By Mary O’KEEFE
“He was wise beyond his years. We had a nickname for him – our ‘little man.’ He was a wonderful and loving child. We could not ask for a better son. It was an honor and privilege to have him as a son, brother and grandson – even for just a short time. He will be so deeply missed. “
That is how John and Janice Arre described their 7-year-old son John Rocco. Over spring break, after a short illness, their son suddenly died.
The pain of that loss for the family is immeasurable, they said. Losing a child is a parent’s worst nightmare and the grief and devastation that the entire family is feeling cannot be put into words. The support, kindness and love they have been shown from the students, parents and staff at their son’s elementary school, Mountain Avenue Elementary, has been a true blessing.
John Rocco was a child who loved to explore. He spoke to everyone about everything. He saw the goodness in everyone. Everyone who came in contact with him loved him and was enamored by his outgoing spirit and kindness. John Rocco was curious about everything and how it all worked. He loved to be outdoors and riding his scooter. He loved leaf blowers, said his parents. In fact, he had his own. He also loved vacuums; he had four of them, even a shop vac.
Janice was not certain where this love came from, but it was an important part of her son’s life. He loved going out with the gardener with his own backpack leaf blower and assisting him with the cleaning whenever John Rocco was available.
“He loved the days he could work outside,” she said.
He was an inquisitive kid who loved his family. John Rocco loved going places. Disneyland was one of his favorites. And he was always so excited to go because the family was all together. Even at 7 years old, he understood the importance of being a family. John Rocco was also very protective of his twin sister. He loved playing with her and they had their own way of communicating. He was comfortable with being the director of their activities and she the assistant. And even though he loved his parents, twin sister and grandfather, he had a favorite – his grandmother “Nani.” Their closeness was special and precious to watch. She was his world.
“He loved his Nani,” Janice said.
He also loved his school, Mountain Avenue Elementary and, although only in first grade, he had made quite an impression.
At the news of his passing, the school staff, PTA and parents discussed what they should do to help students. Nothing like this had ever happened at the school school and, while they wanted to be sensitive, they also wanted the students to have a way to work through their grief while being respectful to John Rocco’s family.
They sent notices home to Mountain Avenue families, allowing them time to speak to their children in their own way. Then on Monday morning at 9 a.m., for those who wanted to participate, they quietly came together in the school’s quad.
Principal Rebeca Witt spoke of how John Rocco would greet her in the morning when he entered school.
“Good morning, Ms. Witt” and sometimes would add, “You look very nice today.”
The students remembered and celebrated the life of this young boy who had touched so many.
Then the first graders released (biodegradable) balloons in his memory. John Rocco was in Mrs. Matheu’s class. Her students released orange balloons, his favorite color. The other first grade classes released white balloons while “Over the Rainbow” was being played.
Matheu’s students and their parents, along with John Rocco’s parents and grandparents, went to the class garden and planted a tree in his memory.
The school staff and parents have been very supportive, Janice said. Many parents and students have shared stories of John Rocco.
“One mom said her son had only met Johnny twice on the blacktop for handball [at the school]. He was the referee, which he enjoyed playing. He loved directing,” she said.
The boy told his mother of meeting John Rocco. He said at one point the first grader encouraged him and said, “Now show us what you’re made of.”
Janice said that was typical of her son – always encouraging and helping others.
The family continues to deal with the loss of John Rocco; it has been especially difficult for his twin sister who has special needs.
The Arre family is taking comfort in God, the love of their family and the love of their Mountain Avenue family – which has many members.
“We cannot dwell on all the sadness or why our beautiful child was taken from us at such an early age. We are trying to keep the focus on how loved and how happy he was. We truly believe that God had a mission for him – we knew he was special,” said Janice.
John Rocco now and forever wears a necklace with an inscription in Italian that reads: “I love you more than yesterday, but not as much as tomorrow.”
“John was a special child from the very beginning. He had so many friends,” Janice said.