She was absolutely beautiful—and I mean beautiful. Movie star beautiful, magazine cover girl beautiful, and not just on the outside either, she had the most beautiful soul as well. She lit up the entire room whenever she walked into one. Her real name was Karen, but everybody called her Sunny.
My cousin Karen and her family would come down to visit us about once a year or so when I lived in Peoria back in the day, and they'd bring their Collie, Lincoln with on their visits. Lincoln was a huge dog, what is known as a “rough” Collie. The same type of Collie as Lassie on TV, and since Lassie was one of my favorite TV shows back then, (second only to Captain Jinks and Salty Sam) Lincoln delighted me to no end.
Lincoln was a huge dog that shed all over everything when he was here to visit, (which always drove my mom crazy) and had a much more stately and reserved manner than the Lassie on TV. And he had a tendency to drool on you on hot summer days when he came to you and allowed himself to be petted and adored.
Lincoln would look over his shoulder at you while you petted him and give you this: “Oh, you again...well...if you must...” look while you adored him and stroked his rich, lush fur. Lincoln was a perfect gentleman as far as dogs go and never fought once with or even tried to impregnate my own dog Cleo, my beloved black Lassie mongrel dog with a lot of Collie in her blood and strong Collie lines about her.
Lincoln was very talented—he knew how to play Sunny's guitar! Sunny would place her guitar in front of the dog, and Lincoln would sit down in front of it and bark at the strings, then listen to them vibrate (like the dog listening to the record player on the RCA record label). This never failed to crack me up no matter how many times I saw Lincoln do this.
Lincoln also had this thing about cameras. For some reason, when a little sawed off paparazzi like me tried to take his picture with the black and white Polaroid my folks gave me for my birthday, Lincoln would lower his head and point his muzzle at me in an accusing fashion and let out with this low, moaning noise: “Arrrooorooorooorooo” as if he thought I had a gun of some sort and had come to put him down like Old Yeller.
When Sunny came to visit us with Lincoln the Collie, sometimes she'd ask me to walk along with her while she walked Lincoln down Kenwood Avenue and very quickly I found out how much the boys in their mid teens in my neighborhood adored Sunny.
Sunny was older than I was, she was about fifteen or so whereas I was about nine or so back then. And as I said, Sunny was beautiful...and I mean drop dead movie star magazine cover girl heart-at-your-feet gorgeous. With her platinum blond hair and that big sunny smile she always wore and her perfect figure, she was stunningly beautiful, and I'm not kidding or exaggerating even a little bit. And when I went out walking with Sunny, the older boys in the neighborhood (who always seemed to have some kind of teenage internal guidance radar when it came to my beautiful cousin) were on her like a shot.
I thought it was just funny as hell the way they'd actually trip over each other in a pack, all of them asking if they could walk her dog or carry her groceries (if she were coming back from the Haddad's corner store a couple of blocks away from our house) or carry her books if she had any with her. And damned if those boys who were practically stepping on their tongues while trying to impress my beautiful cousin didn't remind me of an old Tex Avery cartoon called “Little Red Hot Riding Hood,” a mildly lewd but hilarious rendition of the old Little Red Riding Hood story featuring a bug eyed salivating Big Bad Wolf with a massive case of the horny 's whacking himself over the head with a mallet and going off like a steam whistle at a very well endowed showgirl in a Little Red Riding Hood outfit.
At the age of nine, I thought this kind of behavior was nothing short of amazing.
I remember once, while this kind of thing was going on, I walked up to Sunny to ask her a question and one of the older boys who was all over her planted his hand in the middle of my forehead and shoved me out of the way while saying: “Get lost kid.”
Well, Sunny had stormy eyes that flashed at the sound of lies—not to mention rude and uncalled for acts of hormone induced acts of post-pubescent male assholery. She cut him off at the knees with a couple of well placed words, and one of the other boys that was trying to impress Sunny grabbed the guy by the back of his shirt collar and ass-walked him off down the sidewalk and away from us.
Sunny stuck up for me, and I loved her for it.
Everybody who met or knew Sunny just adored her. It was impossible not to love her if you knew her and that made the great tragedy of her life seem all the more terribly unfair and unkind. Sunny was a victim of Type 1 diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes, all her life. She was what used to be called a “brittle” diabetic, her pancreas produced almost no natural insulin, and she was married to her insulin kit. She had to take shots four or five times a day to keep from getting terribly ill and back in the day diabetics used bovine insulin to keep themselves alive. The insulin they use today is of a much higher quality than the insulin they used back then, and daily use of bovine insulin year after year takes it's toll on a body—this is important to the latter part of this story.
Sunny knew how to inject herself of course, and generally did it in her upper thighs, but she took so many injections in the course of the day that she'd have to rotate injection sites periodically to avoid getting too sore in one spot, or perhaps develop an abscess. Sometimes my Aunt Millie would have to inject her in the heine when her thighs were too sore and that was the case when my Ma told me to go upstairs one day when they were visiting to tell everyone up there that dinner was ready.
I went up the stairs and turned the corner at the top of the stairs, and looked up to see that my sisters bedroom door was wide open and Sunny was lying on her stomach on my sister's bed with her blouse pulled up and her slacks pulled down and her bare butt sticking up, while my Aunt Millie was preparing the syringe for Sunny's evening shot. I had a nine year old's horror of hypodermic needles, and couldn't imagine anyone passively lying there just waiting to have their butt skewered, I would have put up a fight.
I was standing there horrified with my jaw dropped down to my chest and my eyes wide open, Sunny looked up at me, blushing furiously with a sheepish grin on her face, and my Aunt Millie looked up from the syringe she was preparing and saw me gawping. My Aunt Millie could be a real card sometimes, she pulled the needle out of the vial, shoved it in my direction and said: “Do you want one too?”
I ran back down those stairs three at a time with my eyes bulging and my mouth open in an apoplectic soundless scream, tripped over Lincoln the collie (Lincoln was just lying there at the foot of the stairs with this WTF look on his face as I hit the floor and somersaulted back up to my running feet) and went straight through the front screen door, tearing it off it's hinges on my way out of the house to go hide.
Dad was pretty pissed. This was the second time during my Peoria years that I destroyed that poor old screen door (for reference, check out, Peoria, I Hardly Knew Ye 9 – Fun with Ken and Barbie). Later on, when he was through with me, he had a little talk with Aunt Millie about keeping the door shut next time.
Diabetes wasn't exactly a bed of roses for poor Sunny, sometimes it could be damned scary. She told me one time about how she miscalculated her insulin dose once, and how she wound up flat on her back in the middle of a park in Chicago where she lived, covered with sweat and scrabbling to open a bag of candy she always carried in case her blood sugar dropped way too low (as it was doing this time) while her head was spinning and she was crying out for somebody, anybody to call an ambulance. She said it was the most frightening thing that ever happened to her in her life.
I never forgot her story and had occasion to remember it well about four years ago. Twelve years ago, I was diagnosed with type 2 adult onset diabetes, and one of the drugs I take to control it now is called Glipizide, which can be a tricky and dangerous drug under certain conditions. Four years ago, I was undergoing dental surgery to have three teeth removed that had all decided to go hot on me at once. It was a long, painful and extremely stressful afternoon in that dentist's chair, and pain and stress can make your blood sugar drop like a rock, especially if you haven't been eating much because your teeth are in agony. Had I known what was in store for me, I would have skipped my dose for the day, because I very nearly wound up in an irreversible coma an hour after the surgery.
When I regained consciousness, a paramedic and the neighbors who drove me home from the dentist were looking down at me in my living room, and I had a bag of sterile sugar water plugged into a vein in the back of my hand. The paramedic said my blood sugar was down to 25 (normal is between 100 and 110), and dropping when he started the I.V., any lower and I probably would have died. Just before I passed out, the last thing I remember was this horrible paranoid hallucination that my neighbors, some of the nicest people I've ever known, were turning into trolls. I spent the night thinking about poor Sunny’s story about that terrible day she had in the park. She knew what she was talking about...believe me.
Well, the years went by, my family and I moved from Peoria to Minnesota, we had maybe one more visit from Sunny and her family and the visits stopped. Both of our families were growing and changing, priorities were shifting, we kept in touch through the occasional letter or two but the letters grew far and few between as the years, and then the decades passed.
I'd hear things concerning Sunny from time to time...she's married now...then a few years later she's divorced. Sunny loved horses more than life itself and finally got to own one and a plot of land where she could keep it and care for it. Turns out she spent more time with the horse than her husband—hence the divorce.
From time to time I'd hear that Sunny's diabetes was really taking it's toll on her body...(she's losing the feeling in her feet now, didn't you hear?....She's having trouble with her vision...I hear she's legally blind now...) The diabetes ate her alive a little bit at a time.
About two years ago my sister called to tell me that Sunny had died in her sleep—a shut in, and all alone.
When I hung up the phone, I found myself thinking about a Stephen King short story that I'd read years ago, one of his earlier works called: “The Last Rung on the Ladder.”
It was a story about a boy and his sister who were very close as children, and the boy saves his beloved sister by desperately piling hay beneath her in a barn when a tall ladder she'd been climbing on broke and left her dangling in space with certain death below, unless he could get that pile of hay deep enough to save her when the last rung on the ladder finally broke. With that last rung about to fail, he tells her to jump and she trusts him enough to let go, and she survives the fall with only a broken leg. The boy and his sister grow up and go their separate ways. The man the boy becomes turns out to be quite successful eventually—but for the sister, life is a slow decent into a hell of bad breaks and choices. The sister sends him one final letter...a desperate cry for help...that arrives too late for the brother to prevent her suicide.
So I went through my book collection and found the King story and re-read it and as I closed the cover, I wept.
I wept for Sunny and all the lost years between now and then...and the walks I used to share with my beautiful cousin Sunny and her Collie Lincoln...on warm summer afternoons...in Peoria.