It Happened to Me: I Married a Guy with the Same Chronic Illness as My Dad

My dad's illness was a dull hum in the background of my childhood and I promised myself I'd never marry a man who had it, too.

Apr 25, 2012 at 3:05pm | Leave a comment

I promised myself I wouldn't get involved with a sick man. My mother promised herself the same thing -- she wouldn't marry a sick man. Her father was bipolar. And then she married my father, a Type 1 diabetic who was diagnosed the day before his 17h birthday. Happy birthday. 

My brother got his diagnosis a week before his 16th birthday. My husband, Bear, was 23, when he found out. So he was luckier that way. His mother, the luckiest, developed the disease in her 30s. 

"You should know," Bear wrote to me when we first met, "I have diabetes. It's not that big of a deal." He linked to the Wikipedia page about Type 1. 

My brain stopped. It started up again almost immediately, but it was very unhappy. 

"This can't work," I told him, in person, standing in front of my building on the Upper West Side. He had walked me home after a dinner date. "I can't be with a diabetic," I said. "I swore." 

"Can't you break your oath?" he whispered before he kissed me. These Orthodox guys smoking cigars walked by and gave us disapproving looks and I didn't care. 

"Just this once?" Thing is I had good reasons for my oath. 

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Me and my dad.

Once, before I was born, my dad drove the wrong way on the highway when his blood sugar plummeted and he couldn't think straight. Another time he started convulsing in the park, and the woman my mom ran to for help wouldn't share her kid's juice box even though my dad desperately needed sugar. 

He was always researching, always trying to figure out ways to be healthier. He exercised for two hours every day. He hadn't eaten carbs in over a decade.

My grandmother called his diabetes "brittle," which is an old-fashioned term for when the disease is just really bad, no matter what. For when, even if you do everything right, and monitor your blood glucose constantly, and take shots 10 times a day, things still manage to go wrong. My father had strange, unlucky allergies and his body resisted the insulin he had to take to stay alive. 

I remember the day he called me to tell me his stomach was paralyzed. Sometimes people died, slowly, when that happened, hooked up to a feeding tube. It was right before finals, my junior year of college, and suddenly I couldn't eat either. He was only eating soup then. He was in so much pain. 

My dad's illness was a dull hum in the background of my childhood. Sometimes it escalated to a piercing scream, like when the doctors thought there might be something wrong with his heart and, as a result, that he might not live much longer. Or when he couldn't control his blood sugar and he was paranoid for weeks on end, angry at everyone, my brothers and I were walking on eggshells, tiptoeing through whole months of our lives. When my little brother was diagnosed, too, my parents were devastated. 

So I was serious about my oath. I couldn't get involved with a sick man. I didn't want the responsibility my mother had -- of always having to worry about him. Always having to check on him. Having to know how to mix the two solutions in the glucagon kit and then inject them out of a giant syringe into your partner's spasming body. 

But I was falling in love with Bear.

He wasn't just a diabetic. He had all these other things going for him. Like being quietly witty and adorably self-effacing and muscular and kind. He was open, and he told me immediately that he wanted me to be his girlfriend. And then he asked me, every day, what I thought about staying with him forever. I thought it sounded like a great idea. Except. 

So I called my dad. 

"You love him," he said. "And you know what? Life is never going to be perfect. You can't predict how it will turn out. Sometimes someone gets cancer, later on. Sometimes someone gets hit by a bus. Or maybe it just doesn't work out. You don't know. You know that this guy has diabetes, but you also know he's great. Maybe it's worth giving him a shot." 

I laughed. 

"No pun intended," he added.  

"Maybe," I said.

When Bear asked me to marry him, about six months later, I said yes. 

"Even with the diabetes?" he asked. 

"Of course!" I said. I wasn't thinking about anything except for how happy I was, then. 

We've been married for more than a year now. The other day I tested his blood sugar for him while he was driving. I can operate that finger pricker with my eyes closed. I check on him a lot. 

"How are you feeling? Have you tested recently?"

I make sure he isn't eating anything he's not supposed to. People look at me funny when I grab something out of his hand as I'm trying to make sure he keeps his figure. I'm trying to make sure he's not miserable later, when his blood sugar is really high and he's getting anxious and paranoid and feels sick.

I carry dextrotabs (sugar candies for low blood sugar) in my purse. Sometimes, when something goes wrong, I'm suddenly terrified. What will happen when he's older? How will the disease ultimately affect him? Nerve damage? It's almost inevitable. Heart damage? Liver? Kidneys? Stomach, like my dad? Eyes? I am suddenly bowled over by the danger that lies ahead. 

Then I call my mom, to talk about what it's like, because obviously she understands what it's like to marry a sick man. And she understands why I did it anyway.

I don't regret it for a second. Not ever. Because most of the time, diabetes is a dull hum in the background of my life. I am thrilled to be with Bear, my favorite person in the world. There's something special about him. Something that was always familiar. Maybe it's the diabetes. 

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