The Fight for Diabetes Dignity


After he’d been living with Type 2 diabetes for 20 years, my dad, Eli, drove to the grocery store in Clifton, N.J. and fainted at the wheel in the parking lot. He’d narrowly avoided a head-on collision and it seemed lucky that he’d only crashed into a parking barrier.  He’d been driving slowly, so he wasn’t injured. The police arrived and found him semi-conscious, slumped over the wheel. His speech was slurred, and he was disoriented. They, naturally, assumed he was drunk. When they searched his wallet they found my mom’s information and gave her a call. She explained that he had diabetes and was experiencing hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, the result of having injected more insulin than his body needed at that time. Sugar was the antidote, and my mother told the police officers to give my father orange juice immediately. Though my father was wearing his medical ID bracelet, the police hadn’t noticed.

After this episode my mom forbade my father to drive. It’s doubtful my dad wanted to give up driving – he was only 56 – but he complied. I’m sure he was upset about relinquishing his independence, although he never talked about it. He didn’t renew his license or insurance, and he was relegated to the bus, walked, or got rides. He seemed child-like when he asked my  mom to drive him places, and this one just one of many scenarios where my mother treated my father more like her child than her partner.

My dad was kind of a big kid in more than one sense of the word, he had a childlike innocence and sweetness within his big body. He had strong working hands, large feet, and a protruding belly. His doctors had been telling him for years to exercise and lose weight. Their suggestions didn’t move him, but he was passionate about his model trains, tools, and collections of stamps and coins. When friends or relatives traveled abroad, they brought him foreign currency as a gift.

Because of my dad’s loving nature, he would give anyone the shirt off his back. The only person he didn’t care for was himself. He smoked almost a pack a day. Since my mother refused to allow him to smoke in the house, he took walks around the neighborhood. He was polite to everyone, and was quick to please and lend a helping hand. Neighbors and employees at all the local shops knew my dad by name and would shout hello.

It wasn’t just the cigarettes my dad couldn’t give up. His diabetes was meant to be managed with diet, but diet therapy didn’t work for him. From a young age I knew that certain treats were sugar free, for daddy only. They occupied a designated section in the pantry and in the refrigerator. My mom bought dietetic versions of his favorite chocolate, wafers and fruit jams. Whenever we were dining out or at an event, we asked for sugar free versions of the regular desserts. Sometimes we took snacks from home too, in case nothing was available. But despite these efforts, my dad’s diabetes worsened. He would often double up on starchy food at meals, he would eat handfuls of raisins in one sitting, which were his favorite when paired with peanuts. He finished off whole packages of cookies and treats, and even though they were sugar free, they were still made with flour and caused his blood sugar to rise.

When I was a teenager my mom opened the pantry and saw my dad inside it eating chocolate. She screamed, “Eli! Stop eating that chocolate!”

“What chocolate?” he said.

 “The one in your mouth right now,” my mom shouted.

“But I’m not eating anything.”

 “I can see the chocolate melted above your lips. It’s on your fingertips and shirt collar too!”

“No, I’m not eating anything”, my father insisted.

They continued to argue and he refused to admit it.

In retrospect, I understand how that cost my father his dignity, and at that time, it eroded much of my respect for him, too. I couldn’t understand why he couldn’t control himself and kept eating so much sugar, and simple carbohydrates, the exact foods that were forbidden. But it was just like his smoking, another habit he couldn’t control.

Because the diet-only approach didn’t work, my dad was prescribed insulin. Thus began a whole new regimen of finger-pricking, injections and glucose readings. We still tried to cajole him to avoid sweets, improve his diet in general and quit smoking, but it was to no avail. As my dad aged, the disease progressed. He had certain hallmarks of the disease like foot sores and slow wound healing. There was a cut that once got so infected it lasted for three months.  High blood sugar caused extreme thirst. My dad, loved huge glasses of water with lots of ice and gulped them down at every meal. Even though he lived with diabetes so long, he never managed it well. Its symptoms controlled him.

Another fainting episode happened late one night when I was home visiting from college.  From my bedroom,  I heard a moan and then a huge thunk coming from my parents’ room. I ran over and my mom and I stared at my dad’s body on the floor.  My dad  had rolled out of bed in his sleep, and he wasn’t moving. We tried valiantly to pick him up and put him back in bed, but it was impossible.  He wasn’t waking up so we called 911 and an ambulance took him to the hospital. Evidently, due to high blood sugar, he’d lapsed into a coma. The doctors said he was lucky we were there to call the ambulance, or he would have died.

Year after year, my father’s insulin requirements increased and his symptoms worsened. I reached the point where I just accepted everything, but my mom still tried to manage him. She reminded him to check his sugar, remember his testing kit, and order sugar free desserts.  It was emotionally exhausting,  they argued, and sometimes my dad would just leave the house in a hurry and slam the door behind him. 

My dad was a gentle giant but he could never turn that love inwards. Though he thoroughly tabulated and stored his coins and carefully archived and preserved his stamps, he couldn’t preserve his own health and well-being.

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