Posted: Apr 25, 2003 12:00 AM

They say teen-age boys eat you out of house and home. Maybe so, my oldest is just 11, but I know for sure that Benjamin will run up our drycleaning bill.

Not that he's messy -- to the contrary. Benjamin is as refined a 7-year-old as you are likely to meet. And that's where the dry cleaning comes in, because while other children favor jeans and t-shirts, my boy prefers his tuxedo. He wore it today at the school performance wherein the first-graders recited Aesop's Fables.

Of course, he cannot be led to wear just anything. One morning last year, I tried to interest him in an outfit consisting of pale yellow and blue seersucker shorts with a matching yellow polo shirt. He tucked his chin and gave me the full force of his huge brown eyes under a knitted brow: "Mom, I don't want to look like a golfer."

In this, Ben is nothing like his older brother David, who at 9, still doesn't see what all the excitement about clean hands and faces is about, far less clothes. He recently decided to tear into a piece of watermelon -- plunging his face right down on the plate. When I asked whether he could remember his manners, he didn't lift his face but did raise a pinky.

David is just instinctively amusing, and irrepressible. Even when you think you're about to lose patience with him over something, he will surprise you with his originality. My husband was flipping him in the pool on our trip to Florida a couple of weeks ago. After half a dozen flips, Bob was tired. David pleaded for more and more, and Bob obliged a few more times but then announced severely that Daddy was finished. David opened his mouth to protest, but then saw Bob's look and instead pronounced, "Great sadness."

It has been almost a year now since Jonathan had his serious accident. Riding his bike (with a helmet, thank you God), he collided with a car and suffered a "closed head" injury. After three days in a coma, he gradually opened his eyes and then, with a speed that amazed us all, began an incredibly rapid recovery -- first pointing, then talking, then sitting, then walking. Within three weeks, he was home. The thousands of letters, cards and emails we received during that awful ordeal were a huge comfort to all of us.

David has experienced a smaller challenge in the past year, a diagnosis of Type I diabetes. For a child whose favorite things in life could be grouped in the ice cream, candy and cake categories, this seemed a cruel fate at first, and he was pretty depressed. But we knew -- as did he -- that there are far worse diagnoses.

Living with diabetes has not turned out to be as bad as we feared. Modern medical technology is such a blessing, and the old wisdom about avoiding sweets at all costs has been replaced by carbohydrate counting.

Yes, there have been times when we've merrily dashed off to a Chinese restaurant for dinner only to realize when we arrived that we'd forgotten David's insulin. And yes, there was one time when we accidentally gave him the wrong dose -- requiring us to wake him every two hours for blood checks and snacks during the night. But the routine is now familiar: Three shots and four blood checks a day.

He pricks his finger and tests his blood himself ,and will soon administer his own shots, too. Staying healthy as a diabetic requires just exactly the traits David has in abundance: responsibility, caution and intelligence. And his response to the challenge has made us very proud. Though a robust child, he was never very good about enduring pain and discomfort. That has changed. He does it all without complaint or irritability.

When he was first diagnosed, the doctor told him that there were only two things he could not do because of this disease: become a pilot and serve in the U.S. military. Regarding the latter, she gestured toward me and said, "Your mother might not mind that."

I said nothing, but was hugely gratified when David replied, and with straightforward sincerity, "I will find other ways to serve my country."