By the time you read this, the Leaving Cert will have passed over our house. I say passed over because, like the angel Gabriel drifting over the homes of the Israelites, the Leaving Cert didn’t really happen for us.
Our beloved first-born had her plan — she was going to sit three exams in subjects that she felt she had potential to do better than the accumulated grades. The other subjects were either write-offs or ones she thought she might do okay in, with emphasis on ‘might’. So a lot depended on the three exams she was going to sit — home economics, biology and chemistry. You would think that with a reduced workload, she would only have to face half the stress levels. Well apparently it doesn’t work like that.
To be fair to her, she was working against the odds. Lupus has a couple of side-effects that make study a challenge — it causes arthritis which leads to joint pain but especially in the hands. Often her fingers are swollen and red, and she struggles to hold a pen never mind hold one and write non-stop for two to three hours. Then there is the brain fog, which can make clear thought difficult, and can cause short-term memory loss.
So, when she decided against sitting home economics, we didn’t lose too much sleep — the sciences were going to be the big ticket items here, if she could get a decent result in them it would be good for her self-belief, if nothing else.
Obviously she felt the pressure too, as she started to get more and more stressed — and then sicker and sicker. A few days before the first exam she woke up struggling to breathe. She had crippling pain in her back. I, being a dad, suggested she A) walk if off, B) have a nice hot Radox-filled bath, C) take some painkillers. My wife, being empathetic, could see that this wasn’t the usual pain, so off they went to the doctor and from there to the local emergency department. After scans, blood tests, and a mild fainting episode, the pain was revealed to be a swelling of the lining around her heart.
An emergency appointment with the consultant the next day reassured us slightly — this was not uncommon among lupus sufferers and it was most likely brought on by stress. The consultant said that a lot of Leaving Cert students with the condition have to go on steroids at this time of year to combat the inflammation.
Obviously as a parent you hear anything to do with hearts or brains and start to reassess your priorities. Liver, kidney, gall bladder — those guys are all category two in terms of parental freak-out. But the heart and brain are non-negotiable. Protect at all costs.
I wanted her to give the Leaving Cert her best shot, but not at a cost to her health. So we quietly accepted that for this house, our first Leaving Cert was not going to happen.
The question for her going forward is going to be not just about managing her condition but also managing stress — the Leaving Cert leaves its mark on all of us because it is the first truly stressful single experience we encounter in what becomes our working lives. We still have college exams, job interviews, driving tests, mortgage applications — the list goes on. If you can’t manage the stress of all these things you slip behind in life. But you also have to understand acceptable risk — my desire for her to give the Leaving Cert a go is not so great that I can ignore the threat of her suffering a massive flare-up of lupus and ending up in ICU.
So, a couple of days before her last planned exam we started going through her schoolbooks and portioning them out for anyone who might need them, chucking the flash cards into the recycling bin, dismantling the desk we had set up in her study space.
She is on the mend, the steroids are working and right now that is the priority. There may come a time when she looks back and wishes she sat at least one or two exams, so she can join in the collective moaning about what an absolute dose the Leaving Cert is, but at least she will be there, alive and well, and most likely blaming her parents for everything.