Game Set Rovello – A Father’s Story

July 27, 2015 marks the first anniversary of the newly refurbished Alex Rovello Memorial Tennis Courts at Berkeley Park in Southeast Portland, Oregon. Once dilapidated, with sagging nets and cracked concrete, the courts are now pristine, the result of funds raised from more than 1,400 families as well as businesses and in kind donations.

On good weather days—and there have been a lot of them this year— tennis players of all ages flock to the courts. I watch them often and sometimes play too. For me the courts are a source of both pride and pain, for they exist in tribute to my son, Alex, who drowned May 11, 2013.  A four-time high school state tennis champion, Alex was in his junior year at the University of Oregon, where another tennis court is now named in his honor. Coming to the Berkeley Courts is part of my healing process. Here, in the place where my son swung his first tennis racket, is where I feel closest to Alex.

One of Our Own

My wife and I are retired teachers.  Geri taught second grade, and I taught elementary physical education.  After years of devoting our lives to children, we decided to have one of our own.  We were both in our late thirites at the time.  Alex James Rovello was born June 25, 1991.  It was one of the happiest days of my life.

Early Illnesses

Early illnesses put Geri and I to the test right away.  At four months old Alex was diagnosed with spinal meningitis.  That disease is unusual at that age.  Doctors never could figure where the bacteria came from.  His illness was one of the hardest things I have faced in my life. We managed to get through it.  I prayed a lot.  Around age five, Geri noticed Alex limping. The doctors informed us that he had Leg Calve Perthes.  Leg Calve Perthes is when the top of the femur has not formed properly.  The femoral head has collapsed and is flat instead of round.  To make matters worse, Alex had the condition in both legs.  Thankfully, the prognosis was okay; the femoral heads would eventually regenerate. By now, Geri and were both thinking, is this it?  Unfortunately, it wasn’t!  Alex got mononucleosis.  Pretty unusual at age five, I thought.  Looking back at the bone disease and mono reminds me of one thing: Alex was a calm, happy kid who never complained.  Geri and I tried not to complain either.  We realized that children have medical issues far worse than Alex’s. But those were still trying times for us.

Beginning Tennis

As soon as Alex began walking I introduced him to all kinds of physical fun.  We pitched in the living room and hit off the batting tee in the den.  Why not hit a ball with a tennis racket?  He was happy playing with his dad.  His eye-hand coordination was evident right away.  Hitting a ball with a racket became one of his favorite things to do.  By age seven I knew he was pretty good.  It might be wise to seek out a tennis professional.  Derin Hibbs, a transplant from Northern California became his coach at age seven.  With Derin coaching, and me tagging along, Alex started a terrific run.

Junior Tennis

Alex’s highest national ranking in the Boy’s Eighteen age bracket was twenty-four.  In his own section (Pacific Northwest) he was always in the top two of each age category.  At one point he had a sixty-five match win streak.  He did it his way, no tennis academies or home schooling.  In such an individual sport, he relished being part of a high school tennis team.  When he entered high school expectations were high.  Most people by this time knew of his tennis accomplishments.

High School Tennis

Alex won four state singles titles at Cleveland High School.  He was the most proud of the state team title his senior year.  The margin of victory was a mere one half a point.  In February of 2014 Cleveland High inducted him into their Hall of Fame.  They waived the five-year waiting period.  Titles aside, Alex was respected, perhaps more than anything, for his personality.  Accomplished but humble, respectful, courteous and kind—these are the things Geri and I are most proud of.

University of Oregon

Alex received a full scholarship to play tennis at the University of Oregon.  Eugene, Oregon is about a two-hour drive from Portland.  Geri and I went to all of his home matches and traveled to quite a few of the away matches.  As a freshman and sophomore he played in the number one singles position.  He was awarded the ITA Northwest Region Rookie of The Year award his freshman year.  In his junior year he recorded victories as number three singles against Stanford and California.  Oregon beat Stanford for the first time in school history.  My sister and niece were visiting from New York and got to see those matches.  I was so proud of him.  In November 2013, Oregon dedicated the center court in his honor.  He had played all but one of his matches on that court.

My last time with Alex was of all things, after a match he lost.  It was a tough loss to swallow in that the whole team outcome came down to his match.  It was against rival Washington.  His junior rival, Max Manthou, beat him in three sets.  (Max later gave a heartfelt speech at Alex’s funeral service.)  After the match we had something to eat together, he seemed okay with everything, and when I said goodbye to him he gave me a real strong hug.  “Dad, I love you,” he said.  “I love you too,” I replied.  I feel lucky that’s how my last time with him went.

May 11, 2013—The Accident

Tamolitch Pool, on the McKenzie River is so clear and blue it is also known as “Blue Pool.”   Ironically, Blue was my nickname for Alex.  He wasn’t a risk taker.  Many people have jumped into the pool over the years.  To my knowledge he was the first one to lose his life.  After watching his friends jump successfully, he tried.  The report said he hit face and chest first, was knocked out, and then drowned.  I don’t think he suffered.  It must have been a horrible thing for his friends, including his girlfriend, to witness.  His friend Kyle had to run some two miles just to get cell phone service.  Alex died around 1:30 P.M.  The response team recovered his body around midnight.  A teary-eyed investigator came to our house later that week.  After looking at all of the information, including texts and video on Alex’s phone, the report actually gave us some relief.  It was a total accident, no foul play, no drugs or alcohol, nothing.  Geri made it a point to comfort all his friends who were there that day.  We were particularly concerned about Eric, Alex’s roommate, and Holly, Alex’s girlfriend.  A month or so later I hiked up to the Blue Pool with a friend.  It is a beautiful place.  I thought if you knew were going to die, this might be a place you would pick.

The Funeral—May 18, 2013

Some 1,500 people attended Alex’s funeral.  My friend Tim, who is in the sound and lighting business, suggested we have tents outside the church.  He was right: we needed them.  Our priest, Father Michael, did an excellent job making everyone feel comfortable.  Nils and Jonas, University of Oregon tennis coaches, gave wonderful tributes.  Derin, his junior coach, did a great job also.  He wondered if he could get through it, and he did.

I know all along that I wanted to speak at the conclusion of the service.  I figured there would be no way I could speak at my son’s service.  In fact, I asked my niece if she could read what I wanted to say.  She agreed.  My plan was to introduce my niece and then stand next to her as she read.  But something wonderful happened.  I suddenly had a feeling of euphoria.  Without moving to the podium, I stood up and started talking about my son.  After speaking I played John Lennon’s song “Beautiful Boy.”  This was the beginning of a series of events that helped me deal with my overwhelming grief.

Tony, Lauren and Eric Dungy

Alex decided to room with Eric his junior year.  They shared a very nice apartment together.  Eric’s parents, Tony and Lauren, made Alex feel welcome right away.  Geri and I were hoping to meet the Dungys.  I had read Tony’s book years earlier and like it a lot.

When Alex passed away we met the Dungys for the first time at the apartment.   We were all concerned that Eric would be okay.  Witnessing your friend drowning must have been tough.  To make things even harder, Eric had lost his brother some eight years earlier.  I remember Geri sitting on the couch next to Eric, holding his hand.  We left that day feeling that Eric would be okay.  A few weeks later I received a package from Tony.  It was a series of four small books on grieving.  Each book covered in sequence a part of the process.  I read each book thoroughly.  Those books helped me know what to expect.  We met the Dungys several times that summer and consider their friendship a blessing.  I have also found myself wondering, was this all part of the plan?  Were the Dungys in Alex’s life for a reason?  Was it to help Geri and I?  They had lost a son, so naturally they knew what we were going to go through.

John Edward And The Tattoo

My former sister-in-law, Linda, has always kept close ties with my family.  She has always been special to me.  It was her idea that I might make a good Physical Education teacher.  Before my brother passed some three years ago she visited him often when he was sick.  I had a lot of respect for her because he was the one that ended their marriage.  Alex met Linda for the first time in the summer of 2012.  We were in New York for the US Open.  Linda was a writer for the New York Post and she has also written some novels.  When Alex told her he was trying to get into the School of Journalism at Oregon, they hit it off.  Linda is friends with John Edward, probably one of the more famous psychic mediums.  Prior to Alex’s passing in May, Linda met John for lunch on April 30.  Although she doesn’t remember, she began talking to John about her nephew Alex.  When Alex passed away that May, John contacted Linda.  “I’m getting a pull from Alex,” he said.  To make things even more coincidental, he was to be in Portland June 26th on tour. (Alex’s birthday is June 25th).  He told Linda he was willing to give me a personal meeting.   John said he now knew why he was supposed to be in Portland.

Looking back, this strikes me as remarkable.  John Edward is in such demand; he has a lengthy waiting list.  I understand he doesn’t do many personal meetings anymore.  His fee is probably fairly substantial as well.  But he sought me out and was willing to meet me.  The first thing I did was to get on the internet and find out as much as I could about John.  Of course, there are people who believe in his abilities and there are the skeptics.  I fell into the skeptic category. Grieving was hard enough.  I didn’t need any false hopes to complicate things.  But, I had to meet him, how could I not?

His secretary in New York set me up for my meeting with John on June 26 at a Portland hotel.  News of Alex’s passing was all over the internet, local television stations, and the newspapers.  Skeptics accuse mediums of gathering information about a deceased person for a reading.  John could Google Alex’s name and come up with a lot of information.  So I took matters into my own hands, devising a test of sorts. I got a tattoo:  a heart with Alex’s name, on my upper right arm.  I didn’t tell anyone, not even Geri.  On the night I was to meet John, I looked at a picture of Alex and stared to cry. Alex, if John has the ability to communicate with you let him mention my tattoo.

John began our meeting by handing me some paper and a pen.  “Write things down, even if they don’t make sense because it might come back to you later,” he said.  Then he began talking about the accident.  I listened but thought to myself, everyone knows about the accident.  Then it happened.  He said, “What about that tattoo?”  The clincher was that he mentioned I went to the tattoo parlor twice, and I did!  Nobody can make up anything like that.

After that meeting with John, I truly felt Alex was okay.  When my grief is overbearing I often look at my tattoo for comfort.   And like my relationship with the Dungys, the tattoo prompts me to wonder, was my experience with John Edward part of a plan?

Life After Alex

Grief is a powerful thing.  Linda has a good name for it, emotional vomiting.  Our lives will never be the same.  The Berkeley Park Tennis Court Project has kept us busy, given me a place to go to, and provided a tangible way for me to be the guardian of my son’s memory and spirit.  I think the court project is Alex’s way of helping us heal.  The support for Geri and me has been extraordinary.  So many people have stepped up and helped in so many ways.

For me, the John Edward experience has given me hope, hope that Alex is in a better place and that he is okay. My greatest hope, however, is that I someday get to be with him again. I would like to close with a quote from George Anderson’s book, Lessons From The Light:

Children are my favorite of the souls in the hereafter because they have such clarity of thought, have incredible light and energy about them and are willing to go to great lengths to comfort their parents.  They are so eager to come through to their parents because they know how much their parents suffer and they want so much to make them feel better.

Please keep coming through, Blue.  Love, Dad.

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