Watching him shrug off the bullies of our youth, Paul taught me to stand tall
I remember the feeling of not belonging as though it were yesterday. The schoolyard picks for teams when my world stood still as I waited to hear my name called, until it wasn’t. The birthday party invites being handed out to a circle of girls that never seemed to bear my name. The taunts and stares in the playground on a summer afternoon as I climbed on the jungle gym alone. This was the sixties and my developmentally delayed, beautiful, harmless, gentle yet awkward brother scared everyone who couldn’t see past his differences. His inappropriate laughter, his delight in the silly, and his childish nature seemed to unnerve them.
We all want to be seen and heard. Even as adults, I believe there is a small child within us, waving its arms and shouting, “Look at me!” What happens then if someone looks at us and mocks what they see? What happens when the attention we so desperately crave is negative? To me, especially when I was a child, the answer often came quietly and clearly, “There must be something wrong with me.”
Today when any kind of altercation happens, that reaction still has a way of haunting me. To be ostracized, to be mocked, to be left out, to deem to be judged, all these things can bring me back to an underlying fear that I’m no good. Once triggered, it sits like a terror lodged in the back of my throat. Like a cancer it grows aggressively, its black cells multiplying at an alarming rate until I fear it will close off my breath. When that happens, I try to focus on my breathing and remind myself that I am worthy as I wait for the intensity of the moment to recede. Other times, unable to take the discomfort of my fear, sadly I fly into fight mode and lash out at my perceived bully.
In Paulie and Me, I tell the story of Paul being accosted by a group of teenagers, one of whom used his fist to flatten Paul’s front teeth into the roof of his mouth.
The first time I read that chapter aloud to Paul, he shook his head and quietly said, “Oh, I remember that. His name was…” and he mentioned the man’s name.
Because I had saved and read the newspaper article depicting the charges laid against the youth in 1974, I knew Paul was correct.
“Yes, that’s right.” I said.
“I see him at the local mall, where I go every day for coffee.”
“Do you see him often?”
“Yes, quite often,” he replied quietly.
“Doesn’t it bother you to see him?”
“No, I don’t talk to him or have anything to do with him. I stay away from him.”
My brother continues to amaze me. What a marvel to be able to simply shrug off the bullies of his youth that way. Most of us are not so fortunate. I try and remember his example when I feel that hurt and childlike terror in my throat.
I know now that perhaps it would be helpful for me to also realize that the perceived perpetrator is likely struggling with fears of their own. I am still striving to stand as tall as Paul.
What about you, do you have any stories you would like to share? I would love to hear them. The more we talk about these experiences and the way they made us feel, the more we will realize that we are more alike than different. And the more we can continue to heal and help others do the same . . .
Author, Bernice Ranalli
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