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Breath & Shadow

Summer 2018 - Vol. 15, Issue 3

"Discovering the Dragon"

written by

AJ Cunder

Every diabetic’s story about how we met the dragon is different. Like how we met our
spouse, or boyfriend, or girlfriend, or significant other, how we met the beast that came
to live inside us is unique.

Some of us met the dragon at ten years old, or fifteen, or thirty.

Others when we were infants. Some of us had family members—fathers, mothers,
brothers, sisters—who fought the dragon and so they were on guard, always watching
for the moment when the dragon would visit them too. Some discovered the dragon
during a routine doctor’s visit, a simple blood test that would change their lives forever.
And others nearly died before they learned about the dragon, suffering and tormented
for days or weeks before a doctor finally thought to check them for diabetes.

That was my story. I nearly died before my parents learned about the dragon that
changed everything. I was only seventeen months old when the diagnosis came, and
while I don’t remember any of it, of course, I asked my parents what it was like. From
what they’ve told me, it went something like this:

The week of February 20, 1994.

The shaggy blue carpet of 52 Regina Place tickled my toes as I waddled across the
floor, my arms stretched out toward my mother. I latched onto her leg, hugging it tightly.

“Bobby!” I said.

“You want your bottle?” my mom cooed, her voice soft and comforting. “Let go of my
leg, and I’ll get it for you.” She smiled, her curly hair falling around her tan face despite
the winter months. I gripped her leg more fervently, and she gently pressed me off,
handing me my bottle. I gulped it down, and five minutes later asked for it again,
drinking more in a single day than I would in a week. A glint of concern flashed in my
mother’s eye as she filled my bottle for the third time. A trickle of urine ran down my leg, soaking through the diaper.

“Is this normal?” she asked my dad in a whisper as I slept that night.

He rubbed his strong jaw, his face stern, his dark brown eyes watching me, following
the steady rise and fall of my chest. A sliver of light sneaked past the nearly-closed
door, landing on my face as I lay in my crib. “I don’t think so,” he answered, a gruff
rumble that overpowered the stillness of the room. I fidgeted under my blanket, and the blue and pink mobile revolved overhead, the soft chime of “Twinkle-Twinkle-Little-Star” struggling to continue, draining whatever energy remained in the toy before it died out. In the morning, my mom returned, reached into the crib and lifted me with a smile.

“Good morning, sleepy head!”

I giggled a bit, but my lips had acquired a bluish tinge. She put me down, and I tried to
walk across the room to my treasure chest of toys. But I couldn’t get to it. I tried to walk. I had walked yesterday. I’d learned how to walk months ago. But I stumbled. I fell.
I crawled, barely scraping along the floor, trying to get to my toys.

My arms gave out, and I collapsed, barely breathing. A crystal tear leaked from my
mother’s eye and rolled to the corner of her mouth. She scooped me up and held me in her arms while she walked to the kitchen.

“Robin?” She called one of her friends, pinning the phone to her ear with her shoulder.
“It’s Dolores.”

Robin offered a greeting of some sort. “Hey listen,” my mom went on, “AJ has been
acting kind of strange lately.” She listed my odd behavior.

“Well of course he’s peeing a lot. What do you expect with how much he’s drinking?”
“But what about the walking? He was fine just last week.”

“I couldn’t tell you, Dee. Maybe you should take him to a doctor.”

“I don’t want to make it more than it is, if it’s nothing. You know Anthony doesn’t like
doctors. He thinks AJ might catch another bug. He already had something this month. I
thought he was over it.”

“That could be why he’s losing weight. Or maybe he’s just going through some kind of
growth spurt.”

“Not like any kind of growth spurt I’ve ever seen. His diapers are so big they just slip
right off sometimes. It’s like they… Do you really think this could happen just from a

“Could be,” Robin says. “Don’t really know what to tell you, though.”

They chatted for a while longer.

On Thursday or Friday of that week, my parents finally decided to take me to my
pediatrician. Dr. Lipat gave me a routine check: eyes, ears, nose, throat. “Nothing
wrong,” he said. “He’s just recovering from something going around. He was sick earlier in the month, right?”

My parents nodded. “Are you sure that’s all this is?” they asked.

“Quite sure. Nothing wrong that I can see,” he affirmed.

So they took me home, and a few more days went by.

February 26, 1994—Saturday.

My symptoms worsened. My parents stood me in the kitchen, holding me up. We had
just eaten lunch. My dad let go of my hand. I said something. “Mama,” it might have
been. And then I collapsed, motionless.


“Something is wrong,” my dad said, running a hand through his hair.
“Something has to be wrong,” he knew. “Healthy children don’t do this.”

He called the doctor’s office again. “If this is an emergency, please hang up and dial
911,” the cold recording played. “Or dial extension 6616 to reach an on-call physician.”
He dialed the extension and left a message on the recorder. Dr. Lipat called back a few minutes later, and my father described my symptoms. “Bring him in Monday,” Dr. Lipat said.

February 27, 1994—Sunday.

That morning, my mom flipped through a medical book on the counter.
Countless descriptions of diseases and ailments flashed before her, but she couldn’t
find anything that matched my symptoms. She bit her nails and searched through the
book again.

The next day would be Grandma Ann’s birthday. My dad got ready to visit her in Short
Hills for a party while my mother planned to take me to Grandma Pat’s in Flanders. Dad
left, and mom put me in the car around noon. We got onto the highway. The gray day
obscured the sun. I started crying, loud and persistent. Mom sang to me, turning up the
classical music I always loved, talked to me, and kept driving, past the exit hoping I’ll fall asleep and forget about the pain—or whatever it was.

Eventually I stopped crying, although it wasn’t until we had nearly reached the Delaware Water Gap—forty minutes past the exit we were supposed to take. Mom made a u-turn, while I rested, strapped into the child seat, trapped in whatever fear and uncertainty a baby might feel.

At Grandma Pat’s, I pointed to my mouth and mumbled, sitting in her small kitchen.
Mom made pasta and opened the refrigerator. “Do you have anything I can put with
this?” she asked, rummaging through the shelves.

“I think we used up everything,” my grandmother said. “Maybe butter?”

“Anthony would kill me if I gave him butter.” Mom licked her lips and used my carrot
baby food for sauce.

I ate the whole plate. “Ummmm,” I said again, pointing to my open mouth, bits of orange mush dribbling down my chin. My Aunt Karen looked at Grandma Pat, then asked my mom if she’s been feeding me.

Mom glared at her and said, “Of course. He’s just really hungry all the time.” She didn’t
know that she was feeding the dragon. It was the dragon inside me that wanted food.
Grandma Pat took a closer look at my face, examining the dark circles under my eyes.
“Maybe it’s a vitamin deficiency,” she suggested.

I ate more macaroni, this time with applesauce, until I slumped in the chair.

The house didn’t seem to interest me the way it always had, my grandmother’s
collection of bells undisturbed and unstudied, the garage with its mysterious nooks and crannies unexplored. We left, and, just minutes from home, the dragon growled inside me. I threw up, spewing all over the car. Mom looked back and cried. At the house, she drew up a bath, scrubbing my face with a soft washcloth. I didn’t splash. I didn’t play with my plastic ships. I rested my head against the ceramic tub and closed my eyes, barely breathing.

She called the doctor again and left a message with the emergency line, taking the
medical book into the bathroom. Sitting on the toilet, she wrapped her hair around her
fingers. A tear dripped down the silky strands, staining the white pages.

The phone rang, and she jumped to answer it. She mentioned I had thrown up. The
doctor sighed. “Just recovering from a bug. He had an upset stomach earlier in the
month, didn’t he? Just give him Gatorade, and we’ll see him tomorrow.” He

She called my dad. “Get some Gatorade on your way home.”

Into my “bobby” the orange Gatorade went. I took a few sips, then spat it out. The bottle fell from my hand. The dragon growled. I think it wanted the Gatorade.

February 28, 1994—Monday.

The sun failed to penetrate the gray barrier of clouds, and the ice glittered on my dad’s
blue Monte Carlo.


We sat in the waiting room, the toys once so enticing left untouched. I didn’t move
much, just looked around with hollow eyes. The nurse called us into the examination
room, and my parents lowered me onto the crinkling white paper. White lights flashed,
and the charts and diagrams of human anatomy looked back at us. The doctor checked me again. Eyes. Ears. Nose. Throat. No temperature, no fever. Nothing wrong. Just the recurrence of a bug that’s going around.

“Something is wrong,” my dad said. “Check him again.”

The doctor shook his head. “I’ve just checked. Nothing is wrong.”

“Something is wrong,” my dad repeated, his face getting red, his voice heated. “He’s
peeing a lot, drinking a lot, he can’t walk and barely moves. Something is wrong!”

“No,” Dr. Lipat began to say.

“Something is wrong!” When my dad gets angry, his eyes burn as though with hellfire.
As though every ounce of rage and anger boil up inside him and radiate from his core,
ravishing everything in his path. He took a step toward the doctor, his hands balled into fists.

Maybe my dad’s eyes scared him. Maybe they didn’t. Either way, Lipat went to a
cabinet and pulled out a plastic cup with a contraption for collecting urine from a young child. “Have him pee in this tonight and bring it back tomorrow.”


“We’ll do it right now,” my dad said. He took me to the bathroom, and I filled the cup.
The doctor looked at it, snapped the lid on, and smiled metallic.
“We’ll give this to the lab.”

The seconds ticked by, becoming minutes. Minutes became five. Five became ten. Ten
became fifteen. Finally, Dr. Lipat returned. He frowned as he looked at my parents,

rubbing the back of his neck. Then he said, “You need to take him to the hospital right

My dad’s face turned crimson, and his fists trembled. “You said there was nothing
wrong. You said he was fine. You —!”

Dr. Lipat recoiled, backing against the wall, his eyes wide. My mom grabbed my father’s arm, and they rushed out of the office, back to the car, went home for a moment, packed a bag with some of my clothes and a few other essentials. Mom took me to the Emergency Room of Morristown Memorial Hospital; Dad said he’d be there soon. The intake personnel assigned me a cubicle with curtains separating it from the corridor. The fluorescent lights shone cold and hard, one flickering intermittently as the adult- sized bed drowned me. Nurses came and checked my vitals: eyes, ears, nose, throat.

“Why are you doing this again?” my mother asked. “The doctor just checked all of this at the office!” Her lower lip quivered. Her eyes glistened.

“Routine procedure, ma’am. We don’t know what the doctor did, so we have to check

They transferred me to another room, and my dad joined us. Wide, brown double doors opened into a stark corridor lined with stretchers.
Patients walked, and doctors followed, each with their own problems.

The bleak blue walls of my new room pressed in on us, a navy gurney waiting for me,
the slab upon which I would be sacrificed to the beast.

Some doctors came. White coats. Shiny name badges. Silver stethoscopes. One
pointed to another; a heavy-set woman. The first doctor said, “Start the IV.” She nodded and scuttled to the bedside. She jabbed the needle into my arm. Then took it out. Blood spurted up from my elbow, and I howled. Sweat popped up on my father’s forehead despite the air conditioning. She tried again.


“Is everyone in this room a doctor?” my dad asked, wiping his forehead with a sleeve.

“Yes, yes, of course,” the first doctor said. “Here, do it like this,” he said to the woman.

“Wait!” my dad screamed. “Why are you telling her how to do it? Is she a doctor? Is she
a doctor?” When the man hesitated, dad growled—more ferocious than any dragon.
“You do it!” He thrust his finger into the man’s chest. “Don’t tell her what to do, you do

My mother sang to me, a lullaby perhaps.

“I think you’d better wait outside,” the doctor told my father.

With the force of a hurricane, my father cried, “I won’t say it again, you do it!”

The woman cowered and backed away. The doctor put the needle in my arm. He and
the other white coats left after connecting the machines, drawing blood, taking the
necessary samples. It turned out that they were trainees. I was at a teaching hospital.
The staff put me in the Intensive Care Unit. The lights blazed even brighter there. The
smells of alcohol, iodine, and sanitizer filled the air. My parents stayed with me until the
doctors balanced the glucose in my blood—until the dragon calmed. Until I got the
antidote that kept its fire at bay. The beeps of the monitors filled the void. White walls closed us in, shutting us out, squeezing my parents’ hearts as I lay on the hospital bed, the slab, the dragon’s altar. The beast’s fire burned inside me, tubes and fluids coming in and out of my small body, my mind floating in the clouds.

Dr. Starkman finally came and spoke with my parents. The endocrinologist explained
what the doctors had found: a blood glucose reading of over 500 mg/dl, brain swelling, and severe dehydration.

I had type I juvenile diabetes.

My father asked Dr. Starkman why my pediatrician could have been so blind, could miss such common symptoms.

“Well,” Dr. Starkman reasoned, “it’s unusual for diabetes to be diagnosed at such an
early age. He probably didn’t think to check. Especially without any family history of it.”
So I was an anomaly.

He left, promising he’d come again soon.

Mom stayed: scared, sad, overwhelmed.

Dad went to Astoria to pick up my Great-Aunt Margie so she could stay with me in the
hospital. He cursed life, God, the devil. He “felt like he was in hell.” After trying to have a child for ten years, he now had to watch his only son teeter on the brink of death.
I remained in the I.C.U. for a few days. The worst days of my father’s life, he says. My
family visited, my parents cried. The dragon’s fire is hot, and they felt it through me. My
battle with the beast began that day as the dragon’s poison burned through my veins.
The day my life changed forever. February 28, 1994. My grandmother’s birthday.

Author Blurb

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