Standing shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of other parents this past Monday on what turned out to be an absolutely sticky afternoon, I waited with my son as the crowd behind us pressed in. Sixth grade students from all over our county had descended on a parking lot to embark on the week they’d been looking forward to all year: The Washington Trip.
Like all the other parents, I was excited, nervous and a bit scattered from the days of preparation and packing – reminding my son over and over what to do in a dozen different situations. He’s 12 now; and definitely has the eye-rolling, shoulder shrugging thing down pat. He finds his own ways to show his love – but clearly . . . open affection at the parking lot that night was not one of them.
I did sneak half a hug before he climbed the stairs to board his bus, and handed off his suitcase to the men loading the compartments below the seats. Then clutching my Little Red Binder, I turned to the chaperone who was checking students off as they boarded. She smiled as she recognized me from our meeting earlier in the week when we’d gone over his medical condition.
First I handed her the Ziploc bag with his daily medication in it – explained when it would be time for the next dose, and then – referring to the binder – told her “everything else is in here”. The Little Red Binder I still hadn’t let go of contained 13 years worth of documentation on my son’s rare genetic condition – Vascular Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.
Inside that binder was every letter I’ve ever received from a doctor or lab – including the one with his original diagnosis. There are copies of emails from doctors at Johns Hopkins and the NIH; and CD’s which hold images of his entire vascular system as well as the intricate soft tissue of his recently repaired right knee.
Watching from the crowd of parents as he darted back and forth on that bus – trying to save seats for his friends– it was very easy to forget that the Little Red Binder was even necessary. Day to day he goes through life at warp-speed; only slowing down long enough to grab a snack, get involved in one of his gadgets, or torture his sister a little.
To see him with his friends, you’d never in a million years guess what lurks within the tiniest fibers of his tissues – or, rather, what doesn’t lurk. Collagen. It’s the “glue” that tissue relies on to stay in tact. The disease he inherited from his father robs his body of this critical element needed to hold itself together. But no matter how “normal” he looks, the same activities that may be just part of “normal boyhood” can lead to tragedy for him.
I try not to dwell on it, and most days the reality of it is so far in the back of my mind I have to remind myself some things are too risky for him. But – risks aside – I wanted him to go on this trip – I wanted him to have this experience. And for months we’ve been focused on is how much fun it would be.
However, that Monday night, standing in the warm, muggy air, reality was impossible to ignore as I looked at the chaperone waiting to take the binder from me. I was surprised by how much I didn’t want to let go of it. And when I finally did the old, familiar Cold ran through me; taking up residence somewhere between my heart and my stomach.
Denial is a funny thing I suppose. Looking back on it now, as long as I was the one holding the binder, I was still in control. But letting go of it . . . putting that control in someone else’s hands . . . meant it was real. No matter what he looks like on the outside – this is all real. The whole experience drove home another reality for me: I don’t have much time left as “the one” who makes the decisions.
He saw me lingering in the parking lot and gave me one of those “Geez mom, you’re embarrassing me” looks and as I turned to leave, it was clear to me that he really is going to grow up and I really won’t be able to monitor and watch over him like I do now.
A very dear friend of mine who passed away earlier this year from the same disease offered me his advice several years ago on what he felt was the best way to approach raising my son with this unpredictable disease. Being an active guy himself who’d just come through some major health crises, he told me the hardest thing I’ve ever had to hear on this subject:
“Debbie, you’re going to have to learn that this is HIS disease – not yours. It’s his body and he will have to learn his own limits. All you can do is offer him guidelines, but in the end – it’s up to him to limit himself.”
I still bristle at the advice – not as much as I used to though. But, like everything else Glenn ever told me on this subject, it’s turning out to be completely right.
I’m trying, Glenn – I really am trying.
To read more about my story or Vascular Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, you can visit my blog called “Coming Unglued” at: www.ddvaughan.wordpress.com