Today during the school-drop-off downpour, I was forced to pull into the Walmart parking lot and pass out for a few rainy minutes. Good times, huh? But life is like that with diabetes. I have been a diagnosed diabetic since April of 2000. I have learned to live with my sugars out of whack, my mind potentially turned into Swiss cheese with cream gravy at any moment, and a strangely comforting capacity to weather headaches, both the heartbeat in the temples like a timpani kind, and the red-hot needles of Nyarlathotep boring into my skull kind. I suffer, but I also survive. In fact, the terrible incurable disease most likely to kill me is, in some ways, a sort of a back-handed blessing. I certainly don’t take life for granted with it. I am more conscious of how food can affect me and make me feel. I have had to learn how to take care of myself when taking care of myself is tricky like an Indiana Jones’ adventure in the Doomed Temple of Mickey’s Body. I take going to the doctor seriously and have learned what questions to ask. I have been to the heart specialist and the endocrinologist and the dietitian more than most people, though not more than most people should see them. I have also learned how to make fun of dread diseases… a skill I never imagined I might develop later in life.
My first experience of diabetes wasn’t even my own illness. Back in 1984 I had a boy in my seventh grade class who seemed to be falling asleep constantly. He was a shy little Hispanic boy with curly hair who was usually whip-smart and very charming. But I couldn’t seem to keep his head off his desk. So I asked him what the matter was. He was too shy and worried that he had done something wrong to answer me. So I asked him to get some water to wake himself up. The reading teacher across the hall told me, “You know, Juanito is diabetic. His blood sugar might be low.”
So I asked him, “Is that your problem?”
He nodded and smiled.
“The office keeps some orange juice in the refrigerator for him,” the reading teacher said.
So, I saved his life for the first time in my career without even knowing what the problem was or how to solve it. He came back from the office perky and smiley as ever. And I realized for the first time that I needed to know what diabetes was and what to do about it.
Juanito became one of a number of fatherless boys that adopted me and spent Saturdays hanging out with me to play video games and role playing games. He was one out of a pack of kids that swarmed my home in the off hours and would do anything I asked in the classroom no matter how hard. He was a juvenile diabetic, the son of a woman with severe type-two diabetes (adult-onset). His older sister had become a nurse at least partly because of the family illness. Juvenile diabetics, though their lives can be severely at risk, have the capability of growing out of it. As a seventh grader he didn’t really know how to take care of himself. Teachers who unknowingly offered candy as a motivator could’ve put him in a coma because he was too polite and shy to say no. But I fed him a few times, befriended him a lot, encouraged his interest in sports, and he grew up to be a star defensive back on the high school football team. He gave me the portrait I share with you here for attending so many of his football games and rooting for him to overcome the odds. When he visited me at the school years later, he was basically diabetes-free.
Juanito’s story gives me hope. I know I will not overcome the dreaded Big D disease of South Texas. I will live with it until it kills me. It caused my psoriasis. It gives me episodes of depression and chronic headache. But at this point, I am still controlling it through diet and exercise, not taking insulin or other drugs. (In fact, it was one of those other drugs that was making me pass out at work constantly from low blood sugar. Diet works better than pharmaceuticals.) One day it will give me a fatal infarction or a stroke and be the end of me. But until that time I will continue to do the difficult dance with it and get by, because, after all, dancing is exercise, and exercise overcomes the effects of the disease. Just ask Juanito.