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My Circle of Dancing Elephants

By Sherrie Gavin

Little Golden Books. I bet that right now, you can picture at least one Little Golden Book that you read or had read to you as a child. The square shape, the gold and black binding, the watercolour art that with a child’s imagination seemed to leap off of the page. I can still see my favourite in my mind: A pudgy, gray, baby elephant, looking back in alarm at a tiger with a long tail that curled into a smile across the bottom of the book cover.    

I have so many Little Golden Book memories. My siblings and I all seemed to have a favourite we clung to as our own. After every Thanksgiving dinner, the luckiest of us would find the Christmas Golden books deep in the attic among the Christmas decorations, and would read them all again and again as if they were brand new.

I can still smell the Little Red Hen’s bread as it baked and can still envision the drawings of  Three Little Pigs’ houses of straw, sticks and bricks. Every time I read  Little Red Riding Hood, I was always surprised that she mistook the very poorly dressed Big Bad Wolf for her grandmother! But my favourite— my absolute favourite is—The Saggy Baggy Elephant. It was the first Golden Book that I bought for my babies. It is a book my now teens still say is mine, not theirs.

It isn’t the most popular Little Golden Book—Poky Little Puppy wins that title. But I loved The Saggy Baggy Elephant with all my heart. Sooki is her name, and even though male pronouns are used in the book, I always knew in my heart, mind and soul that Sooki was a girl. Just like me. And just like me, Sooki had a different body.

Sooki’s body was gray, not brightly coloured like the parrot who would follow and tease her. My body was small and diabetic-gray. Diagnosed before my second birthday, my sugar-saggy body was all I ever knew, like Sooki. Diabetes did not fit me, just as Sooki’s skin did not fit her. None of my siblings were diabetic, so I went without while I watched them lick the free lollipops at the grocery store where my mother shopped. Sometimes my big brother poked out his sugary red-stained tongue and laughed at me for not being allowed the sweet… just like the parrot laughed at Sooki, mocking her sagging skin.

This made me sad, just like Saggy Baggy Sooki. 

When the rest of my primary school classmates savoured and devoured brightly coloured birthday cupcakes, I would try and hide, wishing away the injections, the nausea, the piercing headaches, the blood and urine tests, and the hours it felt like it took to survive a classroom birthday party as I sat at my desk with half of a browning apple. 

Before I could read, I knew the Saggy Baggy Elephant’s story. I knew her feelings. Ever since I could remember, I would stare at the drawing of the sad little elephant hiding in a cave, tears streaming down her face. I felt her pain. I understood how important it was to hide sometimes. I would count her four tears again and again, and I would count her four toes. It was as if I was trying to tell the little elephant in the book that I saw her as beautiful, just as she was, every single toe. I would focus so hard on that one drawing that I could no longer see her baggy skin.

I also knew the feeling of dread when my lions and tigers, in the form of low blood sugars, crept upon me. Because I was so young when diagnosed, I did not know the signs of a lowering blood sugar. It just seemed to pounce. And though my parents fiercely scheduled my meals, exercise, and medication, outside forces like humidity, excitement, and stress—even as a youngster—affected my blood sugar in life-threatening, unpredictable ways. 

My diabetes impacted my entire family. I spent enough Christmas mornings in the emergency room of our local hospital that my parents created a tradition of each of the children eating an entire banana before we were even allowed a peak to see if Santa had come. As I grew older, something inside of me began to recognize when the low blood sugar lion was stalking me. But it was just the beginning. One time, I dropped low so fast that I dropped to the floor and pounded the nearest wall as hard as I could, unable to walk, form words, or cry out. My uncle heard a “small, repeated thump in the distance,” and came to the rescue. Another time, I woke in the middle of the night in a blinded, sweaty, crazy mess. When I was finally able to unblur my eyes, I could see my family surrounding me. My mother was ladling spoonful after spoonful of honey into my mouth, tirelessly working to awaken me from near coma.  

Just like when the Saggy Baggy Sooki was cornered by her lion; the nameless beast was ready to devour her, and Sooki was sure the end was near. In defeat, she let out “one last trumping bellow.” At that moment, a chorus of elephants came running! They stomped and blared, frightening the lion away. My herd would do the same, but they came running with candy, apple juice and the occasional paramedic. They would stay with me until I was safe and well. Or at least until I could sit up and say my name. 

The final page shows the elephant herd dancing together in the jungle— my favourite page in the book. Even though I spent more time looking at the drawing of the sad, baby elephant in the cave, the troop of smiling,dancing elephants called to me. They all shared the same dance moves, kind of like when I went to diabetic camp as a kid, and we all took shots and tested blood at the same time, absolutely free from pity or shame. It was a liberating diabetic dance routine, and I loved not doing it alone. 

My childhood did not align with a rhythmic row of harmoniously dancing elephants following each diabetic episode. But that last page taught me that belonging was possible. Some day. Somewhere. Even for me. 

Nowadays, this older, wiser elephant can feel when her blood sugar dips. And yet… whenever I see a display of Little Golden Books, I can’t help but search to find my book there. When I see it, I smile, and I quickly remind myself that I already have two copies at home. Yet I linger, looking at the cover, sometimes even thumbing through just to make sure all the pages are still the same. And I reminisce. I love being reminded of  Sooki’s lessons—it is normal to feel alone and sad sometimes, and it’s okay to take a moment to hide away in a cave to weep.

Most importantly, I learned that when someone trumpets for help, GO. For whatever the reason. GO. Do not wait. Go running. Bring candy. And juice! Wait till they are well. Then dance together.

About Sherrie Gavin

Sherrie Gavin is serving on the prose board at Segullah. Her books include Baptism & Boomerangs and the forthcoming Adaeze Reads the Bible and Turning Pink. Her writing has appeared in The Friend, Meridian Magazine, and Exponent II, and she is a PhD candidate at the University of New England researching Latter-day Saint Food Studies.

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