Hope in her heart

High schools: With her father in a coma for the past three years, Melissa Roche has learned hard lessons about appreciating life and family.

High Schools

January 15, 2001|By Stan Rappaport | Stan Rappaport,SUN STAFF

Melissa Roche lives life with her father in mind.

The Oakland Mills senior gets good grades, plays basketball and works as a cashier part time. She has applied to a number of colleges.

"I want to make him proud," Roche said. "Even if he wakes up for an hour, my mom can tell him something good about me."

It was raining on the evening of Dec. 4, 1997. Bob Roche had finished work at Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore, where he served as the team leader for East Africa, and boarded a bus for the ride home to Columbia.

Bob was dropped off shortly after 6 p.m. near the intersection of Route 175 and Tamar Drive. He would cross Route 175 - a busy, four-lane highway - then walk down Tamar Drive to his home.

He never made it across 175.

"He stepped out and the car hit him," Melissa said.

Police said a Baltimore woman in a 1993 Honda traveling between 40 and 60 mph in the 50-mph zone struck Bob in the westbound lane. He landed 90 feet away.

The accident, which police attributed to pedestrian error, left the 47-year-old father of three with multiple injuries, including a severe laceration to his head from hitting the windshield. He lapsed into a coma.

He has yet to wake up.

Today, Bob lies in a bed at Deaton Specialty Hospital and Home in Baltimore. He breathes on his own.

"I miss talking to him," Melissa said. "I miss him at my games. He's never seen me play high school basketball. I know he wanted to."

Melissa, 16, her brother, Robert, 18, and sister, Annette, 14, were born in Pittsburgh, where Bob grew up and still owns a house. But they all were raised in Africa, where their mother, Louise, is from and where Bob worked for many years at Catholic Relief Services.

The family moved often throughout Africa, as Bob's work sent him from one country to the next. The children spoke French and learned English by attending private schools. Bob was transferred from Ethiopia to Baltimore in the summer of 1994, and the family moved to Columbia.

Bob wanted his children to participate in sports and used the one family car to get them where they needed to be.

"He'd always be the one to take us somewhere and pick us up," said Melissa, who added that Bob often stayed and watched her play.

He also wanted the family to have dinner together and for Louise to stay home and care for the children.

Then came the accident.

"We came back [from Maryland Shock Trauma Center] around 2 a.m., so the next day I broke the news to the kids," Louise said. "It was hard. I remember the question Melissa asked me was, `Is our life going to change?' I just said we have to pray and see."

Said Melissa: "I know it made me mad. It changed our lives. I would never guess it would happen to us. He was the one who always disciplined us. He was our link in our family, and the fact that he was gone ... we all had to adjust to it."

Melissa, a freshman at the time of the accident, remained on the junior varsity basketball team and got through the school year.

Her sophomore year was not so easy.

"I guess it all built up," Melissa said. "The anger, the confusion."

At a pep rally in the gymnasium the day before homecoming, Melissa and another girl got into a fight. "We just didn't like each other," she said.

Melissa was suspended for 21 days. The homecoming dance was history, and her playing days on the soccer team were over.

"I had never gotten in a fight before," Melissa said. "I was mad at the world. I guess you could say that."

She also was concerned about her education.

"After I got suspended, I was like, `There's no way of me getting into college now. I ruined my life.' "

At the end of her sophomore year, Melissa failed two classes, meaning she was ineligible to play soccer her junior season.

"She didn't have a good reputation in the school [as a sophomore]," said Marcus Lewis, who took over the varsity basketball team last season. "Loudmouth. Hothead. Couldn't control her temper. That was the book on her."

Lewis knew the family situation, because he worked with Robert as an assistant coach on the football team. When he decided to take the girls basketball position, he started to get more involved with Melissa.

"I started working with her a lot, because I knew her father wasn't around and her mother is real busy," Lewis said. "Her grades really started to improve last year, and she carried it into this year."

Melissa is grateful to Lewis, a 1988 graduate and three-sport athlete at Oakland Mills who moved to a house less than a quarter-mile from the Roches'.

"When I found out Coach Lewis was going to be my coach, I was like, `I have to get myself together.' Why? I just respect him. I knew this was my chance," Melissa said.

"He's been like a father figure to me. He's done everything possible to help me. If it wasn't for him, I probably wouldn't be doing so well."

Melissa earned a 3.3 grade-point average in the first quarter this year. And two years after missing the homecoming dance because of her suspension, Melissa was named homecoming queen.

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