By Brian Joye
You are 10 years old. You come home every day from school and chug two bottles of soda. Your thirst still doesn’t go away. You tell your mother, and she just tells you to drink water. Water will quench your thirst better than soda. You follow her advice, even though you doubt that will fix anything. This repeats three days in a row. Each time, you see your mother’s face twist into a more confused look, but you think nothing of it. You’re just thirsty, right? You don’t even pay much attention when your mother remarks at dinner that you’ve guzzled down four refills.
You hear your mom talking to your dad about how much you’ve been drinking. You can’t make out everything they say, but they sound concerned. Whatever, you think. I’ll be fine.
The next night, your mom calls you into the living room. She has a smile on her face, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. “I just need to check you for something,” she says, unzipping a black bag. You think it’s just a blood pressure test, nothing to be afraid of. You kneel down beside her on the sofa and hold out your arm like you’ve always been taught. You’re surprised when she pulls out a thin blue cylinder with a hole in one end and takes hold of your hand. You ask what she’s doing as she dabs your right middle finger with an alcohol swab. “I’m just going to prick your finger,” she says. “Like they do at the doctor’s office.” She pushes the end of the cylinder in, and it makes a loud click like the hammer of a gun. You’re scared, but you don’t want to look like a baby. You shrug it off and tell her to go ahead.
She places the end with the hole onto your finger and presses a button. Pain surges through your finger all the way to your palm as the lancet pierces your skin. You cry out and snatch your finger away. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” your mom says, looking every bit like she means it. She takes your hand as if it’s going to fall apart at any second and gently squeezes your finger. Blood oozes out and pools into an orb. She takes a machine a little smaller than a bar of soap out of the bag. A black strip extends from one end. She touches the strip to your blood and watches the machine count down the seconds. The display reads 532. Your mom cringes.
You ask what it means, but she puts that feeble smile back on and says not to worry, the machine and strips are old. They probably aren’t accurate. She says she’ll try again tomorrow after getting new supplies.
You sit at your kitchen table, waiting for your dad to come in. The numbers didn’t change with the new supplies. You’re not sure what this means.
Your dad comes in and takes a seat beside you. He tells you that the machine tested your blood glucose level, that five hundred is too high of a reading. It’s the reason you’ve been so thirsty. You ask what happens now.
“At this point, we’re pretty sure you have diabetes,” he says.
Diabetes. That disease you laughed at when Wilford Brimley pronounced it on those commercials for Medicare. It’s what your classmate, Taylor, has that you and your friend make jokes about. Now you have it, too.
Your head falls to the table on top of your arms. You cry, and your dad wraps his arm around you tightly, tells you that you’ll get through this together. You pick your head up and dry your eyes. You look out of the room and see your mother breaking down in sobs, and your own tears start up again.
You don’t know it, but you’ve already seen the worst part of this whole ordeal. It’s not over yet as you sit with your parents in the waiting room of the endocrinologist’s office. You’re a lucky one, whether you appreciate it or not. Most people end up in the hospital before being diagnosed, but you managed to escape the vomiting and dehydration. Your mother holds your hand, giving it a squeeze every now and then. You figure you’re too old for her to do this and have been ever since she held your hand while the doctor stitched up your busted chin after you fell up a staircase. But you can tell this is hard for her, so you squeeze back. A little sign of confidence for both of you.
The doctor is wonderful. He is nice and respectful. He asks about you. Not just your symptoms, but about you. How school is going, if you play sports, your favorite book. You see your mother nod her head in approval across the room. You found a good doctor. You don’t care so much either way, but you know it’s a relief for your mother by the way her shoulders aren’t so stiff.
The drive-through window at Walgreens opens, and a young woman brushes her hair out of her eyes as she asks your mother for a hundred and fifty dollars with no more concern than if she were asking for the time.
You fidget in the passenger seat as your mother grimaces and then recovers her composure before handing her debit card to the pharmacist. She passes you the paper bag with the prescription details stapled to it. You check to see if everything is inside before your mother drives off.
You ask why the supplies cost so much. She explains that insurance doesn’t cover this particular brand. Blood and guilt rush to your face as you realize how expensive keeping up with you is.
You ask to switch to a different, cheaper brand. When she asks why, you tell her you don’t want her to have to spend so much money on you. She just shakes her head and smiles, telling you not to worry about that. She’ll take care of you.
Your mother comes into your room and sits on your bed, pulling you away from whatever video game or book you were immersed in. You roll your eyes, but you’re feeling generous today, so you let her stay instead of asking her to leave you alone.
She never used to do this. She would always ask how your day went when you came home from school, but not once did she jump on your bed and try to talk to you like a best friend, the way she does now. You shift uncomfortably and try to avoid her questions as she asks about who you like and who your friends are. She’s a lot more interested in your life now, and you’re not sure how to react. You try telling her a few things, but all her questions make you understand that she doesn’t really know your life at all. You’ve never let her in before, and you start to see that when she tries to get to know more about your life, it’s so she can feel like more than just a woman who feeds and shelters you. You know that you shun your mother’s hugs when she needs them the most. But it feels too strange, talking to your mother as if she were your friend. The silence in between each question is the best part of the conversation.
It’s your first day of school after being diagnosed. You try to remember all the things the doctor taught you. Check your blood sugar before lunch. Take your shot when you sit down to eat. You write down the number of carbs your mom counted up for you, even though you can do it yourself. She’s just trying to help.
But she can’t just drop you off and leave. She walks her baby to class. She tells your teacher everything. You only cry because you feel like that’s what you’re supposed to do. You want your mother to feel like you understand how serious this is, and crying is the only way. But the whole time you wish she would just leave. You don’t like being babied. You’re a big kid now. You can handle this without help.
She leaves after saying goodbye. She makes you promise to call her at lunch with your blood sugar level. You agree, even though it means you’ll be late to lunch and probably lose your seat next to your friends.
When the time comes, you walk to the main office to use the phone. You tell her your blood sugar is fine, it’s 137. She tells you how proud she is that you’ve kept it in check. She asks how your day is going, less interested in the answer than just hearing your voice, knowing you’re still alive. You’re short with her, saying that you really need to get back to lunch.
“Okay,” she says. “Have a good day. I love you.” You tell her you love her too. You wait for her to hang up, but you end up putting the phone back on the receiver because you know she can’t bring herself to do it first.
You wake up more tired each day. Sleep still comes easy to you, that’s not the problem. Your mother’s ritual of saying goodnight no longer stops after one visit to your room. Instead, you’re woken up every hour as she comes back to check on you.
Her kiss on your forehead and her hand on your cheek grow more aggravating each time she breaks your sleep. Just once, you’d like to sleep all the way through the night, you say to her. The hurt that flashes across her face makes you wish you could take it back, but she just apologizes and says she’ll try to stay out of your way. She doesn’t want to make anything worse.
You find out your doctor is moving. He has to join his family in Alabama, hundreds of miles way. You’re sad to see him go, but it’s okay. You’ll just find another. Good doctors are easy to find, right?
Your mother isn’t so sure. She sobs at the news. She asks your doctor if there are any others he recommends. He gives her the name of another local diabetic specialist. Your mother isn’t thrilled, but it’s better than nothing.
You visit the new doctor. You wait half an hour after your scheduled appointment time before you’re even called into the room. The new doctor is very matter-of-fact, never bothering to ask about your personal life. She checks your privates without asking your parents to look the other way. You leave her office upset, but not as much as your mother. She’s more frustrated than the time you broke one of her cherished crystals. She does her best to contain herself and tries to figure out what to do next.
“It’s okay,” you tell her on the car ride home. “She wasn’t that bad.”
“No,” she says. “I’m not going to make you see her anymore. I’ll find somebody else.” You wonder why it’s such a big deal to her.
You’re eleven now. Your class takes an overnight trip to Clemson for an educational program. You pack clothes to make it through the whole three days. You think you have enough supplies to last, but your mom comes in with an armful more.
You ask if you really need it all, holding up an emergency kit that would only be used if you passed out, and you’ve never even come close. She says you can never be too prepared. You roll your eyes at her coddling.
“Call me sometime,” she says.
You don’t. The first night, you have too much fun to bother. She calls you instead, and you answer the phone, annoyed at being pulled away from your friends. She asks all about your trip, and you answer as fast as you can. You fake being tired for an excuse to get off the phone.
“Just wanted to check up on you,” she says. “I miss you.” You don’t realize the weight behind those words until she nearly strangles you in a hug when you get back.
Your mother finds a new doctor. His office is in Charlotte.
“Charlotte?” you ask, not believing you’ll be driving two hours just to see a doctor. Your mother will have to use vacation hours for each visit, and her van guzzles gas.
“Yes,” she says. “I told you I’d find another one.”
After your first visit, you are sure he is the best doctor in the country. He has all the charms of your first doctor and more. He enjoys talking to you about your life, and you never feel like he’s not giving you every bit of his attention. You start to understand just how lucky you are to have such a great specialist nearby and a mother willing to do whatever it takes to provide for her son, no matter the cost.
You’re older now and moved away from home. You don’t see your mother every day anymore and don’t have her to check up on you. You’re doing fine: still taking your shots, still pricking your fingers, still keeping everything in check. She’s taught you well.
You don’t want to complain, but the stress has built up that you can’t help it. A few shots a day is annoying, and sometimes you’re just tired of dealing with it. You hate the calluses building up on your fingertips and waking up in the middle of the night, nearly passing out from not having enough sugar in your body.
But the worst part doesn’t come from the motions of the disease. It comes when you go to lunch with your mother during a visit home, just the two of you. You tell her all your complaints. She tears up again, a face you’re used to seeing by now. Her voice cracks a little as she says, “If I could take it all away from you onto myself, I would.” You cry too, because you know it’s the truth.
My name is Brian Joye. I am a seventeen year-old junior high school student at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities.