Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, United States (Fall 2015)
On one of the hottest Augusts on record my daughter and I sat mopping our brows in the famous White Dog café. We had walked from Thirtieth Street Station in Philadelphia to this, our occasional meeting place. She was from Brooklyn and was my closest confidante. From my backpack, I pulled out my insulin pen and set it on the table.
“Never leave home without it,” I said to Sarah.
“I’m so proud of you, Mom,” she said, flinging her long dyed black hair over her shoulder.
We squeezed hands across the table.
Five years earlier, Sarah and I had checked into Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. She could change her mind up until the time she was wheeled into the operating theater. We’d had a minor tiff over the phone. She had jumped out of a parachute, piggybacking onto a man named Carlos. I read about it on Facebook.
“What if you died?” I said over the phone.
“Oh, Mom, all you do is think about yourself,” were her angry words.
Of course she wouldn’t change her mind about the operation. We waited an hour in the window-filled waiting room – her husband, my boyfriend, her brother, and a dozen friends of ours.
We brought our own fun with us, hilarious, morbid jokes – “how many patients have the surgeons killed this month?” – that made us feel comforted before the estimated four-hour surgery. Sarah would be cut open first and her left kidney scooped out, then transplanted into my lower right abdomen. The drug lithium I took for bipolar disorder had slowly killed both kidneys over sixteen and a half years.
I was not going to die. Sarah, my darling little girl, would save me. Had I been a good mother? As a single parent, I had left her father back in Texas. When she was mad at me, she’d call him and beg to live down there. A terrible idea. He was an angry man and a misogynist besides.
Agreeing to donate her kidney to me was a sure way to know she had forgiven my angry manic outbursts, my parade of one-night stands, my incessant typing in the middle of the night when I worked as a reporter.
Her many “I love you, Moms” after she moved out and never came home again were now transformed into sacrificing her young body for me.
Two surgeons, one Egyptian American, the other from El Salvador, led the transplant team. Sarah and I emerged like heroic war veterans with tiny scars to brag about. Our recovery was swift and seamless. But then one of the antirejection medications I took caused insulin-dependent diabetes, something I would have the rest of my life.
“Diabetes rules my life,” I said to Sarah as our waiter Joe brought out the appetizers. I lifted up my blue and orange insulin pen, dialed “10 units” with a click-click-click and injected into my upper arm.
“You’re amazing,” said Sarah.
“It doesn’t hurt,” I said. “I know all the fleshy places to shoot up.”
She laughed and we dug into the crunchy fried oysters and also the green salad with truffle dressing. She always does the ordering for us. All I do is say, “Nah, beets have too many carbs” or “even though quinoa is not a grain, it makes my sugar spike.”
In the ungodly heat, we walked back to the train station, trying to stay in the shade. Suddenly I felt as though I was going to pass out.
“It’s sort of like a spasm,” I said. “Not really. But I just keep walking and the feeling passes.” Sarah shook her head and grabbed my hand. What was there to say?
At the station, we hugged goodbye, and promised to talk soon.
Aboard the training heading home, I watched scenes file past, wishing I could press the “pause button” to stop the train, so I could gaze on the underbelly of the city. At about five o’clock I pulled into the drive and hurried into the house. The telephone was blinking red with messages. My laptop had a few, too.
Lying on my couch that night and watching television, I felt weak and sweaty. Clearly my blood sugar must be low, I said to myself. There was no time to lose. You know it’s bad because at such times you cannot think. I went to the kitchen to save myself. Putting my elbows on the kitchen table, which was littered with Triscuits, pretzels, a jar of peanuts –none which would work fast enough – I knew exactly what to do.
The Diabetes drawer in the fridge was filled with Chobani yogurt. I reached for the new coffee flavor, and with trembling hands pulled off the lid and the foil covering. With sweat pouring from my head and down my back – one of the symptoms –I opened the peanut jar and sprinkled some peanuts into the slippery yogurt. After the first taste I took my blood sugar with trembling hands. It was the lowest I had ever gone.
Holding the yogurt in my hand, I went outside in the dark of night. I sat down on the porch steps and scooped out the yogurt. I looked up at the dark sky, with a few clouds skittering by. “To life!” I said. I think I’ll stick around for awhile.
Ruth Z. Deming, winner of a Leeway Foundation Award for creative nonfiction, has had her prose and poetry published in journals including Literary Yard, Hektoen International, Blue Lyra Review and others. She runs New Directions Support Group for individuals and families affected by depression and bipolar disorder. See www.NewDirectionsSupport.org. She is an advocate for organ donation. A psychotherapist and mental health advocate she lives in Willow Grove, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia.