Monday, July 27, 2015



Who is set up for tragedy and the incomprehensibility of suffering? Nobody. The tragedy of the man not set up for tragedy--that is everyman’s tragedy.

--Philip Roth
American Pastoral

It’s one thing to get born in a hospital, and quite another thing to go into a hospital young, knowing that something is terribly wrong with you, both eyes open, pumping adrenaline. And then get left there.
If there’s a more submissive state than being hospitalized, tell me about it; even prisons give you some room to maneuver. At age 11 hearing that visiting hours are over just doesn’t cut it, especially on the first night of being alone. But in 1958 the scene in Kramer vs. Kramer where Hoffman wouldn’t let the doctor touch his kid to stitch him unless he remained in the room--”Whatever you’re going to do to him you’re gonna do to me”--was almost 30 years away from being written. What could be more important to a kid than that familial safety in times of trauma? Isn’t this obvious? Could a chair next to my bed for my mother be that intrusive? Jesus. Yet figures of authority were hardly challenged then--especially those empowered to care for the sick and dying. Their sense of power and order was almost sacrosanct. Their responsibilities were designated by their conscience. Usually it was their call. Well, fuck that.

Anyway, there I was, in Kings Highway Hospital. I was assigned to an eight bedded adult room because the adolescent ones were booked. Never a shortage...of disease.
My folks were ushered out at around nine that evening. I put my Jack Dempsey book on the nightstand, never to open it. I couldn’t concentrate; there were too many strange things to look at and hear: tubes snaking from underneath sheets, carrying fluids to bottles underneath beds; glass bottles hanging from metal poles with clear plastic tubing running down into arms or wrists; old men with white stubbly beards asleep with their mouths open; a phlegm cough; a fart; and sometimes, a deep sigh of defeat. The night and shadows turned the yellow hall light into phantoms dancing on top of the surfaces around and adjacent to me.
A nurse came in carrying a metal tray like a butler about to serve an aperitif. She looked down at me and though I didn’t really want to, I smiled. “Norman, this is for you.”
“What is it?”
“Insulin. Don’t worry, dear. I won’t hurt you.”
“What’s insulin?”
“Something to make you feel better.”
She took the syringe off the tray and poised herself above me, and pushed up the sleeve of my hospital gown. “Hold this for me, would you?”
I turned my head to avert my eyes as she injected the insulin into my upper arm. Before she left she told me where the button was to call the nurse if I needed to.
For the remainder of the evening, they pumped me with insulin and had me get up periodically to pee in a bottle. Sometime during the night I woke in a cold sweat, trembling. I pushed the button. A nurse came and I told her what I felt. She rushed out and came back with orange juice and sugar packets which she mixed into the glass. What I later learned was an insulin reaction subsided. For the first time in many months I slept for more than an hour without getting up to go to the bathroom and drink.
The daylight brought no solace. The night had a quality of make believe to it; the day was Euclidian.
I met my roommates that morning, they were surprised to see a kid sharing their room. There was Eddie Alvatroni, Mr. Zuckerman, and an older gent in the corner whose name I don’t remember except that he was the one with the tube running from under his sheet to the piss bottle beneath his bed. Eddie was in his forties and Zuckerman in his early sixties. Each of these guys went out of his way to make me feel comfortable, given the situation. The older more grizzled veteran of the wars of the body and mind (and who had a faded blue tatoo of an anchor on his right forearm), kept saying that instead of social security at sixty-five, they should take men out back and just machine-gun them to death. Eddie cursed him, told him to shut up, but loved him; you could see that. Eddie was a prankster. Zuckerman would have to take these enemas in the morning, which of course, would make him run to the bathroom. As his bowels were beginning to let go, Eddie would go to the bathroom door and holler in a hospitalized voice, “Zuckerman, X-rays.” Zuckerman, a nervous man to begin with, would yell back, “O No; wait, you’ll have to wait.”
“Can’t wait.” Eddie would reply, “Now or never.”
“Alright already, shit; I’m coming.” He would open the door, poke his head into the corridor and see no one. He would curse in Yiddish and return to the bathroom, after looking at Eddie sitting in bed trying not to look him in the eye. It was better for Zuckerman during the day, even with all the tests they were giving him. At night he’d think about his wife, dead at fifty-three, and wait to no avail for his two grown sons, who owned a beverage company, to visit him. They lived in big houses on Long Island, he told us. Brooklyn apparently was too long a ride. He never offered excuses for them. The day he was discharged I watched him leave the hospital, followed him from out the window until a cab stopped to take him wherever he was going.
Twenty years later, I tried to figure out for the millionth time what the hell happened to land me in the hospital and I asked my Mom about when I first got diabetes. She told me that no matter how upset she was, my father took it worse. He was nearly destroyed, she said; his first son, so smart, strong, his future, had an incurable disease and could, and would, die from it. He became so depressed that he couldn’t go to work or visit me for the first week of my two and half week stay. I listened, transfixed. My father had always presented himself to be so strong. I had heard his war stories from when he was a soldier in the Army, stationed in Okinawa. He was brave, reckless, depended on by his men for his fearlessness and courage. He was a “man’s man.” How could he not be there? The phrase, “damaged goods” reverberated off walls, tables and chairs of the kitchen. In his line of business, supermarkets, when a can was damaged, it was collected and put in a shopping cart and marked down to as little as 5 cents. Shoppers, always peculiar about purchasing food, would be hard pressed to purchase dented cans, no matter how slight. But room had to be made for new merchandise. Goddamn, I could not, as hard as I would try to remember, visualize my dad not being there, not being with me. “Did I ask where Dad was?” I asked her. She said I had, and that she had made up stories to cover for him. But I don’t believe you can bullshit kids. If the message is there, somehow it gets through. And, more times than not, it gets through twisted and warped. What I felt, but never did understand much less able to articulate at the time, was why my father moved away from me and for all intents and purposes, “gave me back” to my mother.
It is easier for mothers to handle disease, messiness, than it is for fathers. Moms are more used to loose bowels, piss, and blood. They are, and will remain, closer to the exhaust system.

Meanwhile, blood tests and insulin were coming with alarming regularity. I felt much better physically but realized that what I’d been told first in the doctor’s office and then at home was crap: don’t worry, everything will be all right.
In fact, after the first week they had me pretty much stabilized. My new doctor, Dr. Fogel, began telling me what he wanted me to know about the disease, diabetes; he obviously didn’t want me to know much. He just said that it had something to do with an organ in my body, the pancreas, and its inability to give me enough insulin caused my high blood sugars which caused me to go to the bathroom and drink and itch and feel lousy overall. And of course everything would be OK if I just did what he told me to do. And that it would also depend on my mother, primarily, to help me do those things: eat exactly on time; eat exactly what I was supposed to eat; test my urine every day, all day, regularly, and get the proper amount of rest. I told him I was pretty athletic, but he seemed to dismiss that. My mom kept promising me that there was a good chance I would outgrow it. I waited for that to happen for a quarter century; she waited too, I’m sure, for a very long time.

Thinking is a very important process. When you’re young, thinking very often doesn’t include anything too far in the future; a week seems remote, endless, forever. I had no idea who I would be in two weeks, let alone two years. More often than not, you allow other people to make decisions for you. Parents are usually those decision makers. Confronted with a man in a white coat who holds the life of their child at the end of a sentence beginning with “should” or “must,” most parents will accede to the clinician. No second opinions; if you think, or instinctually feel, that deep down the “god of science” is full of shit, your thoughts and feelings can easily get jumbled or hijacked until you believe you’re the one who’s full of shit. So right before I was released, Fogel came into my room and said, “Norman, we’re going to try something new here. You would rather be on pills and not take those god awful insulin injections, right?” Our collective heads bobbed up and down like trained seals. “To do this, we’ll place you on a 600 calorie a day diet, and watch you very, very carefully.”
Not one of us replied, “Hey, wait a second; the kid’s almost 12. He’s growing hair on his balls and pretty soon he’s going to be whackin’ that thing. 600 calories, for an active and growing teenager?” We were so frightened. Besides, the folks were elated that I was alive and so thrilled that they wouldn’t have to deal with syringes that they didn’t think through the consequences of what Fogel was spelling out. And I, of course, was thrilled with the idea of no needles. The thrill was soon gone. I don’t think I relaxed or smiled from the ages of twelve to fourteen. In the two and a half years after stepping out of the hospital I was petrified, terrorized about doing anything that could be considered remotely out of line in regard to this 600 a day regimen I had to live within. At first I was confused but then angry, angry as a motherfucker, that I couldn’t eat the same goddamn foods, especially sweets, that my family gobbled with impunity in front of me. But I said nothing. Fearing my inner rage, I held it; I bottled it; I stuffed it down. If I let it out, I knew it would either kill them or they’d leave me for good. As I grew older, I didn’t have to say anything to them; I showed them.

I should say right now it’s only partially true that I didn’t smile for two years. I should say that I don’t remember smiling or laughing with my folks for those years. It was different with my friends, and sometimes strangers. I began to find more internal and external lubricant in my social world than my home; a real sadness developed there. At home I had to have perfect glucose readings in both my blood and urine, or else I was accused of “cheating,” a new word that took the place of the verbal “NO” or physical restraint that I grew up hearing and occasionally getting hit when I began exploring my world and surroundings. Consequently, I became different from my family, and even felt a modicum of shame when with friends. I felt vulnerable, fragile; anything could pull the carpet from under me, and I felt like everyone and everything wanted to do just that.
What was going on in our minds on the way home from the hospital that day I have no idea. I held onto the Jack Dempsey book I never opened, and walked between my two parents a bit hesitantly. I don’t think we talked. I do remember looking across the street to where the old woman was thrown into the air by the car; I saw once again her head half opened and brain exposed lying in a pool of her own blood. We moved on.
My grandmother, my father’s mother, was home. She pulled me close into her chest, and hugged. Her breasts nearly smothered me but that was just what I needed. She had taken care of my father and brother, who was five and a half at the time, while my mom went back and forth to visit me. I would imagine, knowing the kind of woman she was, that she took care of everyone and everything during my hospital stay. She was a large domineering woman of old European stock, smart, and sometimes cutting. She controlled her whatever way she could. What she couldn’t control, she had no use for. She could make a fox come out of the hen house and think that he’d eaten. There weren’t too many things she couldn’t handle and so not too many things scared her. But even she took a back seat to diabetes. Who knew from diabetes, except that it was a “sugar disease?”
“Where did it come from? Your side of the family?” “No, not my side. Your side?” “Nobody, nobody that I know of.” “Are you sure? What about that uncle of yours who had that grandmother that had...” That was the refrain I heard between my mother and my father and back again. And even if we knew then what I know now, what difference would it have made? To me? To us? There was just a trickle of information to be had, certainly in the mass media about psychosomatic digestive disorders. Almost fifty years later I read about Angel Garma, a Spanish psychiatrist was doing work in the field and posited that peptic ulcers and other digestive disorders stemmed from stress in early childhood. It’s not a huge leap to imagine diabetes would fit in that category. During early childhood stress the body accelerates, turning glycogen into glucose in order to fuel the hyper aroused state of distress, it’s not a far “cry” to imagine diabetes as a consequence of that state. There existed in my mother a wish to keep me dependent and helpless. And I, being as obedient as I was, could have responded.
In reality, nobody knew anything, except what we were told. And instructions were to be followed like a German railroad: Pills were to be taken ON TIME; meals were to be eaten ON TIME; urine to be tested ON TIME. When your daily reward or validation becomes a pink dipstick, the feeling of success wears a little thin. Hell, you’re not really doing anything different than the day before, and the day before that...why shouldn’t your piss be negative? (Though as I later learned, a negative glucose count doesn’t necessarily have to follow adherence to diabetic regimens.) “Supper’s ready.” “Hmm. Great. Let’s see: 3 peas, two and a half carrots (god forbid they’re cooked and their glucose level increases), an ounce of potatoes, a quarter ounce of meat---boom, that’s it---good night all.” The one time we got off the train and they treated me and themselves to what was usually our B.D. (Before Diabetes) Sunday night out Chinese food routine, my piss turned the test stripe purple. My mom thought I’d have to be hospitalized again, and ran a bottle of piss over to my doctor’s house (which I left next to the milk bottles) and waited terrified by the telephone for hours for the verdict. He called and in a solemn voice told us not to worry--this time--just be careful. Careful! If I were any more careful I’d be living in an hermetically sealed capsule with my food dripped in.
Very few juveniles with brittle diabetes were put on Oranese, or synthetic insulin pills. The reasons are pretty obvious for anyone who knows juveniles, and knows diabetes. We didn’t know either and neither did Fogel. A male adolescent’s metabolism is jumping: growing, changing, coming into puberty, bouncing around emotionally, in short, running amuck. A brittle diabetic, no matter what age, is also bouncing around. Their blood sugars can resemble the famous Charlie Parker’s alto saxophone break in Night in Tunisia on any given day. Anything can play with it: foods, moods, time of day, time of night, anytime, all the time. It is not unusual for blood sugars to go three times the high range, and half of the low range during the course of a day, let alone a week, a month, a year. In the person without diabetes, the pancreas works quite differently; it constantly sends out “blips” of insulin to cover the rather mundane metabolic functions. When a person eats any food, insulin is released from the pancreas to process it. Insulin’s job is to get glucose out of the blood and into the muscle cells that use it for energy. Insulin also inhibits the release of fatty acids from the body’s fat stores. All natural, wonderfully balanced. But in juvenile or brittle diabetes, those natural processes are unnaturally absent or marginal. Injecting insulin compensates, and hopefully stabilizes the diabetic. Usually pills are given to older folks whose bodies have already gone through the changes, battles, bruises, conflicts, upheavals “that human flesh is heir to.” Older diabetics are either still emitting some insulin themselves or can be maintained through a combination of pills, diet, exercise. And they can do that more easily than someone whose body is maturing, forming rivulets, streams, new roads, and a few back alleys.
If you don’t question and challenge, when necessary, what affects your life, you’re most likely fucked, and probably deserve to be. Descartes’ famous dictum: “I think, therefore I am” should be amended to read, “I doubt, therefore I am.” Descartes doubted everything around him; it defined his philosophy. He “thought” because he “doubted.” My family, on the other hand, didn’t question shit. We listened and obeyed.
There were some friends who I grew up with who offered a respite from my daily rigors. With them I could forget I was Norman the diabetic and just be Norman the 12 year old. Home was stifling and relentless. My mom shadowed my every move. “Norman, how are you feeling today? Did you test? How was it? Your pills, did you take them? Eat? What? How much? When? Why? What?” Her voice became more grating, piercing, invasive as I was becoming more and more conscious of my cock and balls.
My father, awkward and tentative in my presence, deferred often to my mom’s intense worry. It was simply easier for him. We are what we’re least afraid to be. He would avoid picking me up, throwing me around, having fun fights or any rough stuff with the slightest hint of danger. Somehow, I got the idea that I came with a label: Fragile--Handle with Care.
Prior to that summer, I weighed approximately 155; going into the hospital around, 130, and coming out, 110. My energies began shifting, upstairs. I became more concerned with my thoughts and imagination...or lack thereof. l learned funnier dirtier jokes, became faster, more athletic, anything so my folks, or anyone else for that matter, wouldn’t take a giant step away. What I didn’t know, had no way of knowing, was that in a brief period of time I’d be living in another place in Brooklyn, an hour and a half and light years away by public transportation. It could have been Mars.

I was too preoccupied with diabetes and its demands both outer and inner to enjoy my new junior high school experience the way I was planning to do; there were just too many things on my mind, too many things to get accustomed to doing...and not doing. The big clocks on the walls of the classrooms were watched diligently; pills had to be taken on time, food eaten, and the embarrassment of piss testing made other activities that required concentration difficult. I was put in the creative writing class for the seventh grade because I was smart, not very good in math, and read a lot. I really don’t remember doing or having to do anything much creative. At the time I had no idea that writing would end up being not only a lifeline, but an umbilical cord into the past.
One day a friend of mine in school asked me to go into the bathroom with him. I didn’t have to piss or anything, so I asked him why.
“I wanna show you something,” was all he said. He was a short, thin, freckled face kid with a mop of red hair.
“OK,” I replied. I was curious. Inside, he did a fast scan of the bathroom, satisfied that we were the only ones there, went over to one of the urinals. He unzipped his fly and rolled out this incredibly long and thick cock. I mean he could put out fires with his schlong. “Holy shit,” I said to myself. I imagined my short dick, and felt worse.
“Watch this,” he said, and began to stroke it.
It became longer, hard, and red. I felt my face flush.
“Can you do this?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Watch,” he said, his face grinning up. It didn’t take long for a white substance to shoot from the head of his dick.
“Scum,” he said, “feels good, too; you should try it.”
He wiped off, and we left.
“Try it, try it when you get home.”
“I will.” I dragged my ass home that day, exhausted.
When I got home and had to test my piss, I tried to pull my small dick once or twice. It didn’t work. It took me two or three years to yank it again.
Sometime that spring, I was brought to this new home in Seagate, Coney Island. Too much had happened to me this past year. My head was spinning. “What about all my friends?”
“Oh, you’ll make new friends. Besides, you can still visit your other friends, and they can come here.”
“But it’s far,” I lamented.
“Don’t worry, Norman,” mom said, trying to be soothing but not quite hitting the right note.
Somewhere I heard that phrase before.

Published by Norman Savage at Smashwords
Copyright Norman Savage 2010

Norman Savage
Greenwich Village, 2015

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