Welcome, Mamma Crew, to another busy, chaotic, challenging, exciting, and beautiful day of an older mom like you!
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been talking about Emmy’s tree-nut allergy — the severity and its impact on our family. I haven’t yet described the effects of having an anaphylactic allergy (meaning that her airway can be compromised in a matter of minutes, and she could be dead within 10-15 minutes) on Emmy herself.
I can’t pretend that I didn’t know that the challenges were going to be dangerous. After all, the one time that my students made me cry in the classroom was over a tree-nut tragedy. I had read about it earlier in the day. A teenager kissed his girlfriend after eating peanut butter, and she had an anaphylactic allergy to peanuts. She went into anaphylactic shock, and she died.
So when I first read it, I was pretty contained. And I realized that not everyone was going to take as great care of Emmy’s tree-nut allergy as we as a family were willing to do. I knew that there would be perils out there, and I knew that dating could potentially be one of them. But this particular story cut through the bone. Because it made it real. In a startling, brutal way, it made it real. And I will together until I went into my classroom (this was a sophomore year sociology course). My students were so excited to tell me about this story and ask me questions about my concerns for Emmy’s future. And I teared up. I choked up. I have never done something in all my years of teaching, or that I have done since then.
But it wasn’t just that. There’s story after story. A boy asked, in a restaurant, if a pie was free of any tree-nuts because he had an anaphylactic allergy to walnuts. They told him there were no tree-nuts in this pie. It turns out the server didn’t know any better, okay? He didn’t know any better. And unfortunately, there were caramelized walnuts in this thing. Having never ordered something with walnuts in it, the child didn’t realize what was happening — and had a bite. The family caught it and gave the child Benadryl and went through the appropriate measures. The child seemed fine. The boy died during the night. When the nut hit the gut, he went into anaphylactic shock, and he died. In the middle of the night, alone.
That is a terrifying story for a parent. They thought they had done the right thing. I wouldn’t have known to take Emmy to the hospital if I had given her Benadryl, and everything seemed fine. Trust me, after that story, I know. But I wouldn’t have known!
Or the girl who went camping took her epi-pen. The epi-pen had expired, possibly gotten damaged in the heat. And when she started having an allergic reaction, the child was epi-penned several times, but it didn’t work, and she passed away.
I am pretty vigilant about making sure that our epi-pens are up to date. But it’s easy to get them damaged, you know, sometimes you forget, and they have to be at room temperature — they can’t be too cold, they can’t be too hot. And while we never forget to take them along with us, how can you guarantee that they’re not damaged? That they’re going to work when you need them to work? And the thing is, there are no guarantees in life. And that’s a real hard one to deal with. So hard to accept that you don’t have your child’s safety under control no matter how hard you try.
And as parents, we have to accept that we’re not always going to get it right. But in the case of something like this, not getting it right could cost your child their lives. And it’s a horrible feeling!
But if you think that dealing with your feelings is hard, try dealing with your child’s feelings. The fact that she gets older, and she begins to understand this reality. This ruthless reality!
I think the first of the hardest things that Emmy had to come to terms with happened when Grandma died. Grandma passed away, and a year later, Grandpa had married a new woman.
I don’t know what to tell you about this woman. She seemed like a kind-hearted person. But if I thought that my mother-in-law was challenging, she’s even more challenging! Grandpa’s new wife doesn’t seem to get into her head how severe Emmys tree-nut allergies are. And at one point, they stayed in a home that we rented for them so they could spend a few months with us in the Caribbean. There was only one rule — don’t bring any tree-nuts into the home. That’s it! We were willing to cover all expenses (we covered all costs), and in fact, ‘all expenses’ included trying to have them for dinner just about every night, take them out to supper, do family things.
This was especially raw after the loss of Grandma. We wanted to make sure we were spending enough time with Grandpa. So one day, we go over to their house, and we spend time with him. And Grandpa and his new wife kissed Emmy on the cheek. And as we are making it out of the house, Emmy’s face explodes! It explodes! This was so bad that for the first time, my child was screaming, “Epi-pen me! Epi-pen me! Mom, please epi-pen me!”
I knew it was topical. It was on her cheek. It was not inside her mouth, but her lips were swelling because it was close enough. And of course, we gave her Benadryl instantly, and I wiped with Wipees (?), I did topical Benadryl, we rushed her home (which was only, like, 2 minutes away), got her in the shower, stripped her of all the clothes, showered her, lather her with more Benadryl. There was no need to epi-pen her. But the whole time, my child was screaming in an absolute, horrified panic, “Mom, you need to epi-pen me! Please!” And once that panic was over, the worst question ever popped into her mouth.
“Why doesn’t Grandpa love me? Because if he loved me, he wouldn’t do this to me.”
Of course, we said, “This has to have been some kind of an accident. Maybe they went to a restaurant and ate something in a restaurant…”
We called Grandpa and his new wife, and of course, they denied having eaten anything with walnuts, having been to a restaurant where they consumed any kind of tree-nuts. We knew that this couldn’t be true, but what do you do, right?
So part of what we were paying for was the cleaning lady. Once a week, the cleaning lady would go over to their home and clean the house. And it so happened that the next day was her day to go clean. So she goes and cleans in this house. And she finds wrappers of walnut cookies.
She had been working long enough with us to know what that meant. She knew all about the incident the night before and, of course, she brought this immediately to our attention because, like us, she was concerned that our child could go back, or that they would come and bring some kind of tree-nut oil into our home or kiss her again. So she told us what had happened, what she had found.
Now, if you thought that the question from the night before was horrible, my daughter was looking at my husband. And we knew what that meant. She was looking at him, and she was like, “How are you going to keep me safe, Daddy?” Bottom line: how are you going to protect me, Dad?
My husband was furious! He and his father got into a severe argument. And Grandpa ended leaving the Caribbean early. But Emmy’s questions didn’t stop there. She spent the next couple of weeks facing this new reality.
And what do I mean by facing it? She said things to us like, “If Grandpa couldn’t love me enough not to eat walnut cookies, how can I expect any person I date willing to give up tree-nuts for me? I’m never going to get married. I’m never going to have babies! What am I going to do, Mom? What am I going to do?”
I felt like she was taking her little nine-year-old hand, tearing my chest open and pulling my heart! And it was still beating! She’s nine! Nine! And she was asking these questions! I was horrified by her fear. It was a justifiable fear, and that made it even worse!
But it wasn’t just Grandpa. Some of her friends don’t always react in the best way, especially around that age. For example, one of her dearest closest friends once wanted to buy chocolate. At the center of this chocolate, a tree-nut. She was sleeping over in our house, but we had gone to this little plaza in the community where we lived in the Caribbean, and she had wanted to get this chocolate.
Emmy, knowing what that meant, and the potential harm to her life, told her friend not to buy it. And her friend says, “Well, this is unfair to me! Why do I have to give up something I enjoy just because you’re allergic to it?” My child was crushed. Absolutely, positively crushed. This is one of her closest friends.
Of course, we sat her down, and we tried to explain to her that it was difficult for people to understand at this age. But then, of course, she brought up Grandpa. “What about Grandpa’s age? What about so and so’s age?” Well, unfortunately, one of the things that we have to accept in life is that people can choose to be ignorant and that people can choose to be unkind. And sometimes, adults make those choices. Let’s face it.
So in the middle of this huge, life-changing revelation for her, we were fortunate enough to talk to one of my husband’s friends. This guy’s a great guy. Fabulous guy! He’s married, he has two kids, very friendly, always kind. And he has an allergy to tree-nuts! Of course, we introduced him to Emmy as soon as we found out.
And we said, “Here, look at this! He was able to find someone that loves him and understands the danger that tree-nuts have to him and is willing to live with that restriction. And look, he has children, and he’s living a happy, healthy life! As normal as the rest of us. Whatever normal means. And for the first time in months, I saw Emmy smile. She saw a future for herself again. And I felt like she had returned my heart into my chest. She had a future still. Not in my eyes, but her eyes.
And things have also changed. The last time she went to join. Her friends all learned how to use an epi-pen. And they developed a system — who was going to epi-pen her; who was going to Benadryl; who was going to get an adult; who was going to call Mom and Dad. It was fabulous to see how they came together. And now, her closest and dearest friends, a gaggle of wonderful girls (and some boys), all know the severity of her tree-nut allergy and understand what needs to be done in case of exposure.
But that isn’t the only beautiful set of news that we got. For the first time, we went back to the allergist, and instead of developing a new allergy, we found out that she had outgrown some of her tree-nut allergies! Not all of them mind you. She’s still allergic to hazelnuts, even very, very extremely allergic to walnuts; she’s allergic to Puerto Rican almonds, but she’s no longer allergic to the rest of the tree-nuts. We don’t know how that happened! It’s not supposed to happen this late in life, but it did! It happened! And we take it! We take what we call this ‘little miracle.’ It happened, we see it as a blessing, a stroke of luck, whatever you want to call it, it’s lovely. A wonderful gift from life!
So the combination of more awareness, maturity, and sensitivity on the part of her friends, and a lessening threat from tree-nuts has allowed her to see a much brighter future. But we know, we understand (and never forget) that not everybody understands the severity of an anaphylactic allergy. Not everybody who knows of it is going to respect it, and we need to be aware of that. Never forget it, to stay safe.
And as a mom, I can be very tolerant of a lot of things. The one thing I’m not tolerant of in our home is anyone who brings tree-nuts into our home, which may contain tree-nuts when they are aware of the severity when they see the signs in our house no tree-nuts are allowed. I have no problem cutting ties with people who commit those kinds of severe infractions. Because, to me, it is critical.
As I said before, my child has one safe place — and that’s our home. The one area where she shouldn’t doesn’t have to will never have to worry about her tree-nut allergy even after she goes off to college. After she’s an old lady, she comes back home to visit me, bringing the grandchildren. There will never be tree-nuts there. We will never eat them, and we will never allow them in our home because that is her one safe place. The rest of the time, she knows, she understands that she can rely on that. She knows that living in the real world comes with danger. But our home is her haven. And she knows that, too. And she’s free. Free not to worry there.