This is the story my sister-in-law’s brother Andrew told over dinner:
One night he, some friends and a fellow female student at Brown University went to a local bar hangout. The waitress brought them a tray of tortilla chips and the house salsa, which contained a special, secret ingredient. They all drank, ate, and laughed a lot, especially when the young woman pretended she was choking.
Only she wasn’t pretending. Ten minutes later, when the paramedics arrived, the girl was in the final throes of anaphylactic shock, and, before the eyes of horrified strangers, died. The salsa’s secret ingredient? Peanut butter.
This is the story Andrew told at the dinner table. This is the story he told with dramatic flourish in front of my four year old son Jonathan. This is the story he felt compelled to tell because he had just noticed that my son wore an oversized Medic-Alert bracelet on his undersized wrist, to remind everyone – as if we needed reminding – that Jonathan is severely allergic to peanuts.
Later, I overheard Jonathan talking to his friend Linda about his special bracelet. “It doesn’t come off,” he said. “It can go in the water, and I can sleep with it. It stays on forever. The bracelet keeps me safe.” A talisman.
But still I live in dread, that the bracelet and the medications we carry will not be enough; what if the auto-injecting epinephrine isn’t nearby if he needs it? I’d like to throw an invisible safety net around him; I’d like to be his protector forever.
Only I know I can’t. Jonathan is growing up, and growing away, as children must. And I have taken up permanent residence in the State of Heightened Anxiety. I’m a vigilante on full alert, sniffing suspiciously at cookies and brownies, or obsessively scanning food labels. This isn’t an entirely unfamiliar role. When my husband and I got engaged, he said to my mother, “there’s just one thing I want to know about her. Is she the kind of person who’s only happy when she has something to worry about?”
But now my free-floating fear has a lightning rod, a tailor-made target: what could be better than a potentially life-threatening condition, triggered by a food substance that can lurk, disguised, in so many disparate, seemingly benign food stuffs?
Peanut butter has been banned from our house, ever since a babysitter forgot and made Jonathan a PBJ sandwich. “What does it taste like, Mom?” Jonathan will still ask longingly.
“It’s no big deal,” I tell him. But I have to admit I miss it, in all its mouth-gluey, super-chunky caloric splendor. It’s comfort food, a late night staple in college when my roommates and I would smear it on Ritz crackers and wash it down with greedy gulps of Coke Cola. Now I think of it as contraband, and, like an illicit Cuban cigar, sneak it guiltily at other people’s houses when Jonathan isn’t around.
So please spare me the horror stories. I don’t want to hear about your cousin’s friend who died in the local Chinese restaurant because an errant peanut found its way to her plate, or the teenager you read about who was felled by the kiss of a boyfriend who had eaten peanuts hours earlier; or the story you heard on TV about the little girl who ate mislabeled cookies under the watchful eye of her babysitter and died before the medics arrived. Everyone has a story, and there isn’t one I haven’t heard already. It’s difficult enough that people always feel compelled to share them, but why must it be in front of Jonathan? Even in the pediatrician’s office, we are assailed; one afternoon we arrive for a throat culture, and a new doctor in the practice strides in, takes one look at that bracelet, and launches into the story of a classmate in medical school who went out with her for Thai food but forgot to bring his Epi-Pen. “Anaphylaxis!” she sings out cheerily to my bewildered seven year old.
I’ve trained my son to ask questions, read labels, and ask again. He’s been a worthy disciple, a worrier like his mom. But I do not wish to burden him with my crippling concern.
And so I will send him to sleep-away camp this summer for the first time. I have chosen to think that the people I’ve entrusted him to will be able to keep him safe. I will always agonize over the hidden ingredients, the things we can’t see or control. But does that really differ so much from all the other, half-sensed things I fear for him? It started when they first cut that umbilical cord: an endless unraveling, this process of letting our children go.