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Nature’s Push

Richard Halliburton (1900–1939)

In February of 1995, when I was four-and-a-half years old, my mother had a nightmare. In her dream, she was at Rockaway Beach with her mother and me – three generations – and I waddled through the sand toward the waves. When she reminisces, my mother mentions the weather first, how hot it was, mid-afternoon and mid-July, that the sun looked like a bright balloon in a spotless sky. A perfect day, really, but nobody was on the beach. That was the first warning. There were no tourists. No other people. Not my father, not my older brother, not my older sister.

Storm clouds formed and a wave rose. High. Touching the dark clouds. Three years later, we’d see Deep Impact at a local theater, and she would tell me about this dream for the first time; she’d explain the way in which the wave grabbed me and receded. Her youngest child, gone. My mother wandered the beach screaming, only to be rescued by reality, pulled back into a dark, chilly bedroom in Woodside, Queens, where my father eased her back to sleep, saying it was nothing, just a nightmare. But the following morning, over coffee, rye toast, and a Camel cigarette, my grandmother argued this was not a dream but a premonition. “Joanne, water is bad.” She had read this in her discounted book on interpreting dreams.

Days after my mother’s nightmare, I fell ill – fevers, frequent urination, unquenchable thirst. I was hospitalized and diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, a manageable but incurable disease that would require constant monitoring, a regimented diet, and daily injections for the rest of my life. Without these injections, I would die. The doctor had my parents practice by swishing insulin around a jar, filling a syringe, and injecting an orange. Over and over. Until the needle dulled and could not penetrate the fruit’s coarse skin without snapping at the base. Next came the glucometer, the testing strips, the journals, the referrals, the nutritionists, the “literature.”

As I’ve grown older, I’ve noticed that my parents say I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at “four-and-a-half.” I do, as well. We never say four. Maybe this is to hide from the complications; the later one is diagnosed, the lower the associated risks. Or, maybe we don’t want to say a four-year-old was hospitalized – the extra syllables add distance in both time and sentiment. I say “four-and-a-half” because I felt old in that hospital bed. I didn’t feel four when I was separated from my parents – for mere minutes – and the doctor with his wiry hair drew blood from my index finger and scowled at my high numbers.

Months after the diagnosis, my family returned to the crowded summer chaos of Rockaway Beach. Really this time, not marred by night sweats. My brother and I dug holes in search of treasure; my sister built a castle and carried buckets of water to fill a moat. My father carried me to the ocean and lifted me over the crashing waves. We ate salty sandwiches and checked our tan lines on checkered towels. That night, my mother tested my blood sugar levels to make sure I didn’t need a snack or extra insulin, and when she confirmed that my numbers were okay, she flipped off the bedside lamp and kissed me goodnight. In the darkness, I could feel the waves lifting me, pulling me, nursing me to sleep.

Christopher McCandless (1968-1992)

Twenty years later, my friend, Deirdre, wanted to take a group camping trip. She rented a cabin on Lake Sebago for the Labor Day weekend and invited a group of us to join. I know there are swaths of Americans – supposedly stable people – who travel the world in search of expeditions. Deirdre summits highlands on her weekends. My sister was proposed to on Mount Everest. Some climb Machu Picchu, others take expedition cruises to Antarctica to see penguins, and still others trek through Amazonian rainforests in search of howler monkeys. I find this to be madness.

For me, both nature and socialization can be exhausting, so it’s baffling that I opted to go on a trip that combined the two. However, I often act with impulsivity “for the story,” which puts me into situations that I immediately regret. This was one of those moments, and my irritation began as I started packing. I will not list the multitude of medical apparatuses I am required to pack for a two-day excursion into the woods, but I will say this: by the end of the preparations, my Jeep was essentially a Duane Reade complete with food and drink aisles and a functional pharmacy.

I arrived at the campsite in under two hours, viewing the transformation from architectural Manhattan to pastoral Upstate New York, and the diametric shift from compression to expansion that occurs within several square miles. I moved from a smoggy urban gridlock to a perilous drive along a wooded cliffside, my eyes growing wide at the yellow sign warning to honk as I rounded a corner to avoid oncoming traffic and a hundred-foot tumble down the ledge. My sweaty hands struggled to steer my oversized Pharmacy Jeep, keenly aware that another car could not share the narrow space with me. I pressed against the horn, as instructed, and prayed that nobody would come in the opposite direction. I didn’t plan on stopping anyway.

Once the rest of the group arrived, we hiked a short distance to our cabin. It was a relaxing getaway. A door with no latch, spindly spider nests, and a white-and-purple mold. I assumed I would catch a flesh-eating bacterium here, the kind where half your face is devoured unless you’re placed in a hyperbaric oxygen therapy chamber to slow the decomposition.

We brought our gear into the cabin and sat on the elevated porch to “catch up.” Talk of work and relationships before the inevitable shift to the present, to nature. I flicked an oversized ant off my shoulder and sighed, listening to others comment on the beauty of the lake and the serenity of the surrounding woods. I empathized with my phone’s struggle to find a bar.

“I thought we can get in a hike before sundown,” Deirdre said, crouching to sit on a cooler. “There’s a trail about an hour east of here.”

“It’s an hour walk just to get to the trail?” I stopped myself there. I can barely get through a two-hour movie without complaining; this seemed unreasonable.

“Maybe a little less.” She sniffed. “Then there are two trails. One would take six hours, the other four.” She reached into her back pocket and pulled out a map from 1973 (a conservative estimate), which I assumed climate change and deforestation had rendered ineffective.

Six. Hours.

The group debated the potentials of a four or six-hour trail, while I considered the fact that I could watch the entirety of Gone with the Wind, including its intermission and terrible second act, in the shorter hike’s time frame.

“Let’s go kayaking,” I suggested. “The boat rentals won’t open again before I have to leave, so maybe we can head out on the lake now and save the hike for tomorrow?” I conveniently left out that I’d be gone well before the hike, honking ‘round a corner and blazing south toward a lovely silver skyline.

That night, we gathered wood and built a fire. The crackling flames sparked through the chilly September air, and we sat back, drinking beers and gazing up at stars that shone brighter than I knew they could. I worked out a kink in my neck and glanced back at the dark cabin looming in the distance. Embers popped.

I did not belong here. I was a fraud, hating nature. Can one hate what is natural?

My animosity at least had mild merit, rationalizations I hid from those around me. I’ve lived with type 1 diabetes for nearly thirty years now, and I’ve become keenly aware of my limitations. I know that a six-hour hike is something my body isn’t used to and it would take unprecedented tolls on my blood sugar levels, resulting in low spikes that, at best would require me to stop and eat a regimented combination of simple and complex carbohydrates until my numbers rebounded, and at worst a hypoglycemic seizure requiring immediate treatment and hospitalization while on a mountainside with no cell phone service.

I imagine these possibilities, constantly, not just on a cliffside, but in daily meetings and tedious routines. The woods amplify these dangerous odds: needing to stop every hour to eat, running out of food in the middle of a forest, a malfunction with my insulin pump and nobody to call and no hospital in sight. Too weak to get back. Too sick to move. Jeep out of gas. Others looking for help. Me. Alone. With my body. No pump. No supplies. Just nature.

None of this is visible, of course.

I know that the words “disability” and “limitations” have a knotty relationship, so I should clarify. The limitations presented by type 1 diabetes are, on most days, minimal. I can go on the hike. Natural expeditions are legitimate possibilities, ones that do not exist for millions of people with more debilitating illnesses, so referencing my own disorder as a detractor against hiking is somewhat misleading. Because I can climb Mount Everest or Machu Picchu, I can cruise to the Arctic penguins or hike to the howler monkeys in the Amazon… I just don’t want to. Each prospect requires such a concerted manipulation against my body’s natural inclinations that the romantic dogma is dashed out immediately. The fun ends as the packing begins. Should frustrations be deemed limitations when the former causes the latter? Truly, I don’t know.

Late that night, I sit up in my sleeping bag, eyeing the creaking door that sways open. I put down my copy of The New Yorker – I’d been reading an article about the Salem Witch Trials – and peer out a dirty window.

Crickets chirping. Limbs snapping. Water rustling. Shadows passing in the woods.

I can’t wait to get out of this place.

This place. Nature. I think of my Pharmacy Jeep at the top of the summit. Where would I be without the product made at Eli Lilly & Company’s insulin manufacturing plant in Indianapolis? Where would I be had I been born in 1692, the year of the witch hysteria?

Simple: Matthew Paczkowski (1692-1696½)


Stars are not visible from the cabin. I stare at the shadow of our fire pit, at the dust that blows off in the September wind signaling the end of summer.


Amelia Earhart (1897-1937)

I’ve thought a lot about what people see in nature. About what it is I’m missing. Though I cannot find salvation in the woods, I have discovered magic in the air.

About seventy-five miles north of Lake Sebago, New York lies the little town of Red Hook. Several years ago, not long after my excursion into the woods, I bought a ticket to ride on a 1928 New Standard D-25 biplane, which took off from a bumpy grass hill. The scent of oil and pasture filled my nostrils as I climbed onto the wing, fell into the historic machine, and listened to the radial engine kick to life. I eyed the trees one hundred, ninety, eighty feet away as we rolled forward, forward, forward. Throttle inching up, center stick pulling back. We were airborne… just like that, cutting through the sky toward a blinding sunset.

The horizon stretched out in every direction. This beauty of an open cabin. Strict wind. The lawnmower-like sound of the engine. Sometimes, even now, I close my eyes and I’m back there, floating in time, drifting in the waves of the wind.

Something about flying feels so natural to me. I know this is paradoxical (a human being flying is profoundly unnatural), but perhaps this is where the enjoyment of nature originates from… from our desire to conquer the elements. Pilots have done this since the days of the Wright Brothers. They “push the envelope,” an aeronautical cliché that describes attempts to move farther and faster through the atmosphere enveloping the Earth. America has a complex history of envelope pushers, from the famous stories of Amelia Earhart and Christopher McCandless, to the unknown narratives of a twenty-five-year-old fighting fires in northern California and a six-year-old fighting multiple sclerosis in Philadelphia. Pushing against nature takes unending resilience.

Deirdre confirmed these suspicions recently when I asked her what Lake Sebago offers that Central Park does not. She explained that her hikes are tinged with jeopardy. You can get lost, run out of water, twist your ankle and have to figure out how to get back to camp before sun fall. “There’s something empowering about that,” she said. “You have to learn how to deal, on your own.”

I suspect when the threshold for authentic danger is low enough, figuring out “how to deal” can be thrilling, like my flight over Red Hook. But when the amusement fades and nature exposes its gritty teeth, we’re left pushing, pushing, pushing at the envelope until it pushes right back.

Haroutune Daghlian, Jr. (1921-1945)

I saw nature’s push in that hospital at four-and-a-half. I saw it again when I was seven.

I recall the urgency – the screen door squeak, the incessant knock of my sister’s knuckles against the wood door. “A house down the block is on fire!” she exclaimed, unclicking her bicycle helmet and pulling it off her knotty hair, visibly out of breath.

My mother and I rushed down together. There was a small gathering around a split-level home. I saw the smoke before the flames, the transpicuous tar that wafted through the wind, shielding the brick exterior. Upon closer inspection, I could make out the orange in the windows, the flickering nature of it, the way every so often the transparent color would burst out a side window and get sucked back in.

While my mother talked to neighbors to ensure the fire department had been called, I noticed a white Cadillac come around the corner at a startling clip. Spectators had to scurry out of the way as a rotund, middle-aged man in a gray Wall Street suit emerged from the idling car and raced toward his driveway.

He suddenly turned to the onlookers – to all of us – his face as red as the flames, and began shouting questions while pulling hands through gelled hair. It was the first time I’d heard “fuck” uttered outside of a movie theater, and I turned to look at my mother, with my seven-year-old did-you-hear-that expression. I was surprised by the way she stood, so very still, arms folded, gazing at the cursing man in pity.

I think I recognized – even then – that fire was indifferent. This was not a movie with villains and scripted obscenities. And the fire didn’t care about this man, his car, or his clothing. Or about any other house on the block, including ours. Fire destroys – it’s untainted entropy – and all the yelling in the world would not stop that. Only the firefighters could. And they did, moments later, leaving a shell behind.

The day after our neighbor’s house caught fire, I walked down with my sister to see the wreckage. The blackened frame seemed pathetic, so out-of-place with the adjacent homes and their manicured lawns.

The bleak visual came to mind recently when I skimmed through an article about geriatric type 1 diabetics abandoning their treatment. It seems an increasing number of elderly patients stop checking their blood sugar levels, stop taking insulin, and stop living. The author noted that after seventy-plus years of careful monitoring, nonstop injections, precision food intake, and supplemental exercise – of dealing with the complex physiological and psychological stresses of pushing that envelope – they simply “burn out” (a term the writer used, harshly).

I envision the husk of our neighbor’s home at the base of the hill, vacant and charred, pieces of debris littering his property. Evidently, burning out is common among older patients with chronic illnesses.

The article disturbed me. It still does.

Why? Because I burn out on everything. I give up on jobs when my attitude shifts. I grow restless and long to move every couple of years. It’s a chore to get through a feature-length movie. I have stacks of unfinished books. I rarely finish writing essays and short stories that eclipse three thousand words. The list goes on, on, on… to the terrible truth that I even grow weary of my closest friends and family members.

Somehow, though, I’ve never given up on the battle with my body. It never seemed an option, to stop fighting that fire.

See, my mother’s nightmare on the beach was misleading, and it’s taken me my whole life to understand this. The dream is not fearful in the sense that I will be carried away by a rogue wave. No, the vision is menacing because one day, without a care in the world, I might walk right into it.



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