Lending to a Wounded Hand

I’ve been thinking of what to write for this post for some time, going all the way back to last summer when I first began to see for myself the dangers of what I will call over-volunteering. It sounds strange to me even now, all these months later, quantifying the effort I applied to finding a cure for type 1 diabetes like it was some sort of muscle I’d worked to the point of straining. As if I—or anyone else—could do too much to bring an end to it. I can’t. There is nothing I wouldn’t do or give to heal Lia. Period.

But last summer I started to realize something important, something more critical to her care—and my own well-being—than fundraising, research and to a certain extent brotherhood: you must first make time for the present and learn what it means to live with diabetes in the now.

Staying fixed in a tragic moment is hard for any parent, and so very hard for a father who wants only good things for his children. You find yourself always looking ahead for the way out. When the truth is, there is no escaping this.

Our first introduction to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation was at a family retreat we attended one month after Lia’s diagnosis. I can remember quite vividly sitting through the various seminars feeling like I was lost, and I was, like some naive countryman having stumbled upon someone else’s battlefield. I had no idea even what kind of war we were waging. Still later while writing about it, my focus was not on the daily onus of survival but on a clinical trial that afforded me some genetic and vaguely-understood glimpse into the future, a worthwhile effort to be sure, that might help us see if the same thing could happen elsewhere in our family, because even as children we know that monsters can’t hide behind doors that don’t remain closed.

I discovered too there were others like us and it was comforting to know them and to hear their stories and the stories behind the volunteer army that had staged this special event. I was inspired by their mission and especially by their commitment. And so after the retreat I did what anyone might do, I signed up.

One month later I wrote about that lattice work community and how I felt strong and invigorated, compelled by the burden of everything that is good about fatherhood to join the cause and fight to deliver a cure. How could I not? It was my daughter, my Lia who stood to benefit. Just point me, I said, in the right direction.

I was warned at the time that like a cellular organism victory rested not with one individual but on the unified strength of an entire community, and I knew from my own experience that was true of any war. But this was no ordinary war, and the analogy was wrong. Only last summer did I finally start to piece together why.

First, let me say something about a cure. I believe in it. I believe in science and I have faith in the work being done to rid the world of this disease. I support it and will always. I don’t think this way because I have no other choice. I do. Just as Lia will have a choice of her own to make when it’s time. But it is my right as her father and parent to believe that one day there will be a cure for type 1 because I want the best for my daughter and that means living without diabetes.

I believe also in volunteering. Before Lia had diabetes, we worked every summer for the Special Olympics and our time spent there was as rewarding and as special as the name implies. Volunteering, caring for others, caring about others is one of those things that separates us from every other animal on the planet. But we all, myself included, need to aspire to give back as a way of life, not an occasion.

But having diabetes, I now see, is not like any other war, so much so that I’d like never to use that analogy again. This, what we do day in and day out to treat this disease is not a war. War implies two sides and when that person hunkered down on the opposite end of the battlefield is your own body, well, you can see, the comparison just doesn’t fit, and therefore, neither does the role of a volunteer army.

We are, each of us, first individuals and what I had failed to see was what Lia needed most from me was not a hero, not someone larger than life swooping in, giving  their time and their energy to rid her of this awful, invisible thing. What she needed from me was just to be by her side, to help her and hug her and hold her hand, to love and stay close to her here in the present.

She tried to tell me that in many ways. Every time I got dressed up to go to a board meeting or attend some event. I thought it was just her innocence talking or her not liking that daddy was leaving the house. I thought I could do both, be a caretaker and also a knight. Now I believe you cannot. Before you can swing a sword, you have to know how to sharpen it, and that is the point of this:

Learning to care for someone with diabetes takes time, it takes patience and paying close attention. There isn’t the benefit of knowing firsthand what it feels like for your blood sugar to drop, or go high, or your thoughts turn angry by this thing that is such a part of you and at the same time so utterly out of your control. I don’t know what it is like to carry diabetes inside you, other than as a worry, which is why even now I still feel implored to connect this metaphorically to an epic conflict, as if it were Me against Them. It is not. It is Me, and then it is Lia. It is All of Us. Individuals.

Within weeks of that first visit to JDRF, I was mentioned to chair the Walk Committee, then asked to join in another leadership role and was invited to serve on the executive board. By summer, I had become a regular presence in the office, both figuratively and literally. To an outsider, it surely must have looked, as some have mentioned, as if I had drunk from the proverbial Kool aid (an even poorer analogy, if you ask me.)

But then, in the middle of last year I began to see things more clearly and I came to the conclusion that it was a mistake to jump like a general headfirst (and headstrong, I might add) into the foray of finding a cure. I decided it was best to take baby steps, even if that meant backing up, so I could spend whatever amount of time was necessary to learn more about diabetes and what entails taking care of it today, not tomorrow, not for the someday there comes a cure. This moment. Right now.

I do still volunteer with the JDRF, but in a slightly lesser role, and the chapter, I’m encouraged to hear, is working on developing a more effective volunteer program that benefits everyone, not just fundraising. It’s a tricky situation when someone with passion and goodwill comes strolling into your office. You’d be a fool to turn them away. But also I think, and more importantly I believe my chapter thinks, at least in theory, that there is an obligation as well—to borrow from a past U.S. President—to ask not what they can do for you, but what you can do for them, because diabetes is that kind of disease. Where everyone could use a helping hand.

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