A Lesson on Atoms
(or Letting Go)

by Steve

When it was early summer vacation and close enough to the end of the school year for Lia to still be considered an elementary student and not a rising sixth grader Franca and I weren’t sure what changes we’d make to her diabetes care plan to meet whatever new challenges arrived with middle school. Other than a few frustrating moments—a teacher withholding candy for some asinine reason, the immaturity and arrogance of young boys, chaos around the lunch bolus—school and her diabetes for the most part had gotten along. At least there were no panicked drives across town or phone calls that made us question why in hell we weren’t home schooling (not that had to do with diabetes anyway).

In fact, Lia’s school does a pretty good job of making us both feel like we’re not wasting our time sharing with them—sometimes more than once—facts about highs and lows, helpful tips for teachers of students with diabetes, unique details of Lia’s own treatment and management of her disease. They appear interested, concerned. They ask questions for clarification, offer personal testimony and eye witness to Lia’s strong character, her stoicism, her quietude and composure. By their words, or mostly with just their silence, they acknowledge this one true thing: In terms of diabetes, Lia is in charge.

It’s a question of independence and one that her mother and I were, and still are and will be for many years to come, struggling with as we sat down and talked about the upcoming school year. To understand why you must first have a child and then that child must get sick and be diagnosed with an illness for which is there no cure. Only then will you understand a parent’s worry of letting go. There is no other training for this, no software simulation that will help you understand. And, as I’ve alluded, children with diabetes make taking care of it look like a breeze. Poke. Test. And Bolus. Move on. Next lesson, please.

I’d like that to (but it won’t) help you appreciate our routine for the past couple of years which has been for Lia to call from a phone in the classroom, or the office, if necessary, and talk with one of us about her blood sugar before she does any bolusing. Same with lows. Call, then correct, or correct if you have to but give us a call right after. Because there is no school nurse, it’s just what we had to do. It’s what made us feel safe, because we were in charge, not Lia.

With age comes change however. Like atoms, of which humans are made up of many (about 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000), diabetes is not something that can be divided. We cannot take some, say just the parts of it that keep her safe and sound, and leave the rest for Lia (those parts that let her cut in line if she has to pee, or drink juice during English class). As she gets older she’ll gradually assume more and more of the whole until there is nothing but worry and hope that is left for her mother and father. I don’t like it and would do anything to change it, but it is what it is. I can’t fight it. But what we give up we give up in the smallest of increments.

Already Lia is showing signs of her readiness—wrong word. Surrender, perhaps is more fitting—to take on more. So for middle school we’re giving her a new tool to help her succeed, but at the same time still keep us informed. With a cellphone, she’ll no longer have to endure phone calls standing in the doorway next to the hall, where kids are pushing and shoving past, jockeying in the way kids do, while trying to share with with me her blood sugar number. She’ll no longer have to take time out of her measly lunch period fielding questions from me that usually start with: So, how’s it going? As if I forgot she’s at school, and not a sleepover at Grandma’s.

Now—she’s been back to school for four weeks—she texts us from her seat. Before or after she eats, sometimes not at all, but those rare occasions we remind her of our expectations. She texts us, too, if she goes low and has to correct. She texts us other things as well—”Can BB (her friend) come over.”—but mostly she keeps her messages on topic, so she can get back to the things that a middle schooler finds important, like how in the world did anyone ever arrive at a number with twenty-seven zeroes. Okay, maybe that’s not exactly important, but it is, at least momentarily, a bit mind-boggling. Which will likely for her and most others pretty much sum up middle school.