Rocky's Hurt

Sometimes, as that popular bumper sticker so ineloquently puts it, shit happens. And sometimes, there is no one to blame.

You can see it coming from fifty miles off, all flashing lights and screaming sirens. You can do everything in your power to avoid it. And then . . . shit happens. Like it's never happened before. Not in your life, anyway.

Rocky Graham had a hurt that his mommy and daddy and the doctor couldn't take away.

Rocky was a handsome, basketball-addicted sixteen-year-old kid who seemed exceptionally bright despite his uncanny knack for making bad decisions.

Really bad decisions.
I didn't know him well, and it always seemed like he wanted to keep it that way. Whenever we saw each other, the most I'd get out of him was a distracted "Hi." Only once did we exchange enough words to qualify as a conversation.

We'd been at the same pool party the night before, a gathering of families. Rocky, the son of two close friends, had brought along a pal. As usual, they kept their distance from the crowd. While everyone else swam and ate and laughed, they remained in the house, as quiet as kids who don't exist. So when I returned to the room where I'd left my clothes--and found my wallet on the floor, open and emptier than I'd left it-- there wasn't an overwhelming number of suspects to choose from.

Mentioning the theft to Rocky's folks was one of the most difficult things I've done. After all, most mothers and fathers don't take too kindly to anyone, friends included, accusing their children of stealing. But Rocky's parents had no illusions about their son. Flushed with rage and embarrassment, they stormed into the house, and soon returned with the missing money.

My friends went home a short while later, still angry to the point of speechlessness. And Rocky? "See ya," he shrugged, as if nothing had happened.

But the next day, Rocky called to apologize. Perhaps his parents were looming over him at the time, and that's why he sounded so horribly uncomfortable. I prefer to think he was suffering the pangs of remorse. Very often, the best you could give this kid was the benefit of the doubt.

That was a year and a half ago. Unfortunately, Rocky did not transform into a model teen-ager. He moved from hanging out with the wrong crowd to joining the wrong crowd. From skipping class to dropping out of school. From vanishing now and then to vanishing, period. From stealing petty cash from friends to stealing a stranger's car . . . and finally, to stealing from himself.

Now, there are a number of self- proclaimed experts who could very neatly explain how Rocky's mind worked, why it worked that way, and what should have been done to tighten up its most dangerously loose connections. But I doubt that they'd come up with any theories left unconsidered or untested by Rocky's parents. Tough love, soft love, professional help, friendly advice, public school, private school--they tried it all. And while their patience was known to fray, it never unraveled. In late November, Rocky's father and I spent the better part of an afternoon talking about the boy--who'd just run away from home because his parents were so cruel as to expect him to attend high school on a regular basis.

"Maybe what he needs is a taste of reality," said Rocky's dad. "Maybe he needs to take one long, hard fall when there's nobody around to catch him. Maybe that will get his attention. I pray to God it does, because I honestly don't know what else we can do for him. Hell, we don't even know where he is.

"If only we could get him to realize how lucky he is to have so many people who love him, who believe in him, who want the best for him. If only we could know that he's gonna be okay, and that one day the whole family will be able to sit back and laugh about all the crap he put us through when he was a kid."

But that last, small hope has been shattered. Earlier last month, Rocky Graham made the worst decision of his life. He was found dead, a bullet in his brain, a gun near his hand, an apparent suicide.

His parents had done everything they could. But, as they explained to their son's four-year-old sister, Rocky had a hurt that his mommy and daddy and the doctor couldn't take away.

Sometimes, shit happens. And there is no one to blame.

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Michael Burkett