I stared at the computer model wearing the shirt I’d just designed, and checked the placement of my logo: “Team Mercer” to make sure it was centered. Clicking the mouse to flip to her back view, I made sure the phrase “25 years and counting” was spelled correctly. I ordered six shirts: three for my three children and three more for my mom, my step-dad, Charley, and me. The shirts were light blue and the letters were in a block print. I swiveled the model on the screen one more time, and satisfied with my order, hit “Next-Day Air.”
Race t-shirts have always been my favorite part of entering 5 and 10Ks. They were proof of my accomplishments, symbols of my strength. When I worked up to and ran successfully in a half marathon, I wore the shirt as often as I could when I was out in public. I entered some of the races because they raised money for breast cancer, and my marathon was a Team in Training event to raise money for leukemia. But I’d never done anything for diabetes, until now. These t-shirts were for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) walk.
For 25 years I avoided diabetes support groups. When I was a kid I refused to go to any kind of diabetes camp because I didn’t want anyone to see me prick my finger, to smell the alcohol swipe as I wiped my thigh before piercing it with a syringe, to see the red drop of blood. I didn’t want anyone to see me stumble or slur my words when my blood sugar was low. The shame persisted, and as an adult, when I heard about local diabetes walks, I made other plans.
But a lot has changed for me recently. I became a mother to three boys who motivated me to take better care of my disease. Writing my MFA thesis, a memoir about growing up with diabetes, encouraged me to accept parts of myself I’d kept hidden. After 25 years I was finally learning to see that in order to be whole, I had to love the good and the bad, the beauty and the beast inside. So when I saw the announcement for the JDRF walk, in a moment of spontaneity, I registered.
I have always been horrible at raising money. Throughout my children’s years at a private preschool in downtown Charleston, I cringed as every annual lobster sale approached. When my son Will came home to tell me that another class sold so many lobsters that they got a pizza party, I would be filled with guilt and dismay. How did they do it? I could only ever manage to sell a few to family. I didn’t even like lobster. In our last year at the school, I dropped the lobster fundraising forms in the recycling bin and ignored the guilt.
But raising money for the JDRF walk was different, especially since this year was the 25th anniversary of my diagnosis. It seemed like a major milestone. I’d lived with diabetes longer than I’d lived free of the daily injections, the daily food restrictions and the responsibility and constant self-awareness. I wasn’t ashamed to call attention to the diseased part of myself. In only a little over three days, we managed raised over $1,000 for diabetes research. Many of Mom and Charley’s friends graciously sent checks through the mail or pledged online, and continued to donate money for days after the event.
Saturday morning Team Mercer (minus my husband Dale, who had to work) arrived at the site of the walk and I felt both excited and shy. I was uncomfortable being the reason Mom and Charley were there. I knew they could be off playing golf on this beautiful day but instead were here supporting me. I looked round, curious to see if I could pick out the diabetics in the crowd, would I see pumps protruding from walker’s arms, stomachs, or backs? Would they be a healthy looking group? Would anyone be able to tell that I was one of them? I was pleasantly surprised to see that it looked like any other 5K. These were not sick people, these were people like me, people who’d been unlucky, people whose bodies got confused and began to break down, people who needed insulin and injections to keep them alive, just like me.
Mom, Charley, Will, Miles, Reid and I posed for photos in our matching shirts and wandered around the park, listening to the music while the boys jumped in the jump castle. There were a few insulin pump reps, and a large table with food and drinks was being set up, but mostly what I looked at were the t-shirts. Glancing around at the gathering crowd of people (young and old, men and women and several dogs), I read the t-shirts and something stirred in me. There were the “Pretty Pumpers,” “Team William” and “Runnin’ on Insulin,” there were small teams like ours and there was one team with a huge group of people. The t-shirts were blue and red and one group was in camouflage; everyone was there to support someone with diabetes, everyone was there because they knew someone like me.
I’d always felt isolated and alone with my disease. Other than my sister, I have never known anyone with diabetes and yet here I was, on this beautiful spring morning and there were people like me everywhere. I wanted to lift the back of my shirt to show off my pump with pride. For the first time in my life I tested my blood sugar and ate a banana without feeling self-conscious or ashamed. Part of me wanted everyone else to go home so the diabetics in the crowd could stay and compare our war wounds and pump stories. I wanted to wave my hands and say here I am, I see you!
My boys made it through half of the 5K. Miles took the lead, Will walked with Charley and Mom walked with me as I pushed Reid in the jogger. Some people pushed out on front and others walked at a steady pace around the pond. We’d started out in the front of the line and when I looked behind us, there was a long stream of people in a rainbow of shirts walking. I kept my eye on the matching blue shirts in front to make sure my boys didn’t get lost in the crowd. But I wasn’t worried because the blue of our shirts was like an invisible cord binding us together.
We stopped after the first loop around the park and sat on the grass and my boys ate hot dogs while I stretched next to Reid. Miles got up with Mom to find the port-a-potty, and as they walked away I looked at the back of their shirts:”25 years and counting.” I knew that I didn’t need to find the other diabetics in the crowd to feel a part of something. I was no longer alone with my disease; my team was right there in front of me.