Yay, I’m here now, more than ever, and feel like I am living an actual life. But for long swaths of time, especially when the black dog visited, I did not feel wholly alive, watched myself and the rest of the world from very far away.
That is one of the reasons I hesitated to dive into permanent relationships and to have kids. I didn’t want to be a psychological fraud, an emotional huckster who would be forced to feign not just love, but the sense of being alive and present, to those who needed me. Before I met my wife-to-be 27 years ago, Dr. S, one of my better shrinks, pointed out that there was obviously someone real, an actual Dan Fleshler, who felt moral compunction about pretending to be real. “Where does that come from?” he asked. “Who’s feeling that? Where’s Dan?”
Excellent question. There is no doubt that someone somewhere felt pleasure from the feel of his wife-to-be’s soft skin, and the love she kept expressing, her own bewildered amazement that she was happy and alive when he was with her, and the spectacular, hot lighting storm on Mobile Bay outside of the hotel terrace when he finally proposed to her. And certainly someone somewhere was moved to tears at the sight of his day-old daughter in a bassinet.
But too often pick-your-pronoun did not feel like he was here. When that happened, I would drift away from my family, keep them at a distance, consciously try to protect them –and, of course, myself– from the huckster. And I could find no answer to Dr. S’ question.
There might be clues available in a college admissions essay my daughter wrote about one of my hypoglycemic episodes. If you have lived with Type 1 diabetes for as long as I have, your erratic antics during some low blood sugar incidents are like markers left behind on old trails, reminders of an older, inner life. The one she described occurred when she was 13. At the time, the black dog was afoot, and there was not much I could do about him.
I will present the original essay, with some omissions and occasional tweaks to correct punctuation. It is a kind of found, teenage art. (Contact me and I’ll send you the original, if you think I made this up). Take it away, my sweet, unironic, sentimental, still-young Lillie:
About four years ago, my dad was jogging in place in the living room. This is his form of exercise. He is a diabetic and his body is very sensitive, so this is the kind of exercise that works for him. My mother and I were eating dinner. She had her back towards him, I was facing him, and I was rambling on and on about how much homework I had and how I really did not want to do it. My dad just kept jogging and jogging.
My dad is a hardworking man. He has been in and out of job spaces, but at that time he was working from home. Every day he would sit at his computer, hours on end, just working and working till his fingers hurt. Once he had his eyes locked on the computer screen, he was in the zone, and there were few things that would tear him away from what he was doing. He worked on everything till it was absolutely perfect.
But having him so close at home physically yet so far away mentally was hard for me. I was often eager to talk to him, but he was often too busy for me and after a while I had begun to feel extremely distant from him. I knew that he was only working to help support my family and make sure we had everything we needed, but there were times when I would have given up that extra vacation or that new shirt just to have a conversation with him when he wasn’t distracted.
That night four years ago he mumbled a few answers in the beginning but then I began to notice that my dad wasn’t responding anymore. I started getting annoyed with him. “As usual,” I thought to myself, “His mind is totally somewhere else.”
“Dad! Are you even listening?” I yelled. No response. “DAD!”
He just had this blank look on this face. It was this cold, frozen kind of look. He was really pale. I was the only one who could see any of this, because my mom’s back was to him. The moment that I noticed how peculiar his face looked, something in my brain clicked. I realized what was going on.
“MOM! I think Dad is having a low!” I screamed. Just after I said that, he tripped over his feet, and fell to the ground. He made a huge THUMP sound. “Dan!” my mother yelled. She ran up to help him. This was too much for me to watch. I ran into the bathroom and locked the door.
I had always been aware that this happened from time to time. My dad takes insulin shots, and sometimes he overestimates how much he needs, which results in his blood sugar dropping to dangerous levels. So not enough sugar gets to his brain, causing him to begin acting irrationally and sometimes lose consciousness.
I had never actually been awake for any of these really bad episodes. They had always happened in the middle of the night, and not since I was five years old. But now, this was all happening in front of my eyes and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I was hysterically crying, almost yelping.
After about five minutes though, I realized what a fool I was being.
“Get a hold of yourself Lillie,” I told myself. “You’re not the one who’s in trouble right now, why are you crying? Go out there and see what you can do to help!” So I took a deep breath, and cautiously walked back out into the living room. My dad was sitting at the dining room table, eating chicken and potatoes and sipping a glass of orange juice. I got my mom’s attention.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“I gave him some orange juice and a plate of food and we’ll see if he improves.”
She was very calm.
I peered through the kitchen door into the dining room just far enough for me to see him, but still not far enough for him to see me. He was very sloppily chomping on his food.
“Yum, yum, yum!” he said. “This is yummy!”
He was talking like a person on Ecstasy, either that or a three-year-old baby. He had this strange smirk on his face. I had never seen him like this.
It was really the strangest thing to see and it made me very scared. I couldn’t bring myself to keep watching it. I turned away.
So there I was, standing outside the kitchen, refusing to look at him, only hearing the strange things he was saying. Some of it was gibberish, some of it was English. Out of the midst of everything he was saying though, something came out that I had really not expected.
“Where’s Lillie?” he asked.
“Lillie? She’s in the other room Danny, she doesn’t want to see you like this,” my mom said.
“Where’s Lillie?” he kept asking.
I peered back into the kitchen. I was amazed. Even though he was completely out of it and barely making any sense, somewhere in his subconscious I was on his mind; I was always on his mind. I had gotten the chance to see proof of this, which is something that most people don’t get the opportunity to do. When I got to look into my father’s mind, and more importantly, reach down into his heart, I realized just how much he cared for me.
I walked into the dining room, still a little scared, but determined to be there for him.
“I’m right here Dad.”
It’s Dan here now, back in the present. Thinking and writing about the consequences of my cursed metabolism keeps yielding surprising blessings.
For one thing, I realize that I might not have wreaked as much emotional havoc on those close to me as I’ve often assumed. For another, before digging up her essay recently, it had not occurred to me that my hypoglycemic adventures provided teachable moments to her, not just to me.
What’s more, while re-reading her tale, I have a tangible sense of continuity. I might not have felt sufficiently alive and present, when she was 13. But now I can ponder the man I, apparently, was. And even though I was completely out of touch with the world outside of my mind as I sat at that dining room table, and even though I don’t remember any of it, now I can pluck that character out of the dreamscape and feel what he was feeling. And when I do, somehow the life he experienced seems more real. Maybe that’s the result of another trick by an emotional huckster, a sleight-of-hand with memory, but I’m glad I can do that one.
My daughter is 21 now, and has boomeranged back to our apartment after graduating from college. She is much too old for us to keep tabs on her schedule. But I never feel more alive than I feel during the early mornings when I wake up and look around and realize she’s not at home, I have no idea where she is, and I instinctively ask the same passionate question that was posed by that man, that actual man, at the dining room table.
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Slightly revised from a post originally published in The Insulin Chronicles, on 8/13/2014