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Finding Growth in a Loss

The ball kept picking up speed like a fighter jet during takeoff.

Easily clearing the right-field fence at Kennedy High, it finally landed in the middle of Woodley Avenue.

Later, it was measured--500 feet, 3 inches from the plate.

No one had ever seen a home run quite like it. Tim Arroyo, an 18-year-old senior first baseman, circled the bases with a big smile. Stunned Kennedy teammates prepared to mob him at the plate.

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“It was unbelievable,” Cougar Coach Manny Alvarado said.

Arroyo’s 14-year-old brother, Nick, saw the home run while watching from a perch above the batting screen in the scorer’s booth. He stood up and started clapping.

Arroyo’s 11-year-old brother, Trevor, ran excitedly to retrieve the ball from the street. Arroyo’s father, Ken, missed the home run while trying to locate Nick, but he heard the crowd roar and returned in time to see Tim rounding the bases.

What a special moment for the entire Arroyo family. Everyone was there--except for Nickie Arroyo, the boys’ mother.

But maybe she was watching, too.

*

The temperature reached 101 degrees on July 6, 1992, as more than 500 people filled Trinity Lutheran Church in Reseda for the funeral of Nicholee Jean Arroyo.

Nickie died five days earlier from a brain aneurysm. She was just a week away from undergoing a bone marrow transplant operation in her fight to beat leukemia.

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She was 33.

“She was supposed to survive,” Tim said.

Nickie was active in her church and was coach of Trevor’s T-ball team in Mission Hills Little League. She played catch in the backyard almost every day with one of her boys.

In what became a family rite of sorts, she also gave them each a black eye.

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She would hit a pop fly and, sure enough, the ball would hit someone in the face rather than land in their glove. All three got shiners between the ages of 4 and 5.

She taught them how to shoot a basketball. She drove them to school and took them to Little League practice. She helped them with their homework.

The boys were 12, 8 and 5, too young to lose their mother.

“I was crying my eyes out,” Nick said.

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“I didn’t know what it would be like in the future and how to deal with never seeing her again and how we were going to go on,” Tim said.

Sitting in the back seat of the car as he was driven from the church to Oakwood Memorial Park in Chatsworth for the burial, little Trevor asked himself, “How come it happened?”

*

Ken Arroyo met Nickie when he was helping coach a girls’ softball team. She was 15, he was 18. Both went to Cleveland High. They were together for 19 years, 14 as husband and wife.

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When Nickie died, Ken had no time to grieve. His three sons needed him. He received support from his parents, brothers, aunts, uncles and Nickie’s mother. Friends from his church were so loyal he didn’t have to cook a family meal for a month. But everything changed.

Any crisis, he took charge. Any punishment, he meted out. Any bad grades, he raised the alarm. Any sporting events, he showed up. Any brotherly fights, he broke up.

“He lost a lot of privileges and freedoms because he’s had to be with us all the time, take care of us, watch us,” Tim said.

“He’s done so much,” Nick said. “He’s gotten us through everything.”

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Ken refused to retreat from his parental responsibilities even when he was mourning.

“My younger brother asked me one day, ‘Don’t you ever grieve?’ I can’t. I really don’t have the time to do that. I just felt I couldn’t give up. I had to keep going on for these kids,” he said.

*

In the months after their mother’s death, the boys became even more involved in sports, playing baseball, basketball and soccer.

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“The best thing for us was to keep on playing instead of stopping, not to forget but to think more of the better times,” Tim said.

“I didn’t let them rest,” Ken said. “I put them in one more sport to keep their minds away from things and to keep them going on with their lives.”

But moving on without their mother was difficult.

“Pretty much every day, I’d think about it,” Nick said. “It wouldn’t go away. I’d have pretty much the same life I did with her, but I just thought about her a lot more. I stopped talking a lot. I wasn’t as sociable as I used to. I just changed.”

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A turning point for Nick came in the seventh grade. He received a D on his report card. It was a major test to see how he and his father would respond.

“He’s always said any bad grades, we’d get grounded or he’d yell at us and we had to go to tutoring,” Nick said. “He started helping us and he had never helped us before. It was always our mom. He pulled me [from sports] until I got my grades back up. And I did.”

Trevor offered another challenge to Ken. He received a third-grade class assignment to write an autobiography.

“I didn’t know whether I should put my mom’s death into the story or not,” Trevor said. “I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me.”

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Ken told him, “Just put it down.”

*

The Arroyos live in a cozy three-bedroom house in Northridge with a swimming pool. Sports equipment is scattered throughout the front and backyards.

Ken, 43, is a salesman for Frito-Lay. His most pleasant challenge is finding time to attend all of his sons’ sporting events.

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Tim, 6 feet and 190 pounds, is a starting first baseman for Kennedy’s baseball team. Nick, a 6-foot, 170-pound freshman, started at goalie for Kennedy’s soccer team and plays on the freshman baseball team. Trevor competes in the major division of Northridge Little League.

“If all three of us have a game at the same time, he’ll split it and go to each one,” Trevor said.

Ken said his boys’ personalities remind him of Nickie.

“Trevor has her demeanor,” he said. “It takes a lot to get him [somewhere]. Nick is so laid back, and when she was home, she was real laid back. Tim is a very special kid and that’s how his mom was, real gentle and kind to people.”

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*

Has there ever been a family of three boys who didn’t fight? The Arroyo clan took turns throwing each other over an ivy wall at their old home in Mission Hills.

“Whenever we’d get mad, whomever was near there would be flying over the wall,” Nick said.

“I was the oldest one and when something went wrong, they used to tease me and I didn’t know what to do,” Tim said.

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One day a fight broke out in the front yard. Everyone in the neighborhood heard it. Ken decided that was enough.

“He called us together,” Tim said. “He told them they have to respect me. He told me I’m the older one. I have to make wise decisions and not hurt anyone.”

“Any fights with Tim or my little brother, we had to take the violence out of it, or we’d be in big trouble,” Nick said.

“Sometimes it was funny,” Trevor said of the fights. “Sometimes they got real serious and I tried not to do anything to get involved.”

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The boys no longer could seek out their mother for help when their father imposed discipline.

“Before, my mom used to set the rules and he’d enforce them,” Tim said.

Nick discovered there are consequences for breaking rules set by his father.

“I used to run around with friends and was kind of young to be doing that,” Nick said. “A couple times, instead of coming home, I called and asked if I could spend the night and he’d let me. A couple times, I had gone a little too far where he didn’t trust me. About a year ago, whenever I went out, he set a time and if I was late I’d be grounded. If I know I’m not going to be home on time, I have to call him.”

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*

As important as sports is to the Arroyos, academics remains the top priority. That’s why Ken is so proud of his three boys.

Tim has a 3.7 grade-point average and will graduate with honors from Kennedy next month. Nick’s grade-point average is 3.1 and rising. Trevor gets more A’s than anyone in the family.

“I’m blessed, very blessed,” Ken said.

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On Mother’s Day, the family will visit Nickie’s grave in Chatsworth.

The gravestone reads, “A great mom, a loving wife, daughter, sister, aunt and friend.”

It has been six years since Nickie’s death, and the boys miss her. But they are grateful for having a father who loves them dearly.

“We’ve done real well, and most of it is because of him,” Nick said.

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Tim said he and his brothers have learned an important lesson.

“Never take any parent for granted,” he said. “Even though they’ve always been there, they can’t help it if something tragic happens. You have to deal with it. It’s reality.”


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