“All the Love I Felt I Didn’t Deserve”
I was an impulsive, temperamental, aggressive child. I got in trouble a lot. And over time, I convinced myself that no one — not even my own brother — could possibly love me. I was wrong, and I almost found that out too late.
My brother, Ron, died in the wee hours of April 23, 2015, after a two-year struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Death, however, did not wipe away the tears of grief and loss — or regret.
A roadside hotel was the final stop on our journey to Ron’s funeral. After checking into our room, I was left alone while my wife Deanna went back to our car to retrieve a forgotten item. In this momentary solitude I became overwhelmed with grief, weeping bitterly. I couldn’t explain at the time why my grief was so burdensome. I realize now that my grief was more complicated because self-stigma cost me many years of relationship with Ron.
I’m told that, as toddlers, Ron and I were inseparable. As the youngest child, I was doted on by my siblings, yet I seldom felt belonging or security in my family. I’ve lived all my life with attention deficit disorder, and because of this, my childhood was defined by conflict. When I entered kindergarten in 1949, few doctors, mental health professionals, teachers, or parents were familiar with ADHD. Students were either “good” kids or “bad” kids — there was not yet a medical explanation for my behaviors. My ADHD manifested in several forms. I was overly attentive to stimuli, struggled with impulsivity control, and I had a volatile temper.
You’d be correct to assume that I wasn’t treated well by other kids. Either excluded or provoked by classmates, I was frequently involved in fights. If there was a black eye on campus, I was usually wearing it — or had inflicted it! With few exceptions, I was also disliked by my teachers. Overall, I felt rejected by peers, teachers, and my family.
I came to believe that Ron, especially, disliked me. Through the lens of my negative self-stigma, I witnessed constant “signs” that reinforced these (false) beliefs, which persisted into adulthood. In time, I chose to avoid contact with Ron. While traveling on business and passing within two miles of Ron’s house (some two hours away from home), I made a point not to “disturb” him. Being estranged from Ron hurt, but I reasoned that Ron preferred it this way. I spent years avoiding my brother.
Wouldn’t you know it? Just when I thought I had it all figured out, my perceptions began to break down. My ugly scribbles of rejection became drawn into a new and more beautiful picture.
The new picture began to take shape after deciding to attend my high school’s 100-year anniversary celebration. Given our past, I avoided asking Ron if he was also making the trip back home for the event. Upon arrival, I learned from others that he was indeed present.
I was conflicted! Ron was in the same building, and I really didn’t know what to do! Should I find him and speak with him? Should I avoid him? Should I leave unnoticed? What was Ron thinking?
I was wrestling with all of this when Ron emerged from the crowd and wrapped me a huge, warm, and loving embrace! My inner response was shock. What?! Ron? I didn’t know you cared! (I still can’t reflect on this moment without crying.)
The love I experienced in that embrace challenged my self-stigma and long-held perceptions. Ron did care about me, love me, and consider me a brother. I realized I’d been craving this relationship for a long time. With these new understandings, I started making intentional efforts to spend time with him. I hoped that, in time and without fanfare, I would be able to reconcile our relationship and the pain from our past.
We were in the early stages of rebuilding our relationship when Ron became ill.
A couple of weeks before Ron died, I spoke on the phone with Glen, a best friend of Ron’s, and someone whom all of us siblings consider a part of our own family. Glen told me of a conversation he’d had with Ron when they were eighth graders.
“Jack, you may not know this, but when Ron and I were becoming friends he knew you were treated badly at school. He made a point to tell me, ‘We’re going to be friends, Glen, but you need to know that Jack is a part of the package, and it will stay that way’.” Glen told me he’d witnessed Ron confronting my tormentors and compelling them to stop their harassment on many occasions. He finished, “You may not know it, Jack, but Ron was always looking out for you.”
I hadn’t known this part of my history, but it is some of the most beautiful scribbling in my canvas of life.
Deanna and I were planning a stop at Ron’s home two weeks after that phone call. I was looking for a way to express my gratitude for his love and protection all those years ago. Sadly, Ron passed away before this visit, and I will never again have a chance to say, “Thank you.”
Updated on May 14, 2020