I remember my Grandmother telling me when I was sick that it could be worse, that there was always someone worse off than me, and so instead of feeling sorry for myself, I tried to imagine the children from Africa I’d seen on TV with their bloated stomachs and the flies buzzing around their faces and I knew she was right. Diabetes wasn’t as bad as that, right? But I didn’t know what it was like to be starving and living in a country where as a child, my life was vulnerable, and compromised, so really, how could I relate to their pain? I understood that Grammie was saying to toughen up, that things could be worse.
And sometimes in the summer at the lake in Maine, when Grammie wore a bathing-suit, I would steal a glance at her chest and the raised slash mark from her open heart surgery, and I knew that she was tough.
My parents are of the same mind, when things get bad, when someone is sick, we just soldier on, we will get through this, this is not as bad as it could be. Dad used to tell me when I had a cold, to visualize polar bears as my white blood cells (my parents were hippies) coursing through my veins, fighting the sickness. It never worked. After I was diagnosed with type 1, I remember Mom telling me to stop crying, crying wasn’t going to change anything. She cringes when I remind her of this and I wish I could just let it go. Maybe Mom and Dad are that way because they have 2 daughters with a chronic illness, or maybe they are that way because they grew up with parents who lived through the Depression and had seen bad times, who believed that it was a waste of time to feel sorry for yourself, who believed in being tough and so I never cried again about having diabetes.
But now that I am a mother, when I see my children in trouble, I am caught between wanting to wrap them in my arms and never let go, to make their trouble disappear through the power of my love and yet I also struggle not to tell them to stop crying and toughen up, that things could be worse. When my son is hysterical crying and hyperventilating because he is too scared to go to school at 6 years old, things couldn’t get any worse. I’m not thinking about the children with cancer or the poor children who are suffering in their individual, horrible ways, I am thinking about my son and that he is overwhelmed by his anxiety. And I would like for someone to acknowledge how hard this is. I would like for no one to tell me things could be worse, because right now, they couldn’t.
I think my parents put up a tough front about diabetes because they didn’t want my sister or I to be held back from a normal life, they wanted us to follow our dreams and not be defined by this disease and as a mother, I understand that desire.
But I wonder if things would be different if someone had taken me in their arms when I was diagnosed and said, yes, this is really terrible, this is awful and just let me cry as long as I needed. I wonder if someone had acknowledged how hard this disease is, if it might have lightened my load? So as I work through my son’s anxiety, I will do my best to hold him close and acknowledge his pain, I will tell him that I know he is hurting, I see his pain, and that it must be really awful. I will tell him that we will be there to help him.