I honestly didn’t know that the movie Steel Magnolias was a true story. (Did you?) The character Shelby was based on the sister of writer Robert Harling. Harling wrote the story as a play just after the passing of his sister Susan, who really did die from complications related to diabetes when her son was a toddler. The wildly successful play gave way to a movie deal, and even then Harling retained the story’s tight ties to his sister’s legacy. The director even hired the actual doctors and nurses who cared for Susan during her last days in the hospital to play those same roles with Shelby on-screen; the nurse who shuts off Shelby’s life support in the movie is the same person who did so in real life for Susan.
This story is intense. It’s a brother’s homage to his sister. I remember sitting down to watch the movie version of Steel Magnolias with my mother, not knowing how it ended.
“Julia Roberts has such a big laugh. Mom likes Sally Field. Diabetes in it, too? That’s cool. Let’s make some popcorn.”
That was me, around the age of 10. I knew one of the main characters had type 1 diabetes, and by looking at the cover of the VHS tape, they all looked reasonably smiley and happy, so let’s give it a watch.
Only a few years into my diabetes diagnosis and barely into the double digits of life, I knew diabetes required attention and discipline and could have some really dark moments, but everything would be okay, right? Wouldn’t it be okay if I just kept trying? I remembered the doctor who diagnosed me telling my mother that biological kids would be difficult to the point of impossible, but I don’t remember caring at the time. I was just a kid. I didn’t know.
Steel Magnolias came out in 1989, three years after my diagnosis. At the time, it colored my views of diabetes with a brush of blush and bashful, painting the possibilities of parenthood as indeed possible but with hesitation and concern. I do remember feeling overwhelmed when I was an adult, though, in pursuit of pregnancy. And I remember the many people who, upon seeing my pregnant belly in 2010 and 2016, would look furtively to the side, and then back at me, asking in a low voice, “Have you seen Steel Magnolias?”
Yes, I have seen Steel Magnolias. I have always wondered where “bashful” would fall on the color wheel. I saw the actors grab Shelby’s cheeks with two hands in the hair salon, forcing the glass of juice to her mouth, Clairee leaning in to offer, “She’s a diabetic.” I watched M’Lynn lose the chance to take a whack at Ouiser.
Even when I had more hope and had seen evidence of healthy pregnancies with diabetes, I would push the thoughts of M’Lynn out of my mind and jokingly tell friends, “Not Shelby,” when they asked what names we had picked out for my daughter. Shelby’s story was true, but it was a story from 30 years ago and didn’t define every diabetic’s experience with pregnancy, or a wedding, or even a hairdresser. I think about that in the context of all the diabetes stories on social media, acknowledging how each story is unique and diverse within this shared disease experience.
I cried at this movie. A lot. For a dozen different reasons — thinking about my own mother, my own children, my own fears, and my own disease. My own frailties. My own strength. (I also cried because I’m a movie crier. I am perpetually dehydrated.)
But, as Shelby says, “I would rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.”
Steel Magnolias was often held up to me as something to fear, but I found it weirdly inspirational. It was her real life, her true story. And I loved Shelby’s story because it wasn’t about diabetes, necessarily. It was about those women, and their friendships, and about family. It was about life after diagnosis, one worth living.
I wanted that. I’ll always want that.
My children are almost 9 and not yet 2½, and their journey into this world has not been without a little chaos. Diabetes doesn’t remove possibilities, and it doesn’t dilute potential, but it definitely adds dings and dents and determination. I wish I had known then, back in 1989, that the future would be brighter for mothers with diabetes, even just a few short years later. Brighter for me. That medical advancements would make the path to parenthood healthier. That my insulin pump and my continuous glucose monitor and my medical team and my own hard work and family support would help me achieve my greatest goal: to become a mother.
I look at my two sweet kids and think that every worry, every moment of concern has been worth it. Beyond worth it. They have provided more than 30 minutes of wonderful.
They’ve given me a lifetime of something special.
Disclaimer: The experiences and suggestions recounted in these articles are not intended as medical advice, and they are not necessarily the “typical” experiences of families with a child who has type 1 diabetes. These situations are unique to the families depicted. Families should check with their healthcare professionals regarding the treatment of type 1 diabetes and the frequency of blood glucose monitoring.