I couldn’t remember the last time I shared a bed with my mom. I wondered if she would move around a lot and worried about waking her up in the middle of the night. We were in a hotel room, a “one bedroom suite” for my week-long MFA residency in Charlotte, NC. She was there to help take care of my four-month-old while I attended daily seminars and workshops. My husband was home with our two older sons. It was going to be a long week.
Initially I had considered delaying the January residency. I didn’t see how I could make it work.
“I’ll be nursing Reid so he’d have to come with me,” I worried, months in advance, to my husband.
“Why don’t you ask your mom to go with you?” he said.
“Mom and me and Reid in a hotel for a week?” It seemed irrational and too much to ask. Mom had her life — her work, her own mother who was grappling with dementia, her husband and golf. She was busy all the time. Plus, the idea of me and Mom on our own for a week seemed strange; I couldn’t remember the last time we were alone together.
“Why not?” my husband said with a shrug. Sure, I thought, why not? I wanted to graduate on time, and needed to ask for help. When I made a joke of it to Mom, telling her about “Dale’s crazy idea,” she said she would go.
Unpacking in the hotel room that first night I felt uncertain, like someone with first-date jitters. Would we have enough to talk about? How would we say goodnight, with a squeeze of the shoulder in passing, or a pat on the arm? Even though we lived in the same town, whenever Mom stopped by to visit, my boys demanded much of her attention.
“Gretty, watch!” They would shout as they stood on their heads, or leaped from one twin bed to another. It reminded me of visiting her third grade classroom when I was their age.
“Mrs. Stockwell, Mrs. Stockwell!” Her students used to shout as I stood in the doorway and watched, jealous. I already had to share her with my demanding younger sister. There never seemed enough of her to go around.
Now I had her for an entire week.
That first night alone together, the first night in years, I remembered the time I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. At fourteen, I’d never spent the night in a hospital before. Only six weeks earlier I’d started my first year at a private boarding school, but gotten so sick my Mom had to come pick me up and take me directly to a hospital. Dad stayed home with my younger sister. The nurses brought in a roll-a-way bed for Mom, but when it was time to turn out the lights, she began to climb into bed with me.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Getting in bed with you,” she said.
“There’s a bed right there.” I pointed across the room. I didn’t want her next to me. I was scared and stunned and needed room to breathe. If I let her get in bed with me then, if I acted like I needed her protection, her warmth, it would be that much harder to let her go.
The first night home from the hospital my parents told me I needed to do my own shot. They weren’t going to do it for me.
“Diabetes is not going to define you,” they said. “You can still do everything your friends can do.”
Their words felt like both a command and a promise. Okay, I thought. I can do this. I listened to my parents and learned to give my shots, test my blood sugars, and analyze my food like a mathematician. Before I returned to school, Mom wanted me to meet other kids with diabetes and took me to a parent/child diabetes support group.
I was the oldest in the group, but the newest to diabetes. Some of the kids had been diabetic for years, and their mothers talked about how they did their shots for them, counted the carbohydrates in their food, came to their schools to test their blood sugars, and wouldn’t let their kids sleep away from home.
These kids are faceless and nameless to me now. When I try to remember them all I see is a group I wanted — I needed — to distance myself from. The only thing we shared was this disease. I was ashamed to be a part of that group. They seemed like helpless victims, and I wanted to run screaming from the room. But listening to the way their mothers tried to protect them from diabetes, I wondered why my mother hadn’t offered to do the same. Did that mean she didn’t love me, did that mean these mothers loved their kids more?
Twenty-five years later, I’m in graduate school writing a coming-of-age memoir about living with diabetes. I want to understand how being diagnosed with a chronic illness at the start of adolescence changed the direction of my life. When my parents put the syringe in my hands that first night, when they told me diabetes wouldn’t define me, were they giving me freedom or pushing me away? Was it my choice to return to school because I didn’t want to be like those helpless kids, or did I sense that my parents had left me with no other choice?
For years I felt like my parents had given me more than I could handle and pushed me out the door too soon. For years I wondered why they didn’t rescue me, switch schools, and keep me home. For years their decision to give me independence felt like rejection.
In researching my childhood I’ve dug through old journals, baby books, photo albums and files of grades, letters from teachers, old poems, and stories I had written. In one of the files I came across an envelope, stained to a cream color and lined with creases. Written in blue ink are dates, times, and blood sugar recordings in Mom’s handwriting: 11am: 163, 2pm: 151, 6pm: 136. 9pm: 118. The records cover both sides of the envelope. Holding the envelope in my hands, I felt an unexpected tenderness for my young mother.
I think of these records now, as I climb over my sleeping mother in the darkness and creep across the carpet to the kitchen to test my blood sugar. Mom turns over in bed. I don’t want to wake her. I prick my pointer finger in the darkness, and squeeze the tip for a dot of blood. The glow-in-the dark screen of the meter reads 55. I sigh. The fridge opens with a wet, sucking sound and I grab the gallon jug of orange juice. The glass lands with a hollow clunk on the counter, and the juice glug, glugs into the otherwise silent room. I am sure Mom will wake up. Drinking the juice and eating a graham cracker without tasting the drink or the food, I am tired of this disease. I am tired of waking to nurse the baby, tired from reading and writing critiques on my laptop under the hotel’s florescent desk light. All I want to do is sleep. I turn off the light and crawl back over Mom to my side of the bed.
Unable to fall asleep, I wonder what having a child with diabetes was like from Mom’s point of view. I wonder how my diagnosis changed the way she’d mothered me over the years. Here she was in bed beside me for an entire week. Whose mother still did those things for her thirty-nine year old daughter?
Mom stayed with Reid all week, pushing him in the jogger and carrying him around in the Baby Bjorn to keep him happy while I was at school. Every day at noon, she drove to school with the baby so I could nurse. She parked the car and I unbuckled Reid, pulling him onto my lap and lifting my shirt to nurse. Mom handed me lunch. She’d carefully selected a chicken wrap, a bottle of water, an apple and dark chocolate which I ate as I nursed my child.
Sitting together in the front seat of my minivan, I saw a new ending to my story. I saw that with my parents’ help, I’d been granted the freedom to take risks, to re-define myself as a young woman first, not the victim of a chronic illness. I see again the piece of paper with my mother’s handwriting — her careful notes, and my blood sugar numbers: proof that she was not rejecting me, but trying to teach me how to take care of myself. Mom was trying to find a balance between holding on and letting go — the same balance I’m now trying, as a mother, to find myself.