“Are you sure you want to sit on the alligator?” my mother asked. My sister nodded vigorously, her blonde ponytail bobbing up and down. “Well, okay then,” Mom said. Jocelyn bounded down the concrete steps as I rocked back and forth in my seat, my hands clenched into fists. She handed her ticket to the GatorLand employee and stepped into the sandy pit, where the instructor and the alligator waited.
It was a long, scaly green beast with black electrical tape around its wide, toothy snout. I eyed the tape, scanning for any fraying edges. Jocelyn, with one ear cocked toward the instructor, slowly sat down on the alligator’s back. It didn’t move a muscle. Despite the boiling heat of the Florida sun, I felt a chill travel down my spine. Jocelyn placed her hands over the tape as the instructor gingerly lifted the alligator’s head, then slowly backed away. I couldn’t help but laugh, realizing that it looked as though my sister, with her little hands and cheeky grin, had wrestled an alligator to the ground and yanked its snout into the air.
After the photo was taken and Jocelyn slid off the alligator’s back, she leaped up the steps two at a time and plopped down next to me.
“Did you like it?” I asked as my fists unclenched.
“Yep!” she chirped cheerfully. Then, her voice raised loud enough that it echoed through the arena, she added, “The alligator was sooooooo cute!”
That Christmas, we handed out cards with the photo of my sister on the alligator and laughed at our friends’ bug-eyed expressions when we told them it wasn’t plastic. Once the guests had left and all the shiny wrapping paper had been stuffed into the garbage, we hung the card on the refrigerator with the pride of a parent displaying a report card.
Almost a year and a half later, my father and I come home to an empty house, a wall of weary silence between us. In the kitchen, Dad tells me I can have a snack before he trudges down the hallway, shoulders sagging. I grab a box of Cheerios. When I hear the bedroom door close with a soft click, I am truly alone. Without my sister. My vision blurs with tears. My head sinks into my hands as I collapse against the countertop, a sob welling up in my throat.
Images flash in my mind of my sister lying in a hospital bed, wincing as an IV is inserted in her arm. She turns almost white when the doctor says to our parents, “The blood tests confirm that she has Type I diabetes.”
I am jolted back to the present. I feel a scream ballooning in my chest as I fight the urge to cry out at the unfairness – the idea that my sister will have to struggle with an incurable disease for the rest of her life. Then my head turns toward the fridge, and I see the photo of Jocelyn on the alligator. I look at her relaxed stance, her casual grin, and I feel as if I’ve been stabbed, thinking she’ll never be that carefree again.
Then I see the glint of eagerness in her eyes, the grin that’s almost a smirk. She knew it would be a challenge, but she tackled it head on. And I laugh a little. If my sister can sit on an alligator and call it cute, who’s to say that diabetes will break her?
I sigh. It will be a challenge. There will be moments when we simmer with frustration and wish we could go back to the days before the diagnosis. But in that moment, standing alone in the kitchen, I know my sister won’t let diabetes define her. I lean against the counter for a moment, then go back to pouring Cheerios.
We will be okay.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.