By Jeff Morris
“From the Other Side” column
I had a wonderful long talk with a lifelong friend last month. We hadn’t been in touch in more than a year, so we caught up, talked about how great our second marriages are and ran down what’s going on with each of our kids. Obviously, we hit the rewind button and reminisced about all of our crazy childhood antics that only seemed to get crazier and more childish as we grew older.
Then I paused for a moment.
“Hey, have you heard from Youppi or do you know how he is doing?”
Andre just paused for a moment on the other end.
“Youppi passed away,” he said. “It’s been like a year and a half. You didn’t know?”
The news winded me like a punch in the gut. How could I have not known about this?
But then my thoughts went in another direction. For years, I had been hoping that I would get to give a eulogy at Youppi’s funeral should anything ever happen to him. I never got that chance.
Of course, Youppi is not his real name. His real name is Paul Ruston. He was adopted by Ray and Allison Ruston, who lived down the road from us. Paul was two years younger than me, and I always tried to look out for him when we were kids. He had a challenging childhood despite the wonderful parents and family he lucked into.
Today’s words for mental disabilities are far less harsh than they were 40-some years ago. Today, they would say he was autistic, or that he had a syndrome of some kind, or that he was in “the spectrum.” Back then, we had never heard of autism or the spectrum.
Paul was always a part of our gang – there was never a road hockey game without him or a game of pond hockey on Bradley’s Creek without him there. He loved hockey and baseball and I think sports was a place for him where he could leave all of his challenges on the sidelines or the snowbank and just go and have fun.
We made sure that Paul was included in everything. As we got older, the gap widened because of the challenges Paul faced. He became less athletic than we were, but it didn’t matter. Paul was one of us. Including Paul meant more than winning or losing. That culture of inclusion was something we figured out on our own, organizing our own games every day without parents knowing or caring what we were up to, or getting involved. They just knew that we were safe, having fun, and that we looked out for each other.
There were times we picked on Paul. It was never malicious. It could never be malicious because Paul was always such a happy, accepting kid. I always compared him to a puppy. The love he had for us – his friends – was unconditional, even when we were mean or unkind to him, or played pranks on him. He just loved us, no matter what.
But even though we picked on him, we never let anyone from outside our group pick on him.
I will never forget March 12, 1982. That was his 16th birthday. There was a giant Bristol board birthday card at each entrance to the cafeteria. We manned the door with a marker, and made sure every student at South Grenville District High School signed Youppi’s birthday card. They both had several hundred signatures. He was so proud. Seeing those cards, which ended up on the wall of his room, I can’t imagine anyone having a more special 16th birthday than Paul did.
For years, every year on March 12 I would call him to wish him Happy Birthday and to say hi. It didn’t matter where I was living or where I happened to be. I called him from Ottawa or St. Catharines or Dallas or Nashville or Denver or Seattle or wherever I was living. His mom would tell me he looked forward to his call from me. But it wasn’t out of obligation. I looked forward to that call as much as he did.
I often wonder what Heaven is like, and what we are like when we are there. What I prayed for the night I learned of Youppi’s passing is that he could be free of all the limitations he faced in the cruel world he was thrust into here. I hope he is the smartest and most athletic soul in Heaven.
I hope if Heaven has a big road hockey game, Paul is good enough to be the first one picked instead of being the last picked, which was what he faced every day of his life after school and in every game he ever played.
So Youppi, if they have the internet in Heaven and you get to read this, I wish I could have said these all these things at your funeral. I know you are in a better place, but in the times we are facing now, I wish you could have left some of your unconditional friendship and eternal positivity behind to help us cope with the mess that 2020 has been.