On a sunny Sunday afternoon in early Fall 2014 my wife, Sheryl and I went to a new park near our home in Central Indiana just north of Indianapolis. MacGregor Park is a rather large park and not well developed. It was our first visit and we had not prepared for a long hike.
This urban park is vast with so many trails it is hard to know where you are or where you are going, and because of budget restrictions, the trails are not well marked. We walked in a circle and then another. We strolled in a wonderfully primordial thick old growth of Indiana woods where we witnessed the hints of red and orange in the Sugar Maples and Sycamores that filled the dense area. Then we walked into a lush prairie with waist and shoulder high wild flowers, weeds and grasses. The smell of the flowers, and the crops soon to be harvested in a nearby field was intoxicating.
Wooded and grass areas in Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Illinois are truly fantastic. The grass shimmers as the breeze blows across it and the woods talk in whispers and cracks as the sun first heats then the air cools the dense mass of cover. The woods offer shade but it also traps moisture which creates a surreal experience, of large trees, downed rotting wood and dense undergrowth. I grew up playing, hiking and camping in areas like these and I felt right at home; It’s no wonder MacGregor Park brought out the boy in me.
As I walked with Sheryl, I was a young man before I had diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis, exploring woods and finding the pearls of Indiana as I used to call them. These were secret places where few would go where I would imagine myself being among the first humans to visit a ravine or see a downed tree. In those days before the disease it was awesome to be a kid and not worry about apple juice, my last injection, joints that might stop working or being so tired I needed to sit down to every few feet. When I was not yet 17 and disease was an abstract concept, Indiana was an amazing place to grow up and this day in McGregor Park I imagined I was a young man standing tall, confident in his abilities and completely at home in this wonderful place.
All was good–perfect even–until my wife’s expression turned from joy to worry as we went further on our walk. Sheryl must have sensed my concern as we passed the same tree twice and I realized we were hopelessly lost.
Being lost was a frightening predicament for my otherwise very tough and resilient wife. Unlike me, Sheryl never went wandering off for an afternoon into dense woods, with a backpack and compass and the hope she would have to find her way out. In the 1960’s in our community, boys were encouraged to ‘get lost’ but girls were not. Sheryl had little experience finding her way around an unfamiliar woods.
There were possible repercussions to our being lost that truly terrified Sheryl: What if I fainted, my knees stopped moving or I grew too tired to continue. What if my blood sugar plummeted, or my feet swelled from using the rough path? Even a cell phone wouldn’t be much help: We couldn’t tell people where we were. They might not find us in time.
I thought my wife was overreacting and our disagreement resulted in a stalemate, with me wanting to go on, and Sheryl demanding we return the way we had come.
Our little dog, Samantha, sided with my wife, looking bold for the first quarter mile but increasingly timid as my wife’s anxiety grew. Samantha had been leading the way but with every step forward she turned her head as if to gauge our reaction. Samantha always sides with my wife in such matters and as Sheryl grew more anxious Samantha grew more timid.
I was not anxious over being lost. On the contrary, for the first time in some time I felt good. My joints were working, and my hands could squeeze. I loved the air, the feeling of being adrift, and the challenge to find a way out of the woods. I wanted to visit a magic ravine, a new pearl of Indiana like I did all those summer days ago in my youth. For that moment I did not have diabetes or RA, I was not a patient; I felt alive once more.
However, Samantha and my Sheryl won out; the vote was a decisive two to one: Find the way back. So we turned around, retraced our steps and ended up where we started. When we got back to the car, my blood sugar had dropped a lot and I did not have apple juice or glucose tabs on our trek. At the car I was no longer a boy in the woods but a 57 year old diabetic with RA whose blood sugar was dropping like a rock and a throbbing hip. Sheryl’s safe way got us out of trouble.
For Sheryl and I, disease management is a family affair. I do my part sure, but over time my wife has taken a more aggressive role in managing my overall health–and we do not always agree. For example, we have two philosophies about management of diabetes. I am not very worried about blood sugar lows, I hate highs. My wife is not so concerned with highs, she hates lows. I know we are both right, but for different reasons.
This philosophy is also reflected in our dual management of rheumatoid arthritis. I am seldom worried about a joint hurting too much after I start, or that I will be too fatigued to go on. I want to press forward and I show little regard for the wear and tear on my body. Until of course it is too late and I have to throw in the towel and sit down.
Different perspectives are a natural outcome of dual management of chronic disease–and this has its benefits. Neither Sheryl nor I am wrong in our approach and both approaches have their merits. Yet neither approach gets one to the optimal level. At least in my case it takes two people to balance things out.
I suppose that is the beauty of sharing disease for 38 years. It takes both taking a risk and using restraint to make for a well-balanced life. It is that balance that ultimately moves us forward today and has for the last 38 years.
When we go for a walk in the woods, and the boy from my prediagnosis days comes out to enjoy a carefree hike, Sheryl (and Samantha) are there to rein me in and tell me when it’s time to go home.