Friday, September 21, 2007

Last night I made my son a peanut butter sandwich. It was the first peanut butter sandwich I'd made him in six years.

He wouldn't eat it. In fact, he was pretty sure it would kill him if he did.

When Jack was two (yep, I'm outing Fine Young Son No. 1, because I'm tired of writing Fine Young Son No. 1 and No. 2) he ate a cashew at playgroup. I didn't think a thing about it. A minute or two later, he started to complain that his throat hurt. Suck it up, I told him, or something equally as warm and maternal. He continued to complain. I thought he must be tired and ready to go home, so we left.

In the car, he complained that his eyes itched. Checking him out in the rearview mirror, I saw the skin around his eyes was a blotchy pink. I finally made the connection between the cashew and Jack's symptoms. As it happened, we were right by an Urgent Care facility, so I whipped into the parking lot, grabbed Jack, and ran inside, screaming that someone had to see Jack that very minute, that he was having an allergic reaction to nuts. I thought he was going to die.

Long story short: Jack was indeed allergic to nuts. He didn't go into anaphylactic shock on that day, nor has he ever. In fact, he has only had one other allergic reaction. About six months later, I bought some Nestle's Chocolate Chunks to make cookies with. I knew that Nestle's chocolate chips were nut free, and I assumed that the Chunks were too. Jack ate a handful, and almost immediately hives popped up around his eyes. I checked the package, and there it was, plain as day: This product may have been processed on machinery that also processes peanuts.

When Jack was diagnosed as being allergic to nuts, I went into a deep funk. Knowing your child is just a nut-laden cookie away from death can really get to a girl. And every time I thought I'd made peace with Jack's condition, some kid would get near to him with a peanut butter sandwich, and I'd just about lose it. His first day of preschool, the mom in charge of snack brought in peanut butter crackers, despite the letter that went out to all the parents in Jack's class that no snacks with nuts were allowed. After telling Jack a hundred times not to eat those crackers, I went back to my car and wept.

How on earth were we going to get through school and birthday parties and Halloween and the people who don't believe in nut allergies and the people who say, "Oh, this cake--these cookies--this chocolate candy doesn't have nuts in it," and then are stunned when they actually read the label to find out it does have nuts? How would he survive--how would we survive--without keeping Jack under constant surveillance?

Sixth months after starting preschool at age four, Jack taught himself to read. This was a blessing, because now Jack could read food labels for himself. In fact, he has done an amazing job of self-policing over the years. And he has been a great sport. He has had to pass up all sorts of birthday cakes because the cake mix box had been thrown out or the store label had been torn off the plastic box and we had no way of knowing whether or not the cake was nut-free.

I should take a second here to give a shout-out to our many friends and neighbors who went rooting through the trash to find empty cake mix boxes or cookie packages or called the bakery that made the birthday cake. Another one goes to my friends who never forgot about Jack's allergies, who always made certifiably nut-free cakes and cookies, who always checked the labels on the crackers or the chips without having to be asked.

When Fine Young Son No. 2--aka Will--came along, we treated him as though he were allergic to nuts, too. It wasn't hard to do, since we don't keep peanut butter or any nuts at all in the house. We told his preschool teachers that we were treating him as potentially allergic to nuts, and they asked parents to bring in nut free snacks for snack time.

We were told we should get Jack tested around age eight, and so yesterday, we did. For good measure, we got Will tested, too. A nurse swabbed their backs, drew a lot of little horizontal lines, each one with a little code under it, and then she poked and pricked and we waited. One of the pokes was with a histamine, and on both boys that turned into a welt almost immediately. Other than that one welt, Will's back stayed clear. A short line of four welts appeared on Jack's back. When the nurse examined him, she said: Cashews. Almonds. English Walnuts. Hazelnuts.

No peanuts.

When you have spent six years worrying that your child will die after innocently consuming a fraction of a peanut, it is an amazing and wonderous thing to hear that he is safe.

"Let's go buy some peanut butter!" the boys yelled. And so, on our way home, we stopped at a mini-mart and bought a small jar of Jif. When we got home, I made the first peanut butter sandwich I'd made in six years.

No one would touch it.

Will, of course, does not eat strange food on principle, even when the idea of the food is appealing to him. Jack, on the other hand, is more adventurous. But psychologically, it must be hard to eat something that for your entire thinking life you have assumed would kill you. He may never eat peanut butter. I wouldn't blame him.

But if he wants to, he can. And I can let him go to Europe now, and New York City, and all those other places that would take him far away from me and his dad, without worrying that if we're not there to save him, who will? We'll still worry about drunk drivers and child predators and freak accidents and a wide and various assortment of diseases. But not peanuts. They're off our list.

But I'm keeping the epi-pen, just in case.

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