My mother was a girl when the Depression hit Iowa. Her parents declared there was no future on the farm. My mother – her brother and her sister — would have to go. And Mom did – “to make a life on my own,” she later proclaimed: career, family, on her own, in the East.
She repeated the story often, so what she said that day in the cab wasn’t a surprise. I was a sickly fifteen-year-old, hunched against the taxi door, as my mother in dark suit and hat sat frozen, staring straight ahead. We were off to my first professional basketball game – Cousy and Bill Russell against the Minneapolis Lakers — but we looked grim. The week before, I had been diagnosed with diabetes.
A cousin had died young from the disease. Clifford ate candy, cake, butterscotch fudge – defying his affliction. Diabetes killed Clifford, family lore said. And Clifford killed Clifford, the family also said.
As the taxi sped to Boston Garden, I tried to speak, then began to cry.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” I pleaded. “I don’t. . . know. . . .”
My mother took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. When she finally spoke, her voice was sad and unyielding: “You’re the only one . . . who can.”
She was reminding me that I was on my own — just like she had been — that the diabetes was my responsibility – not hers, not my father’s – that we are all on our own in this life, and that I’d have to learn to deal with the disease or I would die miserably – go blind, lose toes and feet, suffer a heart attack. . . .
My mother had it right, mostly.
I did not want to repeat Clifford. I would eat well, exercise often, and manage the insulin injections. Still, my efforts were not enough.
Came the morning I didn’t wake up. My girlfriend, soon-to-be wife, tried to rouse the sweating, naked man next to her. Nothing. Martha called the medics, who brought a policeman. A diabetic with a low blood sugar can be violent. I remember little, except being splayed on a stretcher, neighbors gawking, talking. I woke in a hospital, IV in one arm, Martha gazing down, shaken, her voice reassuring me. Without her help – and the medics’ – I might have sustained brain damage, or a stroke. I’d been saved.
Fifty years with diabetes and I believe in a paradox. We are responsible for ourselves – every day, every moment – yet we can’t manage “on our own.” We need help: from parents, from lovers, from strangers. We have to stand alone, but our feet are set firmly on the shoulders of others. This I believe.
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