Saddle Up and Ride

Michael Dean Williams shot out the windows on a row of empty parked cars. It was not his usual behavior. He was very angry at the world.

He wanted to be a police officer.  That was his dream. In the late 1980’s, at a police academy in Huntington Beach, California, Michael Dean was a cadet with a lot of promise.

Plus, he’d spent his entire childhood wide-eyed to his Dad’s exciting, dangerous, adrenaline-rich career in Los Angeles County law enforcement. He wanted to be like his Dad.

There was no backup plan. That was all he wanted. He only needed to pass the medical exam.  But the results of the exam shattered that dream: diabetes.

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It wasn’t new information. Michael Dean was 10 years old when he was diagnosed.

“My Mom had me checked, and next thing you know, you’re a diabetic, and you’ve got all these people around you. They’ve got oranges. They’re shoving needles in them trying to show you how to take a shot. And you’ve got my Dad, a 300-pound mountain man, laying on me while they’re trying to shove needles in my legs.”

Since that day, Michael Dean has had a pancreas and kidney transplant, triple bypass heart surgery and has lost the sight in his right eye. He takes anti-rejection medication, monitors his blood sugar and takes necessary insulin shots. He’ll tell you this is just stuff he’s had to deal with. It is not who he is.

“I’ve lived so much life around the medical stuff. I refuse to let it define who I am. I am a strong guy, and I am strong-minded, whether I’m crying inside or not.

“Most people say ‘I have diabetes’ and diabetes is technically a disease. IIIIIIIIIIIII, Michael Dean Williams, don’t have a disease.” (Yes, the “I” was elongated by Michael Dean for emphasis). “I’ve got some issues I’ve gotta deal with, no doubt. But I don’t have no disease! I don’t want that shit! Keep it away from me!”

He self-medicates with a lot of laughter and a super-sized focus on having much more fun than anyone else.

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He is 47. He is 100 percent original and 200 percent heart and soul. Instead of law enforcement work, he has made a successful career in sales over the years, usually working more than one job at a time. Right now, one of his primary interests is a new product called Green Fuel Tabs.

Open a door to portions of the past and you’ll see Michael Dean in a Harley blur with the 101 freeway whipping by at over 100 mph. You’ll see him hanging out with bikers in motorcycle gangs and with cowboys at rodeos. You’ll see him cruising in old hot rods like his 1949 Lincoln with a big block engine (454), or wearing a sharp black cowboy hat and politely scooping up a pretty girl to dance the two-step. You’ll never see him drink a drop of alcohol or take illegal drugs. Never has. Never will. You’ll see some bonafide fist fights and times when he stepped in to defend a friend or family member or to protect someone from harm.  And you’ll see that short chapter when he shot out the aforementioned car windows. Michael Dean is not proud of some of the rough stuff back then. But it’s part of him, and he owns it and moves on.

As much time as he has spent being tough, he doesn’t hesitate to show love.

Today, notice the lights in his eyes as his six year old daughter Bailee shows him the frogs she just caught in the yard, and you see the proudest, most loving papa.

“The greatest day of my life was the day she was born. No doubt. And every day after…”

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Bailee Williams and Morgan Boyd

See him interact with one of his three best buddies, Brian Boyd, and you understand that friendship is kinship. They’ve known each other for about 30 years and they are brothers, blood or not. There is total loyalty in friendship, in brotherhood, in their business partnership at Green Fuel Tabs, and in life.

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Michael Dean Williams and Brian Boyd

And regardless of the distance that sometimes happens between brothers in families, when Michael Dean calls his brother Dusty on the phone in a crisis, it’s because he loves him. When he talks about his brother Mitchell, it’s because he loves him. When he struggles to keep his composure as he shares the message his sister Megan wrote on his Facebook page, it’s because he loves her. When he speaks in gentle tones with superlative words about his Mom, it’s because he loves her. When he talks about his Dad as his hero, it’s because he loves him.

“I’m not a china doll”

Thinking back to his diagnosis at age 10, he’ll tell you he learned ‘really quick’ that if he said he was alright, everyone else seemed to exhale. “So rather than learning about the disease and really handling it and conquering it, I was like ‘No, I’m good! All my tests are good!’

“I’d take my shot in the morning, and I’d go about my way.” He knows now he might have benefited by monitoring his blood sugar and taking insulin more often back then.

There are medical and emotional pieces to dealing with diabetes, and then there is the sometimes frustrating dynamic that happens around a diabetic, however well-meaning.

More than feeling really lousy sometimes… And more than feeling guilty for his chocolate cake intake… And more than the recovery from so many operations… Michael Dean can’t stand when people treat him like he is different or delicate.

“Get me out of the glass case! I am not a china doll. I am a badass!” he laughs. But he means it.

“A kid that shoves heroin or smokes dope or whatever — that was their choice. It was not  my choice to be a diabetic, and I didn’t do anything to get it. We just have to deal with it. So don’t make me be the pink elephant in the room. I’m not.

“And when you’re sitting at a restaurant, and the waitress asks if you want dessert, don’t scream at the lady ‘Oh, no! He’s diabetic!'”

He whispers: “‘Chill out.’ I know it’s all from massive incredible love, but ‘chill out’.” He breaks into laughter.

He is a stoic pillar of strength and positivity. He says he has to be that way.

“If I sit around and think about the diabetes, and what’s happened to me, and the kidney and pancreas transplant, and some day the kidney is probably gonna fail like the pancreas did, and am I going to wake up tomorrow blind and not see my daughter…You’d be a wreck! How are you gonna live that way?

“I’ve quit several times. I have called Brian and said ‘I’m done with it, man.’ Those were the longest three or five minutes of my life. “Then my own brain says ‘you’re not a quitter. Cowboy up. What’s wrong with you?'”

Cowboy Up

Michael Dean loves American Graffiti and definitely sees himself as a throwback from that 1950’s era. But if that makes him a city boy, he’s equal parts country. When he and Bailee drive around the property in the pickup truck, they listen to George Strait or Zac Brown Band, Vince Gill or Conway Twitty.

One of Michael Dean’s favorite actors is John Wayne, and as he sees it, the man John Wayne is on the big screen is the way men ought to be.

Michael Dean lives by the John Wayne motto: “Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.”

He does it every day.

He did it the night he drove himself to the hospital many years ago because the call came saying that it was time: the donor pancreas and kidney were ready. He arrived to about 30 loved ones waiting for him at the hospital. “I pulled up, and they said ‘Where have you been’?

I said, ‘I had to return my movies!’ My mom goes, ‘damn you, Michael Dean, what is wrong with you!'” He breaks into laughter again. 

That transplant gave Michael Dean nine and a half years without having to take insulin. The kidney and pancreas were functioning well. Unfortunately the pancreas is no longer working. So he’s back to the shots. “For nine and a half years, I wasn’t a diabetic. It was incredible. I had energy.” The timing is extra painful: if the pancreas had lasted for 10 years, Michael Dean would have been able to get life insurance.

He did it when he drove himself to the hospital in recent years because it was time for triple bypass heart surgery.

“Saddle up and ride anyways is: get in your car, drive, park and get your ass through the door, knowing that you’re about to put a gown on, and you’re about to go under, and could not wake up again and see your baby girl.  I was scared shitless.”

He just wanted to get it done. “I don’t know if it’s stoic, or heroic, or cowardly, just get it done!”  And they got it done. The surgery went well. And the family and friends around him did what they do: they cowboy up too. Michael Dean’s Mom and Dad moved in for a while and friends opened their homes.  “I tell you what, after they crack your chest, you ain’t doing anything ’til it’s time!”

He did it when his wife left somewhere in the middle of all of that.

“That was rough. That was rougher than anything I’ve ever dealt with. This (medical) crap was nothing.

“But I would go through it 10 times over for that little girl,” he says, gesturing to Bailee. “Yah, that little girl to me is … top notch.

“That little girl is what gave me the second wind to go ‘Ok. I gotta cowboy up.'”

Just then Bailee comes running in to the kitchen in her pink dress, smiling, long hair flying. She pulls out a large plastic bowl from the cupboard. Her eyes register an unspoken message from her Dad. Then she smirks and declares, “It’s for FOOD,” and runs back outside.

“She has been told you are not allowed to take another plastic tupperware thing outside, and shove bugs in it!

“It grosses your Dad out when I go to get a bowl — even though it’s been washed — and I remember there were seven frogs in there and I want to put a salad in there! Noooo. Tough guy or not, that’s disgusting!”

And with that fast kitchen visit by a six year old wonder, the mood is lighter, the day is better, and Michael Dean’s smile is even brighter.

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3 thoughts on “Saddle Up and Ride

  1. Great story Steph. You write so beautifully. They sure sound like two great guys whose daughters are lucky to have them as fathers.

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