Capitola, returning home from a party the night before (but ever mindful not to drink and drive). He hit his head hard, lost consciousness almost immediately and never regained it. He was helicoptered to Valley Medical Center where we met him and stayed with him the rest of the day. He had excellent care but little hope for recovery with a severe brain stem injury. He passed peacefully surrounded by his loving family and friends throughout the day. Today we begin the heart-wrenching process of putting one foot in front of the other into a future we can’t imagine without him. Please light a candle and pray for him and for us. We will let you all know about services and such things as we know.

Thank you for your loving support. – Sherry and Matt

My eyes welled up, my stomach sickened. I knew Timmy. He was bright, eager, caring – like his parents, Matt and Sherry, friends of thirty-five years. Timmy attended local schools, played sports, hung out with friends — the normal things kids do. He was a sophomore at UC Santa Cruz, where by all accounts he was having the time of his life. Then, without warning, he wasn’t. A slip in asphalt darkness and years of laughter fell into silence. It was one of those Molotov cocktails in life — sudden, awful, shattering. Everything that comes after is different than everything that went before.

My grief for Sherry and Matt mixed with a too-close-to-home empathy. What if it had been Charlie, my son, my only child? Unimaginable but made imaginable by Timmy.

Only last Fall, a loose boulder fell on a hiking path in China, killing Ethan, the son of another college friend. Ethan was twenty-four. Timmy was twenty. Charlie is nine.

I wrote a note to Matt and Sherry, expressing my wife’s and my sadness and asking if there was anything we could do –- a fucking ridiculous question, I realized. I told them Charlie fondly remembered that Timmy lent him his prized collection of animal books before he left for college.

Several days later, on Friday night, I stopped by Sherry and Matt’s home after Charlie’s baseball game on the same field where Timmy played, not far from the soccer fields where Charlie now plays, and where Timmy also played. The connections were frighteningly close.

My stomach knotted as I entered the house filled with family and friends, and lots of teenagers —Timmy’s friends. When I saw Matt, I greeted him awkwardly and thrust out a bottle of wine I’d brought. He took the wine, then took me, and hugged me for what seemed like forever. I’m not a big guy-to-guy hugger, so it took me a bit by surprise. As he held me tight, his chest with deep, heavy breaths pressed against me, as sad a sound as anything I had ever heard. I could feel my own tears welling up. When he released, I quickly pulled back. Before a word could be spoken I said I had to get my other offering, a balsamic-glazed chicken, out of the car, adding details about the special organic pedigree of the chicken, filling the space between us.

I left the house and death panic rushed in. Life’s patterns could be interrupted. A slip of a skateboard and the shattering of a brainstem. The movement of earth in China, a boulder crashing down. Death replaces youth in a grotesque second.

Returning with my chicken, I felt a little more balanced. Who knows why? Perhaps because preparing and sharing food gives me comfort, and in some small way I felt that I was passing that on to my friends who had little.

Matt and I stood in the kitchen and drank some wine. I was surprised that we didn’t immediately talk about Timmy. Sherry joined us, and she and I hugged, less intensely, more comfortably. She smiled and said something funny that made me relax. We drank and talked. After a time, Matt remarked that he hadn’t eaten and the chicken looked good, so we carved into it. His son Tyler ate with us. Soon, the chicken was picked apart and shared with the guests. Matt said he looked forward to seeing me on Saturday at Timmy’s memorial. Gulp. When I said we had plans to attend a friend’s 65th birthday party in Monterey, he looked disappointed, but maybe I imagined it. Given the circumstances, it was hard to believe he could feel anything other than grief. We talked about nothing important until about 1 am, and then I left and drove home.

The next morning my wife Becky and I discussed the competing events. She reminded me that Matt and Sherry are lifelong friends and it would be important to be there to support their family.

I didn’t need reminding, but I dread memorials, in general, and dreaded Timmy’s, in particular. The prospect of celebrating a twenty-year-old’s life stretched my imagination. It also provoked the unforgettably bad experience at my mother Josephine’s funeral when I was thirteen. I recall weeping, breathless, until my father Rocky said to me that crying wouldn’t change things. As I look back on it, I know now he said it for his sake more than mine. After that, my father never attended another funeral or memorial, and neither did I, at least not until his. But when Rocky died at eighty-nine, he was ready, even eager, to leave this world. At twenty, how prepared was Timmy? How prepared were his parents?

Becky knew my fears, not about my own death, but about living after the death of a loved one. We talked about my other college friends who would be attending the memorial, and how good it would be to see them, even under these circumstances. So we decided that Becky and Charlie would attend the birthday party, and I would attend Timmy’s memorial.

It was a beautiful Palo Alto spring day – clear, warm, breezy — absolutely perfect. The day felt more painted than real, its light, airy appearance in gross contrast with its dark, sad content. The memorial was at Gunn High School where Timmy had graduated. Clusters of Timmy’s friends sat at tables greeting people. Another group of his friends was gathered in a circle playing Hackysack, and another bumping a volleyball, and another kicking a soccer ball. In the auditorium, there was a slide show of Timmy’s life, image after image of him as a child, a teenager, and a young man with his family and friends. Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” was playing,

There’s something happening here.

What it is ain’t exactly clear.

That captured the moment. Here was the encapsulation of Timmy’s short life: Twenty years of family, relationships, school, play, travel and uncategorized times. Pictures, music, faces, smells, a breeze, the sun. It was over for him. We were here to remember. But to what purpose? It wasn’t exactly clear. My father’s comment haunted me: It wouldn’t change things.

I ran into several college friends, guys I hadn’t seen in twenty, thirty years. They looked old. Unlike Matt and Sherry who I had watched age gradually, these friends appeared in alien bodies, but with the same youthful spirits I remembered. It added a surrealism to an already surreal day.

After milling around, I moved to a row of white chairs on the lawn, sat next to friends facing a stage where Sherry and Matt stood. Matt spoke:


He paused, took a deep breath, and continued.

The word ‘aloha’ is a Hawaiian greeting meaning ‘face-to-face with the breath of life..’ It’s nice to be face-to-face sharing the breath of life with all of you.

I was, I am, and I will always be Timmy’s father. He brought me immense joy during his richly-lived twenty years. I, like each of you, am shocked and overwhelmed with disbelief and sadness at his passing. He has given all of us the incredible gift of his life. His passing invites us to carry his vibrant spirit with us into the future.

I wanted to begin this part of the afternoon by inviting you to join me in creating a sacred space to share remembrances of his life. Through this invocation, I invite you to join me in my intention, today, and always to celebrate my son, Timmy’s life with us.

Almost immediately, I began to weep – not heaving or sobbing, but a steady stream of tears. At the same time, I felt an almost uncontrollable urge to leave. I couldn’t stop thinking about Timmy and his parents, and how much joy they brought him, and he them, and how that was now over, suddenly, awfully. I took a deep breath, tried to clear my nose, my head. I wiped the tears from under my sunglasses. The sun and breeze dried my face quickly. The light danced through the trees, shadows falling and moving across the stage. Matt and Sherry stood still in the spring light. Timmy had become a dancing shadow.

Matt continued:

It has taken us our ENTIRE lives to arrive at this moment. When we recognize the preciousness of this moment, we realize it’s transformational significance in all of our lives. Do we accept life’s invitation to feel deeply, to love fearlessly, and potently? Will we reconcile ourselves with the inevitable peaks and valleys of our life’s transient journey? Can we dig deep and extract the nectar from our tears shed in joy and grief, loss and gain, and ultimately, life and death? We discover renewed courage and faith when our hearts are rendered open, aware of the tremendous privilege to share and experience love, the gift of life, and its tentative fragility.

Truly, It has taken us our entire lifetime to come to the fulfillment of this poignant and deep realization. May the challenges we encounter enable us to put our own lives into new perspective, open us to reevaluate what is most dear, and to embrace each moment, no matter how difficult All we have is this moment, and all we can ever really hold is love.

May we cherish our love of Timmy always, and remember that love is never lost. Vulnerable as we are, may we find grace in our grief, and in our shared tenderness, the strength and courage to continue on. Together, we hold in our hearts sacred, all those who have passed, all those present, and the future legacy for those who are yet to come. In honor of our sweet, sweet Timmy who have touched us so profoundly, let us take heart and renew our commitment to love, to support and to treasure one another. The richness of life is not measured in time, but in the quality and depth of connection with others.

I sat through ceremony as waves of tears, wind, and evaporation ebbed and flowed. Next the family spoke. Timmy’s brother Tyler and sister Cassedy followed their parents. They held it together amazingly well. Then aunts and uncles and cousins and friends and classmates reminisced, each with a story about Timmy with an eloquence of his time in their life. The picture they painted was of a fearless, fun, wild spirit. A boy filled with adventure. Athletic. A young man gifted socially and intellectually.

Timmy collected friends from across the spectrum. He listened, cared and gave back. He was, like his parents, blessed with love and kindness. It was a beautiful portrait of life as a young man. And tragic, yet with a hopeful message: Duration of life should not be confused with quality of life. Timmy’s family and friends, and the light and breeze and shadows gave it all these textures and more.

I returned home after the memorial dazed, off balance. I was alone in an empty and quiet house.

I sat at my desk and looked at a picture I keep there of my father Rocky and his parents taken in September, 1942. He was twenty-seven at the time, a veteran of Pearl Harbor, which had been bombed a year earlier. Rocky spent three days stacking dead bodies after the bombing. Throughout his life he would have recurring nightmares about the moans he heard from the bottoms of those stacks — were those soldiers still alive or was that only air draining out of dead lungs? When he returned home after Pearl Harbor on leave, his siblings described him as shaken, thin, ghost-like. He spent another three years at war in the Pacific theater, experiencing more bombings, death and a whole host of emotions.

As I looked at the photo, Rocky’s eight-nine years played out. Before World War II, he and his family struggled and survived the Great Depression. He saw the beginning and end of the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf Wars. He survived the election of fifteen American presidents in the twentieth century, enjoyed several different careers, and engaged in too many relationships to count — thankfully most of them before he was married.

I opened the letter I wrote when Rocky died and read:

My father Rocky DeLapa has died, which is both a sad and a good thing. Sad because he was, for me, the most generous, kind, gracious, thoughtful and joyful person I’ve known. After my mother died when I was thirteen, Rocky became a single parent. He raised me — in the true sense of the word, he brought me higher — guided me through difficult teenage years, supported me through college, traveled with me around the world, hosted countless meals for me and my friends, shared my joy in becoming a husband and father, and taught me to love life and family and friends above all else.

Good because his time had come. His last six years, following his stroke, were difficult. As his capacities declined, his dependence on others grew, and the things that brought him such joy in life were harder for him to find. He was clear that what he wanted most was to die comfortably and privately at home, which he was able to do because of the extraordinary support and love of his friends and family.

As I’ve grown fond of saying, Rocky got his money’s worth out of life. It was an unbelievable American journey: the eldest son of ten siblings in an impoverished immigrant Italian family, a survivor of Pearl Harbor and Guadalcanal, a courier during the Berlin airlift, an avid late night dancer and early morning fisherman, to mention a few of his experiences from 1915 to date. I reflect on the past 48 years of our relationship and try hard not to imagine what it’s going to be like without him. Having my own son makes it both harder and easier — harder because I now have an inkling of how much my father loved me and easier because Charlie’s unbridled joy and laughter helps keep everything, including death, in perspective.

My dad has left me with more grand memories than seems fair, two of which I’d like to share. One was his habit of waking up with a smile and silly comment every morning, no matter the circumstance. I saw it as his way of worshipping the great possibilities that the day might bring. The other was his uncanny sense of gratitude. I say uncanny because he never failed to acknowledge even the small acts of kindness, to be aware that relationships with others — the greatest gift of life — should never be taken for granted. One of my last memories of my father is him laying in his bed, unable to swallow, barely able to breath, but able to somehow tell me “thank you” for being by his side. Such simple things. I can’t tell you how much I already miss them, and him.

What a contrast – Rocky’s eighty-nine years to Timmy’s twenty. A father’s soft and timely death. A child’s sudden, unexplainable one.

To clear my head, I decided to do what I have done often when I need to find clarity and stability: I planned my version of a Native American sweat lodge, a ritual of mental focus and physical exhaustion: I organized a volleyball game.

I’ve been playing volleyball competitively for thirty-five years, since college. Matt, Sherry and I played intramurals together. They retired, but I kept playing, incessantly for a period in my twenties and thirties, then regularly throughout my forties and now fifties. I taught it to my son Charlie, and we now play together. It’s a string through my life that connects the present and the past.

I emailed a group of guys that play at the Stanford sand courts, and heard back from Nick, a former Stanford indoor player, and Mike, a relatively new player. Nick thought he could get Brad, another former Stanford indoor player who I hadn’t met to join us, and we confirmed a two-man game for Sunday morning, 8:30 am start.

Sunday was as beautiful as Saturday – crisp, clear, a slight breeze – absolutely perfect for sand volleyball. It reminded me of many Palo Alto spring mornings past, ones in college when I would get up and play volleyball on the grass at the Stanford oval, and more recent ones when I would coach Charlie’s baseball or soccer teams on grass fields. Grass has that fresh smell of youth.

The Stanford courts are good ones –not like the broad seaside courts at Santa Barbara’s East Beach where I played in my twenties, nor those of Carmel Beach with dramatic views of Point Lobos where I played in recent decades, but good courts nonetheless. With clean, deep sand, the Stanford courts are geographically well placed to avoid direct sun and off the main pedestrian paths to avoid distractions.

Nick and I arrived early. We ate bagels and joked about his first victory in 2008 at our Carmel Beach December “polar bear” tournament, and his loss this last year in a hotly contested final to his beach partner. Mike arrived, then Brad. I hadn’t met Brad but realized as we warmed up, peppering, that like Nick, he was a AAA beach volleyball player, the highest amateur ranking. On a good day, I might sneak by with an A rating, and Mike maybe a B. It was one of those rare opportunities for me to play “up,” that is, to play against much better players, since, as in most sports, the best players only play against the best.

Peppering the volleyball, I felt the beautiful, simple rhythm between two players: bump, set, spike. Like the pattern of waves coming ashore, it’s predictable, satisfying. The court sand carried memories in its texture. I flashed on the hundreds of sand courts I had played on, the timeless mornings and afternoons of oceans, and hours and hours, decades through decades, of play and joy. It always started with two people peppering in unison, moving, warming up, getting a feel for the ball, and the sand, and each other, and the day.

The first two games were hard and long. Nick and I played together first and lost. Then Brad and I played and won. Then Mike and I played and got killed, but that was expected. It wasn’t just that Nick and Brad were taller – Nick at 6’6”, Brad at 6’5”, and Mike and I both under 6’ – but they were better in every way – faster, stronger, more skilled. To play with Nick or Brad was a gift. You could set the ball high or low, on or off the net, and they could spike or shoot it easily. Their passing and setting were nearly flawless. To make a better game, they kindly served and blocked each other, and let Mike and I do they same. They were smart – both Stanford graduates – and thoughtful, not hotheads at all but fiercely, enjoyably competitive.

We took a break, and talked. I looked at these young men, none of them aware of my Saturday. All were in their 20s, in their physical primes, far closer in age to Timmy than to me. Nick and Brad competing at the highest level of their sport. I was 30 years older, competing longer than they had been alive. I thought about my life at 20, when I was in my prime, and about the years between then and now. I had spent thousands of hours competing, with friends in so many places, and beers and laughter afterwards. I had already spent six years playing with my son Charlie, bringing him to the beach when he was three, teaching him all of the fundamentals of the sport, watching him grow into the game, and sharing with him my passion for competition and camaraderie.

I held onto those thoughts as we played – five games in all – and put the events of the past week in perspective. There was the shortness of life, of those gone: Timmy, twenty years old; Josephine, my mother forty-seven; Rocky my father eighty-nine. And of those still living: Charlie, nine. Becky forty-six. Me fifty-four. Then I did the math. Charlie, roughly half of Timmy’s age. Timmy roughly half Becky and my ages. Becky and I roughly half Rocky’s.

I thought about what Matt had said, “It has taken us our ENTIRE lives to arrive at this moment,” and about beauty of the present moment, living and loving it fully – something that many of Timmy’s friends had observed about how he approached life. His death made clear the axiom that life is so short, so damn precious, there’s not a minute to waste. Life demands urgency to enjoy the gifts we’re given, to give back, and to make choices without regret or fear of failure.

But the day and reflections reinforced life’s paradox: there is also the long of it. Life also demands smart decisions about the opportunities we consider and risks we take. If Timmy represented life’s brevity, my father showed the statistically more likely path. Rocky’s life reminded me that as short and urgent as life can seem on some days, on others it’s crystal clear that life is a marathon of choices, of courses and course corrections. We can run down different paths, then return back, testing the terrain for the path we most enjoy. In virtually every instance, a skateboard ride isn’t a final decision; it’s simply one of many ways to enjoy a ride home.

Timmy and Rocky, life’s bookends, on that Sunday, on those courts, with the young men who were pushing me to play as hard as I could for as long as I could, knowing that I couldn’t know if life would end suddenly like Timmy’s, or extend beautifully like Rocky’s. I couldn’t wait to tell Charlie about my Saturday and Sunday, and to remind him to live and love life wisely, with clarity that life is both short and, mostly, long.

This is for my son Charlie, and for Matt and Sherry whose pain I feel and for whom, regrettably, I have only words and a chicken to share.