Last summer, when I picked my nine year old son up from diabetes camp, his eyes, like those of the counselors and other campers, were bloodshot from crying. And, when he climbed in the car, he lost it. I leaned in to hug my son and, with his head on my shoulder, I could feel his hot tears, an uncharacteristic abandonment of his usual steady, happy disposition. Just before, as I dragged his suitcase out of the cabin where he’d lived the past week, my son’s counselor had told me that all the kids had had an amazing time, that there, at camp, where everybody has type 1 diabetes, “We all get it.”
In that moment I lost it too.
Enough years have gone by that my son’s been living with diabetes that I take longer and longer breaks from trying to make sense of the hand we were dealt. You get used to things. That is, until you see your child with kids who have a similar life, who know about having to wait to eat the birthday cupcake, or what it’s like to go low mid-soccer tournament, to have tubing hanging out below T-shirt hems, who know what it is to have a chronic condition that requires never-ending maintenance. It never stops.
Two years ago, the first time my son went to camp, I was a disaster. I worried. I cried. Would the staff know what to do? Would they check him enough at night? How would they navigate his insulin pump set change? I was anxious. I paced. By the third day my husband sat me down and reminded me that we had one week a year when our kid was off, in safe hands—that it was up to me how I used the time. He, as always, snapped me from my funk. We had some dinner dates. We slept through some nights. I worked to let the worry go. And then, when we picked up our son, me desperate to hug him, he walked right past us, as though he didn’t know us. In the moment I was devastated—maybe something had gone horribly wrong, maybe camp had been a mistake. Then I realized he was profoundly sad about leaving, but didn’t quite know how to deal with that. In the car on the hour-long drive home he’d said nothing—something that rarely happens. (My kid can chat himself into hypoglycemia.)
And so last year, when it was time to pick up my son, I drove up to the gate, ready to accept whatever happened. But this time, the culture at camp was to let it show, to honor the sadness and tears culminating a week of understanding and friendship sealed on an island off the western shore of Vermont. All around were rolling fields, mountains and that vast, sparkling lake in the distance. And diabetes.
Everyday my son is positive, takes diabetes in stride, and is relentlessly compliant. But on that last day of diabetes camp, through the tears, I saw his joyfulness in being with his own tribe, with its own language and jokes and experiences. I saw my son without me.
If you don’t already do it, send your kid with type 1 diabetes to camp. (Do it for them and you.) They’ll grow, they’ll learn new things (even if it is that tooth-brushing is optional). But they’ll also be free to be who they are. And that’s a beautiful thing.