Readers relive author’s childhood with ill brother

“Shadow Child” by Randall Stark Beach, 2017

In this engrossing memoir, Altona native Randall Stark Beach details an otherwise unremarkable childhood that suddenly becomes utterly changed when his younger brother is diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

In this sensitively presented book, we meet diabetes as an unwelcome but un-ignorable new member of the family. Its presence changes not only its victim, but every member of the family, and each relationship within the family.

As the “shadow child,” the so-called lucky one, the healthy one, Beach shares his struggles, without blame or rancor, but with honest accounting of how he was affected by his brother’s diagnosis, how an entire family and its dynamic is inevitably changed by the illness of one member. I learned a great deal from his story, not only about the disease of diabetes, but also about the delicate balance of families, and how easily that balance can be thrown off, and what it may take to rebalance.

His brother’s illness was frightening to everyone, and the author, 12 years old at the time, struggles with the fear, with finding his role in the regular emergencies. He finds himself avoiding his beloved brother for fear he will not be able to take care of him if his brother has a dangerous insulin reaction when they are alone. As the older brother, the author found he was handed responsibility he was not prepared for: from having to carry packets of honey at all times to feed to his brother in case of an insulin reaction, to accepting without complaint the special attentions the ill brother received, as well as the expectation that he be a role model for the kind of healthy behavior his brother needed to engage in, as his life depended on it. Needing to be the good boy weighed on the author, he states frankly, and created a barrier between him and his brother that he still struggles to dismantle today, both now grown men with families of their own.

With vivid scenes, the author takes us right into the trauma – the opening scene is one that becomes all too familiar to the family, a 2 a.m. insulin reaction that leaves the diabetic brother screaming and shaking and bringing the rest of the family from sleep to their feet, racing to their respective roles in bringing the insulin levels back to balance. Each time it happens, the author is filled with dread, both that his brother is going through this, and that he himself must go through it too, even as he is happy to have a small role to play in helping his brother. He writes, “The [insulin] reaction brought cries of terror into our family routine and a knot in my stomach that I can still feel so many years later.”

Beach has poignantly and clearly shown the effect of diabetes on the family, and in so doing, presented ways in which other families could deal with similar situations. A hazard authors face in choosing the self-publishing route is inadequate editing assistance. An editor could have caught and remedied some repetition in the telling, and perhaps would have persuaded the author to drop the last few chapters of advice for other families, parents, and siblings. In them he offers points he had made so powerfully already through just telling his story.