My Brother, My Niece, and January 20

Influences and synchronicity

Most regular readers of my Substack know about my brother Ricky. He was murdered in a hospital by COVID protocol two years ago. On January 20. Which happens to be my niece Denise Marcellino’s birthday. Denise was born with Down Syndrome, and she changed the way I looked at the world.

I still think of Ricky every day. He would have been 75 last year. I would undoubtedly have tried to give him a big party to celebrate the milestone. I am so glad that I threw a big party for him on his 70th birthday. He was beaming, and it was one of the rare occasions in his life where he received some positive attention. Usually it was all negative. From everyone. Everyone lost patience with him very quickly. Including me, of course. It was amazing how someone so harmless, without a vindictive bone in his body, could cause others to ridicule and shun him so easily. I can’t explain it, but to give an example, one of the psychiatrists I took him to, years ago, was yelling at him five minutes into his session. It’s not easy to get that kind of reaction. Critical Mass: How Naz... Hydrick, Carter Plymton Best Price: $16.00 Buy New $16.00 (as of 10:01 UTC - Details)

I’ve detailed much of Ricky’s luckless life in other articles. I don’t know for certain how he’d feel about me sharing such personal information, but I think he’d approve. He liked attention. Which was almost always negative, because whenever people weren’t ignoring him, they were making fun of him. And not usually in a good- natured way. Ricky probably had something like Aspergers Syndrome. If such a thing really exists, of course. He loved to talk with people, but didn’t know how. Too often, he said something that unintentionally offended them, or repelled them. He’d probably fare better today as a youngster, with so many on the autism spectrum.

There’s still a big hole in my life, without Ricky. I really struggled after he died, and hearing from so many of you, who also lost loved ones to the hospital killing fields, made things easier. I talked to God a lot. I asked him for some kind of sign from Ricky. Literally thirty seconds later, my wife called from the grocery store, and asked me if I was interested in a carrot cake on sale. Carrot cake was not something we normally buy, but this sent shivers down my spine, because carrot cake was Ricky’s favorite. Every birthday, he wanted a two layer carrot cake from Safeway, and he wanted it all for himself. So I couldn’t help but believe that this had to have been the sign I asked for. Otherwise, it was an unfathomable coincidence.

The fact that Ricky died on January 20 held extra significance. Six years earlier, my Iranian brother-in-law had also died on January 20. Which, as I noted, is my niece Denise’s birthday. That’s another pretty fantastic coincidence. Denise was born in 1968, which means she is turning fifty six. She still looks like she did in our 1985 wedding video. Literally has not changed in appearance at all since she was seventeen. I guess maybe that’s a small perk that those with Down Syndrome get. We’d all love to not show our age to such a degree. My sister Janet has led a hard life, and despite Denise being seen as a burden by most, I think she considers her a great blessing. As she likes to say, “Denise has taught me more than I could ever teach her.”

As a jolly obese eleven year old, I often used the word “retard.” It was a common term of derision for kids to employ, although in those days few self-respecting adults would have said it. Or so I thought. I would soon learn differently. After Denise was born, that word took on an entirely different meaning for me. I never used it again. And I blanch whenever I hear someone else cavalierly flinging it around. It’s become the “r” word to me. My “n” word. I even felt guilty that, because I’d used this word so much, Denise was some kind of punishment for it. Janet was advised by pretty much everyone in our Catholic family to “send her away.” That’s what people generally did in those days. Human imperfections were removed from polite society. Sent to nunneries or group homes, visited infrequently if at all by their families.

I first heard the world “mongoloid” in reference to Denise. That’s what they called her- a mongoloid. That was the clinical term then. And it’s the word that the “sensitive” people used. The insensitive- which was seemingly the majority of people- preferred the other, jarring and offensive term. The one that is now used freely by radio talk show hosts, alleged comedians, liberals and conservatives alike. Remember how much fun “comedians” had at the expense of Sarah Palin’s Down Syndrome son Trig? It was disgusting, and demonstrated that not all that much has changed in society. Even in our new “Woke” culture, no one gets “cancelled” over using the “r” word. It’s certainly not at the level of “misgendering,” or even “fat shaming.”

To my sister’s credit, she vowed to raise Denise with her other children. Considering that Denise was the fifth of her six kids, this was really a formidable task. As a kid myself, I was scared of Denise. I felt uncomfortable sitting next to her at the dinner table, because she liked to steal some of your food. She also enjoyed untying your shoes. I know my parents didn’t know how to relate to her. I witnessed grown men and women give Denise dirty looks and move farther away from her. Many kids threw the “r” word at her. If she was playing by herself in the yard, kids would come to the fence and try to get her to take off her clothes.

Janet said that during one trip to the grocery store, Denise (then probably six or seven years old), kept trying to talk to an elderly couple, who were overtly fleeing from her. This sweet little girl liked to go up to everyone and introduce herself, saying, “Hi, I’m Denise.” My sister finally cornered this old man and woman, and told them, “You know, she’s not contagious. You can’t catch what she has. She’s just trying to be friendly.” I thought that was a really brilliant way to handle such ignorant bigotry. There were too many others like them. Too many people in my large family thought Janet was irresponsible to keep Denise instead of “sending her away.” Neutering the CIA: Why... Gentry, John A Best Price: $17.22 Buy New $24.87 (as of 10:01 UTC - Details)

I was not especially close to Denise until I started dating Jeanne, who would become my wife. Denise instinctively gravitated to Jeanne, calling her “Jeanne Beannie.” Jeanne has always been so patient and kind, that this was a natural reaction. I started seeing the beauty in Denise for the first time, and recognized that she was truly special. Denise participated in the Special Olympics for many years. I think she won the shotput competition every time. She inspired me to volunteer at the Special Olympics, and it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. For each event, we gave out one gold ribbon, one silver ribbon, and every one else got a bronze ribbon. Every participant thought they’d won. I cherished each of the many high-fives and hugs I got. For a hyper competitive guy like me, this was a sobering lesson.

The Special Olympics, of course, was the brainchild of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of JFK. She was a remarkable woman of great intellect. In today’s world, I’d like to think she’d have a better chance of being the first female president than the putrid front runners for the honor. She was motivated by her sister Rose, born “slow,” to use the indelicate term of the era, who spent most of her life in a convent, after an early frontal lobotomy, when it was considered a new, potentially miracle “cure,” backfired terribly. If you aren’t connected to someone like Rose, or Denise, you’re not likely to think much about it. You might even use the “r” word. My favorite political family, the Kennedys, the Special Olympics, and my niece Denise. More synchronicity.

Denise turned out to be very “high functioning,” as they indelicately say. She’s a whiz on the computer. For years, she worked a job that required her to ride both a bus and the subway every day. Now, the metro system here baffles me, the author of ten published books and many, many online articles. I could never have done what Denise did. She has a perceptive understanding that “normal” people don’t. She can instantly detect insincerity, and sees the real emotion in your face. If I’m wearing my “pissed off” expression, which I too often am, she will quickly ask, “Why you mad?” Denise would be very hard to fool. If she senses someone is uncomfortable around her, she will cozy up to them and try to win them over. And she always succeeds.

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