I smelled it.
Every time I got close to my daughter, Audrey, I smelled fingernail polish remover.
I smelled it for a week, on her breath and on her skin. I sniffed her for a week while she slept—and she was sleeping a lot—while she ate, while she watched TV. Every time she turned around, there I was with my nose in her hair, or trying to get a whiff of her breath.
I knew something was wrong.
There were other symptoms, sure. She was dropping baby fat which could be explained away by her age—14. Maybe she was hormonal. Maybe her body was changing. Maybe things were shifting as she grew taller. She ate strange things like Frosted Flakes and Snickers bars, and she started gluting soda and lots and lots and lots of water. She peed all the time.
Of course, I attributed the peeing to the water drinking and I attributed the water drinking to the weight loss—I thought it was a strategy, one I had used my entire life; drink more water in order to fill up, in order to eat less food.
It wasn’t a strategy.
The night before the diagnosis, the fingernail polish remover smell rippled around Audrey like a gas leak, and so I asked a others to smell Audrey’s breath and still no one smelled it. Normally the lack of accord would have consoled; however, it did not console because I COULD smell it; at this point, I could see it.
I didn’t sleep that night because I was busy shuffling into Audrey’s room to smell her. Did I really smell it? Each time I leaned in for another sniff, I answered the question. Yes, I still smell it. In the morning before I woke her, I smelled her again, and knew I would have to do something. I woke her, took her to school, and then googled this: “Breath that smells like fingernail polish remover.”
And there was Dr. Oz. Dr. Oz and diabetes.
Now most of the time, I’m okay with Oz. He’s familiar, a friend of Oprah’s a purveyor good health! But the doctor had bad news. He warned that the fingernail polish remover smell was ketones, and ketones might mean diabetes.
I called the pediatrician, related to the receptionist my Google sleuthing and that I suspected, but wasn’t sure, of course, that Audrey’s blood sugar might be high. “Could she have a glucose test,” I asked. She’d get back to me, she answered.
And then I took a walk. You see, there was a part of me that knew Audrey had diabetes and there was a part of me that refused to believe it. Disbelieving Bridgett went out for a nice walk and saw some things that seemed like omens–a couple of big crows, a sky smudged gray, and a tree full of starlings.
I walked for a bit, and soon my phone jangled and the receptionist encouraged me to retrieve Audrey from her 8th grade classroom and bring her in for a blood test.
I called ahead to the school.
Audrey sat pale and drawn in the school office. I explained that we were going to rule out diabetes. Or maybe I didn’t say diabetes at all. I was toying with the slight chance that I was a worrywart with a tumor that caused me to smell strange scents on other people. Can’t tumors cause you to smell strange scents?
At the clinic, a lab tech drew blood, and then Audrey and I went out for lunch before I dropped her off at school. Within ten minutes the doctor called.
“Audrey has diabetes,” he said.
“Her blood sugar is over 300,” he said.
“We will need to transfer her to Children’s hospital in St. Louis,” he said.
“Okay,” I answered.
That’s when he paused, “Bridgett,” he said, “go get Audrey right now, take her to the ER, so they can stabilize her for the ambulance ride to St. Louis.”
“Stabilize her.” he said.
I remained calm, but I repeated his words.
I said to my husband who was home for lunch. “Go get finished up at work while I pick Audrey up and take her to the hospital, so they can stabilize her.”
I called my parents, “I’m taking Audrey to the hospital. She has diabetes, and they need to stabilize her.”
I called the principal and told her, “Get Audrey out of class, I’m on my way to get her. We have to go to the hospital, so they can stabilize her.”
Stabilize her scared the shit out of me. Stabilize her is not something you want others to have to do to your daughter.
It took four hours to stabilize Audrey, and when they did, they rolled her into the back of an ambulance, and my husband and I got into our van and drove to St. Louis.
The nice people at children’s hospital told us we were lucky Audrey was diagnosed on a Friday because diabetes education was unavailable on Sundays. We’d have one extra day to learn about taking blood sugars and giving injections and dangerous lows and Diabetic Ketoacidosis. And when we left on Monday afternoon after finishing our education, we didn’t think we were lucky, we didn’t think we knew enough, and we were very worried all the time.
Five years later, that hasn’t changed.
You know, people, as far as I can tell, like a good illness narrative where the main characters learn big lessons about life, love, and living. I can’t say it doesn’t happen. In fact, I’m sure it does, but mostly diabetes stole Audrey’s childhood and robbed me of the handy delusion that I could keep her safe.
As delusions go—it was a hard one to lose.
Today it’s been five years. We’ll mark it the way we always do—with story-telling. I tell Audrey’s story because stories connect us. We tell them to make sense of what we do not understand—and even when understanding remains elusive, we keep trying.