This is hard.
You’ve heard this first part before.
I graduated from high school in 1989. The Summer after I graduated, wandering around on my bike I rode by Dundalk Elementary one evening. That was the start of a new phase of life. There were a bunch of friends and acquaintances from high school playing soccer on the fenced asphalt court.
I used to have dreams like that when I was a kid. You know me by now. Kind of a loner, which is another word for someone looking for something they can’t identify. The kind of kid who spends a lot of time in his own head. But I would have dreams about going somewhere and finding all my friends in one place and it was like a big festival or gathering or reunion. I hated waking up from those dreams.
So when I found a spot where all my friends would gather, playing endless games of soccer in the summer heat, I had found something. I was never any good myself, but I’ve always loved playing soccer anyway. And the rest of the guys were accommodating and patient. I even learned a thing or two.
My classmates would be out there. Guys who had graduated a few years ahead of us. Even one older guy who had played for the Baltimore Blast before sustaining a knee injury.
And there were the middle schoolers, too. Out there playing. And the elementary school kids. You could have a game where the youngest guy was six and the oldest was 30. It was fascinating to see the connections between everyone, too. Siblings, cousins, life long friends.
That’s how I met Theo and his sister and brother. Man. He must have been, like, 9 years old at the time? I’ve told you about him before. He was a good kid. Big heart. Thoughtful. Quiet. He’s the kid who saw me at the court one day kicking the soccer ball around by myself and walked over and said, “You look lonely.”
I said, “There’s a difference between being lonely and being alone.”
Then he said something to the effect of, “Well you look lonely.”
His brother came over and said hello. They were leaving and I had to pretty much tell Theo that it was okay if he wanted to go. He shouldn’t feel bad about it.
Eventually I found out that he liked to draw. I used to draw comic book characters all the time. I gave him one of my drawings and I lent him my “How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way” book.
He practiced. If you look at the first pic in the gallery you’ll see the cover of a sketchbook Theo gave me in 1993. I’m getting my timetable mixed up but he must have been 11 or so.
I had a car thanks to my parents and I used to hang out with friends, the soccer crowd. I would just drive around sometimes until we all got bored. Cranking Tony Toni Tone’s “Feels Good”. I took some of the guys hiking at Patapsco. Went to Great Falls once.
Life wasn’t idyllic for a lot of the guys. That’s what I eventually learned. I tried to — you know — pay attention and help out when I could. Just listening or whatever.
Some of the guys saw me as a good influence, I guess. They were straight arrows when I was around. Not so much when I wasn’t. Every once in a while one of them would slip and call me “dad”, which I thought was kind of funny. But really, Theo was like a little brother or a nephew or sometimes like a son.
Once when I tried to help him and his brother out with some tension at home he said, “I wish we could live with you and you could be like our dad.”
What can you do. Y’know. You do what you can.
I went to UMBC from 1989 through 1991-ish. It was only a twenty minute drive from Dundalk so I was home a lot, playing soccer and hanging out in the evenings or on weekends. Going to friends’ games. Good times.
I transferred to College Park in 1992 and time moved on. I didn’t see my Dundalk and soccer crew friends as much, especially when I started getting the summer internships with Apple Computer. We were all getting older. I was trying to graduate from college. Some of them were getting into — all kinds of stuff. Man.
I would drive around, see some of my friends walking and pull over to give them a lift to a bus stop or something. Listening to them talk was like being in the movie “Kids”. Lord of the Flies, man.
Theo’s older brother came out to visit and hung out in Cali for a few weeks. That was circa 1998? 1999? No. 1997 because I was still at Apple and playing soccer after work. It was cool. He would keep me up to date with the stuff going on back home. It wasn’t good news, a lot of it. Theo was having trouble.
A lot of people were having problems with drug addiction and run ins with the police. Too many of those kids were falling into that seedy Dundalk underside and graduated to the seedy Baltimore underside. I couldn’t understand it. I still don’t.
I lost touch with just about every one.
I moved back to Baltimore in January of 2003. A while later, I got in touch with Theo’s sister via … what was it? MySpace? Facebook? She told me what everyone was up to and gave me Theo’s info and some ten years later I ended up corresponding with Theo. He was proud to tell me that he was still drawing. Designing tattoos and T-shirts themed with Filipino pride. Check out the envelopes of the letters he wrote.
It was so wild. The last time I had seen him he was a kid. I think he was 12. And then all of a sudden he was 25 and had been through some stuff I couldn’t imagine. Still will a good heart, though. It’s like he was on a ride and things got out of control.
I’m going to have to wind this up because it’s — it’s getting to me.
We met up a few times for lunch. Went hiking at Patapsco. He always needed help. He was reluctant to ask but he had trouble making it on his own. Nobody’s perfect, right. And he had some problems. Vices. I would see him almost seasonally. Like, when he was doing really well he would call and we’d hang out. When he was in a trough he’d disappear. Then something would happen, he’d turn things around and rise again.
He’d get bored really easily and return to old habits but he had done some counseling and knew what his weaknesses were.
When he had structure in his life, he shined. No joke. With structure in his life he was a role model and even a leader. When that structure was missing he had no moorings. He’d get bored and down and feel restless. When he was on an upswing again he’d call. He was in and out of people’s lives.
He didn’t quite fit in the world he was caught up in. From the git-go. That’s my opinion. Even as a kid all the boys were fighting and scrapping over the dumbest little things. Man, I broke up a lot of fights. He wasn’t about drama if it was by his own volition. As a kid he was taciturn and mellow, thinking a lot more than he ever said. When I finally saw him again after all of those years I was taken aback to hear him talk so much, telling me about his experiences and what he had learned and what he wanted to get out of life.
A few months ago, his sister called and told me that Theo was there with her and wanted to talk to me real quick. He didn’t have a cell phone number any more but wanted to check in and tell me that he had some trouble but was doing alright and that we should hang out soon. He’d call me.
Rest in Peace
Two days ago his sister let me know that Theo was in the hospital in critical condition. Someone had attacked him, I guess. Beaten him to the point of causing severe brain injuries. Yesterday he was pronounced brain dead.
And now he’s gone. Coincidentally on the birthday of one of my nephews.
This big hearted kid who wanted to do right. The one who accepted people for who or what they are. Who was looking for a way to make it work. To use his art to…
I’ve been pushing it down for the past few days. Work is a good distraction even though I haven’t been very focused. I don’t know all of the circumstances. It’s so damn senseless. I’m sad and mourning on one hand and angry to the point of rage on the other hand, having a friend stolen from his family. Stolen from life.
I don’t know. For some reason I thought or hoped that his condition sounded worse than it was. I thought he would pull through and start the long, hard process of recovering from brain trauma the same way he always bounced back. I imagined steeling myself to visit him in the hospital and bringing the photos he had sent me and some drawing supplies. Something like that. Not so. Not to be.
Crying gives me headaches that last for days.
You just wish … I just wish that I could go back a bit and even if I couldn’t save him, I wish I could say goodbye. I wish I could let him know that he fought a good fight in regards to his life. That he had a resilience and optimism that convinced me that with enough time and supportive surroundings he’d get what he wanted out of life.
I guess it’s a reminder to all of us.