Rico & Me Reunited: Chapter 1

Friday, September 30, 2016

As I sat on a plane headed to Virginia to drive home to Portland with Rico in his BMW, I started to wonder how I would react when I saw him.

It had been four years since Rico entered the military, and we had seen each other only a handful of times since he left. On one occasion two years ago, on a week-long family trip to Disney World, he had driven from Norfolk, Virginia to Florida to meet up with me and David, his mother Maria, and his brothers Luis and Diego and his oldest sister Gabriella. The one earlier time, we had all been together had been nearly a year earlier, when Rico was home for a short vacation. During that time, I hadn’t seen him much: he spent much of his time glued to playing Call of Duty on his PlayStation 4 in the living room of Maria’s crowded two-bedroom apartment – also home to Gabriella, her boyfriend Mark, Luis and Diego.

At Rico’s request before he left for the Navy in 2012, I had started mentoring his youngest brother Diego. Just as with Rico, it had not always been easy. From ages four to his current age of eight, Diego had been quite oppositional. He had been suspended from school multiple times beginning in kindergarten for hitting his classmates and general bad behavior.

David was still mentoring Luis, now age 14. Luis had just come out of an incredible growth spurt that left him above six feet in height. With David’s help and continual academic pressure, Luis had maintained a good GPA through middle school. He had even been selected to play on the varsity soccer team for Reynolds High, the largest high school in the state of Oregon. And although university teams are not allowed to ‘recruit’ players until they are juniors, the University of Oregon coaching staff had already talked with him about his interest in soccer.

Over the past four years, Diego and I had become very close. Even though he feigned shyness when addressed by other adults, while we were alone he could carry on surprisingly long, intelligent conversations. These days, Diego was asking a lot about dinosaurs, mammals, the solar system, extraterrestrials, and many other things so detailed that I rarely had a coherent answer.

This time, instead of pretending to know everything as I had with Rico, I posed questions directly to the global expert: Siri. In my case, Siri was programmed to communicate using the pleasant voice of an Australian fellow. In my book, “Growing Up Twice,” I detailed the many ways in which Rico’s father, had been completely absent from his life, and left him lacking male role models. Diego’s situation was similar, but somewhat more complex: Diego’s father had an actual wife and family, along with a much younger mistress and Diego’s mother. He dropped by occasionally to see Maria, but spent little time with his son.

After nearly every encounter with his father, Diego would act up at school. He became enraged if he felt wronged; he could hit or punch if another student messed with his belongings; or he might scream and throw furniture if he grew extremely frustrated by an assignment.

In one of his worst fits of all, at age seven as a second grader, Diego toppled desks over and pushed them around the room before ripping posters off the wall and tearing them to shreds. Although I didn’t witness this kind of behavior myself, his sister Gabriela told me when she went to pick him up he was acting like a child possessed by the devil. As he had once taken a swing at me with his metal scooter at age six, I knew he was quite capable of it.

Earlier in the year, before changing schools, Diego had been kicked off the bus for punching a girl in the stomach. His explanation to me was that she said he was ugly. If Diego was crushed by the lack of attention from his father, who he objectified as a perfect dad in his conversations with me, his outward rage seemed activated by frustration with learning. His school’s experts had diagnosed his learning disabilities as long and short term memory issues combined with dyslexia. Shortly after we moved Diego to a public charter school that had just opened across the street from his house. It had a short summer vacation, school days from 7:30-4:30 and required students to wear uniforms.  

I had spent much more time with Diego than I ever did with Rico. I saw him most Saturdays and Sundays from around 9 a.m. to 4 or 5 p.m. Over the years with me, Diego had taken swim lessons, played baseball, and attended numerous camps for soccer, lego and Minecraft.

It was at the beginning of third grade when he began reading three letter words. It felt like huge progress that he was getting closer to learning the entire alphabet. Still, working with him on letters and words was difficult. He would cry and with tears streaming down his face repeat over and over, "It's frustrating!” before finally tuning out. He had started writing "No" on all of his reading assignments at school before hiding them in his desk.

Between working and my and David’s recent move from our downtown high rise apartment to a house on Portland’s inner Eastside, I hadn’t been able to spend much time thinking about my cross-country trip with Rico. Now I was on the plane to Norfolk, wondering what would happen in a couple of hours.

Not normally very emotional, just thinking of Rico brought tears to my eyes. I was going to have an entire week alone with him, reconnecting and learning all about his experience in the Navy.

I don’t know whether my absence made his heart grow fonder as I was, it seemed, still trying to influence his life decisions, and telling him what to do. Indeed, I had already signed him up to start attending community college in January.

I didn’t know whether he would actually go, but I had calculated that his G.I. Bill education benefits had a cash value upwards of $100,000.

And now that we had three bedrooms, our house was big enough for him to live in. Rico claimed he wanted to live with us a while, at least until he could find a place of his own. We agreed and I had gotten his room ready: it had a sleeping bag and 30 boxes of his Nike Jordans piled high the middle.

The plane touched down and I emerged anxious to see Rico. It had been a ten hour flight with a three hour layover.  As I walked through the terminal, out of security and down the corridors toward baggage claim, I eagerly anticipated our reunion.

Rico was nowhere to be seen.

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