Cinnamon Rolls — A Story of Diabetes

But what he needs isn’t someone to ice cinnamon rolls for him—he is perfectly capable of that. What he’s asking for is company. 


My younger brother, Connor, creeps into my room at two in the morning as I lie sleeping in my cozy bed at home. He whispers at me until I wake up. The kid is 18 (as of September) and often kind of acts like an asshole; he is bent on independence with a heavy aversion to accepting assistance. The constant battle he fights against our parents exhausts everyone involved — they only want what’s best for him, but he acts like he thinks everyone is out to get him. He has become an impulsive and rebellious teenager, and on top of any normal teen angst, he is ceaselessly dealing with the physical struggle and emotional burden of having grown up a type 1 diabetic. It’s an autoimmune disease he did not earn for himself; he became the unlucky statistic crying in the hospital at four years old.

According to the American Diabetes Association, 9.3% of Americans have some form of diabetes and only 5% of those are type 1 diabetics like my brother. It’s a small population, but diabetes is still named the seventh leading cause of death in America — and doctors and researchers posit that diabetes is underreported as a cause of death.

One random day in July of 2000, without having done a single thing to earn it, my little brother was burdened with the threat of a shortened life unless he learned to stay disciplined in his eating and medicating habits from that day forward. In Connor’s head, the whole world owes him. With a frustrated and tearful look, he will tell you God owes him. Now, he rarely asks for anything before taking it because he feels entitled and he rarely asks for support before deciding he won't find any because he feels lonely and too proud.

Yet, tonight of all nights, I find myself bleary eyed and facing him in the dark, mumbling, "Maybe," and processing the fact that he has woken me to actually ask for help.

I think about these things as I climb from my warm bed and practically sleep walk to the kitchen, surprised by his request.

Do I do it? What he has woken me up to ask for, I mean? When he isn’t in a good mood, he can be so abrasive and aggressive and he seldom apologizes for saying hurtful things. Earlier in the night he was so mean to our mom that I cried. Am I going to be the kind of person who holds a grudge against him for that? Do I try to teach him a lesson in treating others kindly, especially if he is going to turn around and ask them to treat him kindly? Or do I do whatever I can to show him how unconditionally I love him? I think of the quote I saw once about the sea always kissing the shore even though the shore always sends it away.

He turns and smiles at me as I follow him down the hallway. It’s a toothy grin, "Please, Lauren?" He is my little brother. He is the person on the planet who makes me laugh the hardest, and when he’s sweet, he is so sweet. I think underneath the difficulty of this phase he truly means well. (One time he accidentally spilled yogurt on a trail of ants on a sidewalk and cried because he hurt them when they were powerless against him.)

The kitchen smells like warm cinnamon and sweet bread and I’m no longer terribly unhappy to have been woken up at this ungodly hour for what might, on the surface, seem like a trivial request. Just a minute ago my little brother was whispering at my barely conscious face, "Hey...Hey Lauren! Lauren I want to make you a deal." What a strange phrase to be waking up to. I raised my eyebrows at him in response. "Listen," he giggled a bit, before continuing with his proposal, "Okay, listen. I made cinnamon rolls. I need you to come ice them for me."

"Connor, is this a joke?" I didn’t whisper back at him, I spoke with condescending gruffness. He is amusing, but my initial mood upon being woken up in the middle of the night is not playful. He laughed again, the squeaky and stifled laugh of a teenage boy trying not to wake his parents. He shook his head, "Please? You can have one if you ice them and then sit with me while I eat the rest." I couldn’t believe he was asking me to watch him eat 11 cinnamon rolls.

Lying in my bed when he was asking me to help, I flashed back to the week before he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2000. His blood sugar shot high because he wasn’t being treated, and the high blood sugar over consecutive days resulted in ketones. Ketones are the buildup in blood that occurs when, due to a diabetic’s body’s inability to produce insulin and therefore use glucose as fuel, the body begins to breakdown fats and muscles to use as fuel instead. Exercise speeds the process of this breakdown, leading to a level of ketone buildup that becomes life-threatening ketoacidosis.

My brother was on swim team and exercised every day. When he was checked into the Oakland Children’s Hospital with ketoacidosis, his breath was fruity and the doctors were worried that he was permanently losing brain function. His body was consuming itself because of his pancreas’s lack of production of insulin. He’d grown gaunt within that week, his eyes were glassy all the time, and when he was asleep he suffered from night terrors. All are symptoms of high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) according to the American Diabetes Association, but it took his pediatrician a week of my mom’s worried calls to figure it out. I never want to see my brother in that kind of pain or danger again. I thought about refusing his request…but I ended up in the kitchen with him.

Snapping back into the present, I look around the kitchen at the mess he has made. I wiggle my toes on the cold hardwood floors and laugh and tell him he’s ridiculous. What is he thinking, asking me to help him embark on a 600g-of-carbohydrate diabetic-death-trap of a midnight snack adventure? He consistently runs at an unsafe blood sugar level, which breaks hearts all across the family because high blood sugar has such deadly effects on the future of a body. Aside from the immediate dangers of ketoacidosis, long-term repercussions of high blood sugar include nerve damage and loss of sight. It’s hard to pretend I do not fear those things when I see him eating the way his friends do. He just wants to be normal. I guess he must be thinking I’m an ally; I won’t treat him differently because of his disease. I blink a couple of times, still unsure if I should enable him or tell him to think about his health and let me get back to dreaming.

It would annoy me that the middle light over the island is out, except the softened glow adds to the secretive nature of the endeavor. He has left the kitchen dark because mom can’t know about the sugary midnight snack. She would lose it. "It’s irresponsible," she would say, before reminding him of what we all already know, "you’re abusing your body. You’ll wish you hadn’t when you’re older and in pain." I worry about the same things she does and I think for a second that maybe I will try to convince him just to have one. No, that probably won’t work. Maybe I can convince him to have just six. Just six, ha.

But what he needs isn’t someone to ice cinnamon rolls for him—he is perfectly capable of that. What he’s asking for is company.

What he needs is a break from his disease. He needs a sister who can be a friend and he needs a mischievous sibling escapade as a normal kid. He needs anything that, for once in the almost-15 years he has been a diabetic, can be about something other than the number of carbohydrates he is consuming.

I decide I can be that for him.

I smile at him like I’m not worried about a thing and I open the can of icing. Before I start, I dip a spoon in the icing and offer it to him to taste while he waits for me to complete the icing of the rolls. This bingeing on sugars could skyrocket my type 1 diabetic brother’s blood sugar, but he offers me his pinky and promises he won’t let that happen under my watch. It’s our parents to whom he is trying to prove something, not me. It’s the disease he is trying to fight and hide from, not me. He prepares to medicate himself with a syringe full of synthetic insulin to show me he can be trusted and does not need me to be our mother. Her approach is more hysterical than effective anyway, but I guess mine would be too if I thought the child I created was killing himself slowly.

The knife is heavy in my hand, and I am careful and precise even though I know he won't care how the rolls look. He won’t even taste any after his third one, though he’ll continue to consume them with a smug look that seems inappropriate on such a boyish face. He has a face that’s difficult to be upset with. The icing will end up all over his mouth and cheeks, only adding to the childlike innocence of his big blue eyes and button nose. I evenly ration icing over all of the dozen hot cinnamon rolls. Now he leans with his elbows on the cold, blue granite of the island, hovering near enough that the sticky, steaming buns warm his face. I’m warm, too.

When it’s just us, he can talk with his mouth full. He can relax in his seat and avoid utensils. We lick the icing off our fingers and giggle about absurdities and nobody is here to count carbohydrates for him. I let him be responsible for himself. I tell him I trust him to be careful and not to let a nice moment like this have a negative effect on his health. His defensive-teenage-boy walls are gone and he tells me about his life. He is honest and the chip on his shoulder has been mended for the moment. I learn about why he can be so cold, I learn about his resentment of himself for taking his anger out on the people trying to help him. I listen to the heavy stuff, but when he gets uncomfortable and turns things into jokes I let him. I like it when he laughs and when he makes me laugh. I think about the fact that we just baked and consumed a dozen cinnamon rolls at two in the morning. Cinnamon rolls at two A.M., what a hoot. I’m laughing and smiling and it’s not from delirium. Don’t isolate yourself, baby brother; I’m always by your side.

Lauren Young is a recent graduate of Connecticut College and a daughter in a long chain of strong women. She's on her way to closing the gender gap in the film industry, and between now and then she plans to consume lots of chocolate and coffee and keep writing.