Does It Hurt?
When I was a kid, I thought that losing your toes was a natural part of aging, like losing baby teeth. Every summer I stayed with my Grandmother Mary in Oklahoma, I would see her missing toes, healed, smooth, and pink like polished coral stone, and I would curl my own in fear of the day they would break free from my feet. I didn’t know that this had anything to do with diabetes. I had heard the word, but I didn’t know what it meant until one day Grandmother explained it to me as I watched her inject insulin into her stomach. I was six.
Grandmother lifted up her sweater revealing her almond-colored belly, stippled with fine pink lines carved by my father and uncle’s incubations, so much paler than her arms and face. She swabbed it carefully with alcohol-soaked cotton and inserted her needle.
“Does it hurt, Grandma?”
“Not much. It keeps me alive, baby. It’s for my diabetes.”
“What’s a diabetes?”
“It’s something that people can get that makes them sick when they eat sugar.”
“Like when I get a tummy ache after too much ice cream?” She smiled at me as she removed the needle.
“Maybe it’s something like that in the beginning. But eventually it turns bad, and you lose your toes like Grandma.”
“Does it hurt a lot when you lose one?”
“No baby, it doesn’t hurt.”
Her lie was enough for me at that age.
As regular as May redbud blooms and May tornadoes, I went to visit her every summer. Each time she seemed to be missing another toe. But they were always healed by the time I arrived. No bandages, only smooth skin. In later summers, when insulin alone wasn’t powerful enough to keep her from renal failure, I would accompany her to the dialysis clinic and watch between the cracks of my fingers as a much larger needle cut into her arm. It was my eighth summer.
The nurse swabbed Grandmother’s forearm in vigorous circles before inserting the heavy-gauge needle into her skin in one quick motion. I rubbed my own arm and wished I hadn’t watched.
“That’s a big needle, Grandma. Does it hurt when it goes in?”
“No, baby. The nurse here is real good at her job so I barely feel it when it goes in.”
“What does the machine it’s connected to do?”
“It cleans all of the bad stuff out of my blood and then it puts it back in my body.”
“Does it hurt when they suck it out of you?”
“I don’t feel it at all.”
After the loud whirring machine finished filtering the toxins from her blood, Grandmother took me out for ice cream.
Like clockwork over the next few years, her body continued to break down and the disease claimed her left leg up to the knee. After the shots in her belly failed to regulate her insulin levels and the waste in her blood only clogged the whirring machine and she had no more parts to lose, Grandmother had a stroke and I visited her in Oklahoma for the last time. I was fourteen. I stood beside her bed at Lawton Indian Hospital, looking at all the needles, tubes, wires snaking across her form and the beeping machines keeping her blood pumping and her lungs filled.
“Does it hurt, Grandma?” I asked her for the last time.
Her answer took a long time to form and when it did her voice was far away, a whisper behind a closed door.
“No baby. I don’t feel anything at all.”