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Boy and ‘brother’ find lasting friendship

Two scenes from an otherwise ordinary afternoon earlier this week:

On the 14th floor of a high-rise in Costa Mesa, attorney Sean Sherlock’s office is awash in documents, construction drawings and assorted files as he prepares to take a deposition the next day.

A couple of miles away in a condominium complex in Santa Ana, Deryck Matallah’s living room floor is cluttered with boxes full of clothes, toiletries, dishes, towels and other personal effects as he prepares to head off to college the next day.

Under normal circumstances, the events would be unrelated, the two men completely oblivious to the other. But the twain does meet between them, this 18-year-old on the cusp of manhood and the 44-year-old who is the embodiment of it.

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You could say the fates brought them together, but actually it was Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County.

The two met in January 1997, not long after Deryck turned 7 and Sean, then 32, took seriously a bishop’s call to get involved in the larger society.

They liked each other right away, linked at first by a love of fishing. Sherlock pledged to honor the Big Brothers commitment until Deryck turned 18, the age at which the kids leave the organization.

However, lots of men say that and most don’t make it. Some move away, some lose interest, some drop off the face of the Earth. The average match lasts two years.

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“You get into it with this mind-set that you’re going to take this young kid who doesn’t have a dad and mold him into the perfect adult,” Sherlock says. “He’s going to be a pro baseball player or a Rhodes scholar or the president of the United States. You get into it with these delusions of grandeur. You quickly learn it’s a lot harder than that.”

This summer, the two officially ended their Big Brother relationship. Their 11 1/2 -year-run is six months shy of the maximum tenure, falling short of tying the record only because they met when Deryck was 7 and not 6, the minimum age for entry into the program.

Did I suggest the relationship is ending? That this married man with two kids and the college kid 26 years his junior have said their goodbyes and thanks for everything?

“We’re very close friends and he’s really a family member at this point,” Sherlock says. “He’s totally integrated into my family. Aside from the fact he lives somewhere else and sometimes we don’t see each other for a couple months, my kids love him. He is their big brother. That’s the thing I never anticipated. I’ve now got two little kids myself and they absolutely look up to and idolize this kid.”

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Who can say with precision the effect one person has on another? Deryck is heading for USC to study biology and then medicine and had offers to Cornell, Northwestern and Notre Dame.

Sherlock didn’t take his high school tests for him, didn’t put him on the varsity sports teams at Fairmont Prep Academy in Anaheim, didn’t make him the bright-eyed, engaging 6-foot 3-inch kid he turned out to be.

So, what did Sherlock bring to bear? What did that 11 1/2 -year commitment of occasional get-togethers do for Deryck?

“Over time, I came to believe that just by going about our ordinary lives and spending time together,” Sherlock says, “he got a glimpse of what a responsible adult is supposed to do and act like. He got to see how I lived, got married, got some kids, a regular job and he got a glimpse of what a father does.”

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Sherlock sees what we all see -- boys making bad decisions because no male figure can augment what their mothers try to do. Some boys get by just fine; many don’t.

Sherlock makes no claim to shaping Deryck. He never lectured him, he says. He never pretended to be his father. He didn’t have major heart-to-hearts. Their relationship, he says, was remarkably free of drama.

The question, then, is perhaps better put to Deryck. At 18, he has perspective he didn’t have at 7 or 10 or even 15. What did he get from the afternoons of whale watching, hiking, the ballgames, the fishing trips, the long car rides to campsites?

Deryck never knew his father. He’s never seen a photo of him, knows nothing about him other than his first name and how tall he was. His mother, Nacera, supported him on a special-education teacher’s salary.

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“Honestly, when I was that young, I didn’t really miss anything,” Deryck says. “Mom was the only thing in my life. That was all I knew. It was fulfilling, but when Sean came along, it added a whole new dimension to it. Then, I didn’t know how I could have lived without it.”

But as Sherlock had said, this wasn’t a relationship with a dramatic arc.

“Everyone thinks for the relationship to progress, there have to be these big emotional moments to occur,” Deryck says, “but for us it was a matter of staking out the time and saying we were going to do it. It got to the point where I’d go to his house and do chores. I’d love it. If we hadn’t seen each other that month, he’d say, ‘Come over to the house, hang out with the kids, we’ll order some pizza and work on the garden.’ ”

Lo and behold, the two discovered that they weren’t just matched partners in a program. They were friends.

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Deryck says he knew the bond was forged for good after the Sherlocks had their first child, Annie, and Deryck, then 9, saw that her presence didn’t diminish Sean’s involvement with him.

That, of course, was crucial because Deryck had yet to face those pesky years of puberty and high school. His mother was a staple in his life, but when he couldn’t talk to her -- or just didn’t want to -- Sherlock was always a phone call or a visit away.

“I give him a lot of credit for motivating me,” Deryck says. “I know that sounds cliched, but the biggest thing was advice.”

He thinks Sherlock helped him focus more on peers than adults, around whom Deryck had always been comfortable. While his mother pushed him to hit the books, Sherlock encouraged him to broaden his outlook and think about sports participation, as well. At Fairmont, he played football, basketball and baseball.

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And then it was just the silly stuff, like the extended discussion on a car trip to the Sierra about how each would run the state Department of Fish and Game and how they’d try to accommodate environmentalists and hunters and fishermen.

Sherlock’s kids are now 9 and 6. Deryck starts classes Monday at USC. At the Big Brother Big Sister graduation ceremony recently, Deryck said he wasn’t sad to be leaving the program because he had no intention of losing track of Sean.

Perhaps the measure of Sherlock’s steadfastness and Deryck’s receptivity is that neither has a flowery way to describe what developed between them.

“It’s not the normal father-son, not the normal big brother, not the normal best-friend relationship,” Deryck says. “It’s somewhere in between. It’s a mesh of all those things.”

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Says Sherlock: “What I got out of it was a great new friend and a mentor to my kids. If you get into it and don’t establish a good relationship, then you get nothing out of it. I got lucky. I got matched with a really good kid, so I ended up with a friend for life.”

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Dana Parsons’ column appears Tuesdays and Fridays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at latimes.com/parsons.


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