My dad is a pianist, but one of his fingers doesn’t work. It’s the middle finger on his left hand. I guess he can’t really flip anyone off with that one now.
It’s the diabetes, of course. The same thing that paralyzed his stomach. And this is a man who takes meticulous care of himself. Who knows all the research. Who wrestles ferociously for control as his body cleverly eludes him again and again. As his body works constantly towards destroying itself. Disease is so strange. It’s like, don’t you want to stay alive, body? Isn’t that supposed to be the only thing you want? Why can’t we agree on this one?
I am beginning to prepare to lead high holidays services, the way I do every year. I take the train out to NJ to meet with the rabbi I work with, and we stand on the bima in the empty sanctuary and make our way through the fat holiday prayerbook, practicing, arguing over the details, bursting into occasional songs from Fiddler on the Roof (yes, really). We have been known to dance around. We find each other funny. We sing in harmony sometimes and we grin the whole time.
On the train, on the way to our meetings, I get this familiar urge to read old journals. The same thing happens at this time every year. The high holidays, Rosh Hashanah (our new year) and Yom Kippur (our time of repentance and renewal), are a soul-searching, gut-wrenching, emotionally complex time. And I think the approach of autumn contributes to their drama. There’s this feeling of near-death that glides up in the smell of the foliage in the park. That is hanging behind the humidity. Things will die again, there’s an end in sight, and it will happen whether or not you are ready. The summer is inevitably faster than I expected. I’m whisked through it, and everything restarts again. It’s hard to keep track of who you are in the midst of all this transition.
So I pile old journals into my backpack and I read on the train. It turns out that I have had some funny moments! And also that I am a little insufferable. And sometimes embarrassingly melodramatic. I hope that no one else ever reads my journal. I also hope that it gets published. But only a few select parts, where I am clever. The interesting thing about a journal is that you can totally tell where you are lying to yourself. You know what I mean?
Where you don’t actually like your boyfriend, but you’re still writing “He is the most wonderful person I have ever met. He got me the most beautiful roses and we had this amazing evening where he read me his latest paper and told me about his meetings he’s had with these famous professors who are big supporters of his work, and it’s really amazing how successful he is.” And you distinctly remember that you always had this tremendous itch to take a red pen with a thick tip to practically every line of every paper he’d written. And also he was so arrogant.
In my journal, over and over, I mention that my dad is not doing well, but I can’t read those entries, so I skip over them and look for more boy gossip. There’s plenty of boy gossip. It turns out that mostly, for most of my life, I have thought almost exclusively about boys and nothing else. What a relief.
Accidentally, though, my eye catches on a brief piece that is just a conversation between my mom and me.
“It’s because he’s so sick,” I am saying, trying to make something better.
“Kate,” says my mom. “Whatever you do, don’t marry a sick man.”
“I promise,” I say, “I never will.”
And then what do I do? I go out and marry a sick man. Actually, it’s even better: I marry a man with exactly the same illness as my father. And wait! There’s more! (There’s always more.) He has the same reactions, too. He also has that particular breed of diabetes that is even trickier, the kind that makes you more insulin resistant. The kind that keeps you guessing. That makes every day a wrestling match against the numbers on the tiny screen and every evening a toss up—will he be high and miserable? Or will he be OK? Please, let him be OK tonight. Let that sore in his mouth finally heal.
I am pissed off. Why do I have to deal with this? Goddamnit, why me? I have friends with husbands who do not have to constantly remember the vial of insulin and the set of fresh syringes and the tester and the pricker and the blood strips and the little black bag every single time they leave the house. Friends whose husbands could get stuck in traffic for hours without it becoming a real emergency because there’s nothing sweet in the car and his bloodsugar is dropping.
I am whining, as I tell my dad all this, suddenly, in the car as we wait for the train after my meeting with the rabbi. I didn’t mean to whine. I am so thankful for Bear, for marrying him. I don’t lie about him to my journal but the truth is still disgustingly sappy. I didn’t mean to tell my dad that I am angry. But I hear myself saying, “I am bitter. Why do I have to deal with this?”
The other night Bear got so upset, over nothing, and he slammed the bedroom door and disappeared, and it wasn’t really because the thing was upsetting. It was because of his bloodsugar. Which reminds me of, let’s say, most of the truly bad moments in my childhood. I sat down on the couch and turned on the TV. Diabetes wins again. Well played, Type 1. Well played.
At the train station in the car, my dad says, “Who do you think the normal people are?”
And I am already saying, “I know, I know.”
His voice is gentle. “Everyone thinks there’s someone out there who has this perfect, normal life. And it doesn’t exist. Everyone has problems.” He says it again. “Everyone has problems.”
I am embarrassed. “I know,” I say, again.
And God, I’m lucky. It hit me on the train, on the way to New Jersey, reading my old journals. Here’s this girl, who has no idea what’s going to happen to her, who will one day be a writer in New York City, married to a man so weirdly well-suited to her that she feels like she’s tried to write his character before but could never make him sound smart enough, who has so much future ahead of her. So much neurotic, self-absorbed, striving, journaling, confused, eager, interesting future ahead of her.
My dad says he is teaching himself to play piano without that particular finger. He’s good enough to make it work. My dad is a brilliant pianist. He was one of those child prodigies who could play anything after hearing it once. Now he’s an adult prodigy like that.
When I met Bear and fell in love with him, I called my dad, not my mom, to talk about diabetes. My dad said, “Everyone has problems, you just know exactly what his are.”
I should have asked my mom, in retrospect. But no matter what, I would’ve married him.
So what can you do?
Remind him not to forget his blood strips in the morning. Hope the sore heals. Enjoy the TV show after he’s slammed the door. He’ll come back out again later and want to snuggle. “What are you watching?” he’ll ask. Enjoy the music your father plays so well, even without that finger. Prepare for the high holidays, and the autumn, when everything will change again and everything will continue to somehow be the same. Hopefully, we learn a little bit more every year.
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Unroast: Today I love the way I look with a cat on me. I wear her well, I think.
My don’t apologize, you’re beautiful piece is up on HuffPost