If you ever did anything right, I’d FAINT!
I was eight. My bedroom in our trailer was so tiny we couldn’t both stand in front of the open closet. So I sat on the bed, sweaty palms on the purple comforter. She stood, screaming, her face contorted in rage.
HOW MANY TIMES HAVE I TOLD YOU?! YOU CAN’T BE THIS STUPID!
She ripped a pair of pants from a hanger in my closet. I had hung them up wrong: hadn’t matched up the side-seams before putting them on the hanger. I actually couldn’t remember being told before this that there was a wrong way to hang up pants, but I knew enough not to say that out loud. That night, I started a new page in the diary I had gotten for Christmas, the one with the little brass padlock: Things I Won’t Say To My Children.
I was ten. I got up and dressed on a Saturday morning, while she slept the long sleep of the depressed, the very ill. I watched cartoons, eating cereal in the dusty living room by the light of the flickering TV and what little daylight filtered in through the heavily curtained windows. She couldn’t see well in bright sunlight, so the windows were always covered, the air stale. I went next door to my grandparents’ house, a bright oasis of order and kindness, where Saturday mornings smelled like fresh coffee and cinnamon toast and Murphy Oil Soap. Soon there was a phone call from her, enraged. GET. HOME. NOW.
I hurried out, letting the screen door slam.
She was waiting in the kitchen. Screaming, she backed me into the corner between the trailer’s front door and the tiny pantry. She was so angry she wasn’t coherent; I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. In my anxiety, I must have grimaced, which started a fresh tirade: DO YOU THINK THIS IS FUNNY!?
No. No, I did not.
Eventually I pieced together what I had done. When I fixed my cereal, I had left open a drawer and a cupboard door in the kitchen. With her limited vision, she had run into the drawer; bumped her head on the open cabinet door. The things I did wrong could hurt her. There was no such thing as a small mistake.
I was 12. Her diabetes was uncontrolled. I heard noises from her bedroom, coming through the paper-thin panel walls in the middle of the night. I already knew I would find her unconscious, covered in clammy sweat, moaning and shrieking, nightgown rucked around her waist, eyes rolled back in her head. Hypoglycemia: extreme low blood sugar. It happened once or twice a month. Before, I would call my grandmother when this happened. She would come over, revive her, comfort me, make things right. But now that Grandma was sick too, I was on my own.
These days, there is a highly concentrated glucagon gel made for hypoglycemic shock, that can be administered safely even if the patient is unconscious. These days, there is 911. Not then. Not there.
In my panic, I forgot exactly what Grandma did to bring her around, but I knew she had to have sugar. In the daytime, she carried sugar cubes in her purse to eat when her blood sugar was low. I found the yellow Domino’s box of sugar cubes in the kitchen cupboard (close the door) and carried them to her bedroom.
She lay on her back, eyes glazed and staring. When her mouth opened in a moan, I put a sugar cube on her tongue.
I waited. I could see the small, grainy cube in her slack mouth, unmelted.
I knew if she did not get sugar, she could slip into a coma she would never wake from. She could even die.
I used my hands to close her mouth, rubbed under her chin, hoping some reflex would kick in and she would chew, swallow. Wake up.
She inhaled for the next moan, and the cube disappeared. In its place, the most awful gurgling, strangling sounds.
I was tiny for my age, about 75 pounds. I wedged my hands beneath her torso and pushed at her full-grown dead weight. Heaved. I struggled until she was on her side, and began, hesitantly, to thump her back with my open hand, like burping a baby. Still she choked and gurgled, began to thrash. I thumped harder. Harder. All up and down her back, thumping out my fear, my powerlessness, how much I loved her, needed her. How much I hated her.
Nothing as knowledgeable as the Heimlich. Just a child’s blind panic and a little bit of luck. The sugar cube flew out onto her pillow, covered in blood.
Mistakes are deadly.
She breathed easily now; but she was still unconscious, still in hypoglycemic shock, and going deeper. The moaning and thrashing had stopped; her stillness was ominous. She could still die if I did not figure this out.
A year from now I would know so much. I would know how to prick her finger and use a glucometer to measure her blood sugar. I would know how to bring her back. How to go to school on a few hours sleep. When and how to call for help if she didn’t come around. A year from now, I would be able to put on sterile gloves, a surgical mask, and administer her home dialysis treatments.
But right now, I was still a kid.
I headed back to the kitchen, opened the cupboards and stared in. Hoping for rescue, bare feet on the always-cold winter floor.
Help came in the form of a green plastic Tupperware tumbler. I recalled it in my grandmother’s hands as she stirred sugar into orange juice. I seized it (close the door), prepared the sugared juice, and took it and a straw back to her bedroom.
I heaved her onto her back again, used pillows to elevate her head. I knew what to do now. I put my index finger over the opening in the straw, trapping a bit of sugared juice inside. Slowly, painstakingly, I dribbled it into the back of her open mouth, where it ran down her throat. Never too much, or she’d start coughing and I’d have a hard time getting the straw into her mouth again.
She regained consciousness.
She began to shiver, painfully cold as she always was after such an episode. I covered her with blankets, with the dotted-Swiss bedspread, with her fuzzy winter bathrobe. I turned out the lights, returned to my own bed.
Under the purple comforter, I watched the black outside my window turn to grey.
I began to shiver, too.