One thing about having diabetes is that it does a good job of reminding you about the fragility of your life. Aside from the daily struggle with manually maintaining that metabolic balance that most people take for granted because it is automatic for them, just the sight of the insulin needle four times a day or the countdown of the blood sugar meter as it measures the level of sweetness in your heart, or even the waves of numbness and pain that ebb and flow with the tides of your body’s mood swings, can sometimes stop you short when you realize that what you are doing is gauging and resetting an hidden clock. And the clock keeps ticking, regardless of whether you want to set the snooze button or not.
Once a month I must haul myself over to the hospital to have my extremities jabbed and poked and probed, internal juices sampled, irises dilated and retinas blinded, veins pressed and released, substantiality of bodily presence in this world weighed, and rude questions posed about such private matters as what I ate for breakfast or how often I visited the toilet. It is like a reckoning; the Lord of Life and Death beckoning, to sit observing me while I bleed. Every time, about a week before the appointment, a cloud of guilt envelopes me, tightening my arteries and causing the banging of my heart to ring loud in my head. Was I good? Did I live up to what the doctor expected? Would all those other patients sitting in the lined up benches in the waiting lounge, expecting their names to be called next, notice that I hadn’t done my exercise or that I had eaten a MacDonald’s hamburger, or spent too many stressful hours at the computer screen? Would I somehow be punished?
There are times when the hours pass at the hospital and I watch the other patients who are my silent peers in this frightful contract. All kinds of people sit facing the blinking appointments monitor, little children in strollers, young women with their knees pressed together and shoulders hunched, old men gazing about bewildered, and overweight businessmen who fold their arms and shake one knee, still defying vulnerability. If I stare alert and don’t allow myself to slip into the stupor that the stuffy air ought to cause, I see the shadows hovering behind these people, claiming them. One afternoon an old man who had lost his eyesight recently stood ramrod still in one corner of the lobby while his wife carried out the responsibilities of getting him through the check up. He stood as if facing me, his eyes hidden by dark sunglasses. It was disconcerting because he almost seemed to face me directly, but his eyes seemed to face away just off to the side. As I sat gazing at him more and more the sink hole of empathy shuddered through me as I came to understand that he could be me, especially if I don’t take care of myself. The prospect of losing my eyesight, a very real and common verdict for people with diabetes (I hate the word “diabetics”, as if we are some kind of pariah or an impersonation of the disease itself), knocked me over the head and shook me awake. And this kind of awakening happens every time I go to the hospital; just yesterday a trio of elderly women sat beside me discussing their diabetes, like gossip over the garden wall. One of them said, with a finality that hushed them all up, “You really have to be careful. If you lose your eyesight then you’re really in trouble. I mean really in trouble!”
All this may sound macabre and morose, but in actuality it keeps you on your toes. Almost every person with diabetes that I’ve met who manages a well-balanced control of their blood sugar, gets regular exercise, and has stress lowered, seems to be correspondingly energetic and cheerful. Just look at the famous people with diabetes: Halle Berry, Mary Tyler Moore, Jerry Mathers of “Leave It To Beaver”… they all project this. Perhaps it has something partly to do with daily turning around and facing the possibility of death and not running away. It is like a Buddhist koan, an intimate comprehension of the ending of things right there a finger’s breadth away. And with the recognition of this ending, a converse eye opening to the breath of life. You can’t help but live awake and full if you face the reality of being snuffed out. Diabetes helps to remind you that, as Buckminster Fuller mused, “I seem to be a verb”. This body, doing all these unconventional misdemeanors, occupies space as a swarm of ideas, even the sensation of physicality but a synapse of one idea relating its theorem to another idea. Sitting in the midst of that swarm is the globule of the self, like an astronaut, drifting like light through the aether. You have to harness the gist of who you are and feed it with reminders of its own ephemerality, to rein it in and determine how the life you have been given, but a mere gesture, is to be lived. Reminders, although they can be scary, are good. They scoot the pebble across the pavement.
On the twenty minute walk from Shin Okubo station near the hospital to the hospital, I often pass a wizened old homeless woman huddled on the sidewalk. She never looks up and usually barely moves. Her clothes and skin are always dark with filth and drool often slips down the side of her lips. One time I found her passed out on the verge of the street, cars passing just an arm’s length away from her head. No one passing by made a move to help her. Since there was a police box a minute away I ran over there and told the officer in charge about the old woman. He laughed, as if she was a common problem, and told me that he would send someone over. I wrestled with going back to see that she was taken care of or rushing on to my hospital appointment. I decided to get to the hospital appointment, but to this day I feel I missed an opportunity of squarely facing life, of relating my experiences in the hospital and with the quirks of diabetes to the reality of a little old woman whose inability to rise to the challenge of her daily brushes with death. It is a bridge that crosses a vast, but incremental gap; and if I can but cross that bridge I will have discovered the very justification for such a disease as diabetes.