There are evenings like tonight that I am sure I will remember in thirty years. There’s nothing remarkable about tonight, just a quiet evening at home, only it entails being forced to watch the school’s football field undergo a Cinderella transformation into my way-too-soon college graduation. And as such, I am overcome with a simultaneous sense of relief and panic – causing me to nearly freak out at the sight of the stage being built with a near “WAIT I AM NOT READY TO LEAVE”. But alas, no one would hear me, so I will spare my neighbors the screaming.
Graduating college is funny – you spend so long thinking about what school to choose, and then what classes to choose, what dorms to live in, and which textbooks to buy or rent. I remember matriculation four years ago, sitting in the crowd of my new classmates, a pit in my stomach trying to quell my intestines from causing a scene. To think about how sick I have been these past few years – the sheer number of doctors’ appointments, pills swallowed, IV attempts, hospitalizations, scars now icing my abdomen, and an ostomy bag carefully tucked into my dress, it seems unbelievable. But I want to be clear and direct – college was an amazing experience, and while I perhaps had far from the typical four-year journey, I have so loved my time at school and done some wonderful things.
When I was graduating high school, people who didn’t know me well cautioned me with wrinkled noses that I should stay home, I was – after all – sick, and why would I want to go to school in another country? My parents, undaunted by my persistence in school choice, willingly sent me on my way (okay, not so willingly when it came to saying goodbye, but that I’m guessing is a normative going-off-to-college right of passage). I found friends who saw beyond my disease, who have laughed with me, brought me extra clothes in the hospital, met my doctors, and made cupcakes in my kitchen. I have done community service and had a job serving under-resourced preschools all four years. I have been doing research since freshman year, did a senior thesis and got a grant, and am being awarded a Psychology Research award at graduation. I’m graduating with honors. I have perfected my Patrick Dempsey addiction, finally understood how to use Tumblr, hiked Machu Picchu, ran a half-marathon, and never pulled an all-nighter. And just before graduating and really entering the ‘real’ world (whatever that actually means), I even went on a first date – make that second, compliments of vegan ice cream.
The point to the rambling – I went to college. I went to college with Crohn’s. I went to college and was sick. I went to college and had surgeries. But, I went to college. I went to college and did it in four years and am graduating. I did it. I did not do it alone, but I did it. And so can you or your child or your best friend or that new patient you had in clinic today who was frightened and sick.
As an English minor, I took a class this semester that centered around literary non-fiction. The final class project was to write an essay of our own – mine was a braided essay about the history of Crohn’s (look it up, the story is fascinating!) and my own personal experiences. I even interviewed my GI for the piece. After being undecided about the title for literally weeks on end, my roommates finally prompted me to accept the working title of ‘Not Where I Thought I Would Be’ – and they, as usual, were right. At one part in the piece, I wrote that my GI understands that even though I may be broken, I am not breakable. I sent him the essay, which he so kindly read, and sent me an email response. “I would dispute one thing,” he wrote. “You are not broken. You are whole.” And while the thought was enough to leave a permanent grin on my face and make me feel incredibly lucky and honored to have such a compassionate doctor, it made me think – he’s right. I am whole.
In pediatric chronic illness, the focus is often on what’s broken. Your ESR is too high, you don’t like taking injections, you miss school to see the doctor, band-aids dot your arms to remind you where blood was taken. There are pictures of your gut, all twisted and inflamed, the pharmacist knows you by name, your medical chart has several volumes. But we forget to remind ourselves of something really important – we’re still kids, we’re still growing, we’re still dreaming. Our bodies may be in need of support, but our souls and spirits and whole. Be it going to college or anything else, having a chronic illness is only part of the equation.
If the last few weeks have proved anything to me, it’s that life is always happening – even if it means my college graduation will be here sooner than I want. There are still so many firsts in store for me, so many exciting things ahead, and yes, enough challenges (both health-related and other) to keep me busy. Perhaps it’s not where I thought I would be, but to be honest, I’m pretty darn happy I ended up right where I belonged.