Growing up, my mom always told me "If you don't laugh, you'll cry." Mom and Dad taught me by example to look at something stressful or sad and just try to find the humor- from the simple things like turning a botched crock pot spaghetti recipe into a 20 year running joke, to the more profound things dressing my grandpa is his favorite Hawaiian shirt and tucking his autographed picture of Charro in his casket at his funeral. Laughter makes everything, from embarrassment to grief, better.
However, when Phil was first diagnosed with life threatening food allergies at age 16 months, I have to admit it was really hard for me to find the funny. That day at Riley Hospital for Children, clutching my sweet, kind, smart, red-splotched, itchy and vomiting firstborn son, it was hard to wrap my mind around how I was going to find the funny in this. I had failed my son. He had had these allergies for how long now, and I had just ignored the symptoms, brushed them off as just the way Phil is. . .oh, that Phil. He's just a gagger, that's why he throws up so much! I look back at pictures of his red, splotchy, tormented skin and I think. . .how did I not notice? But your firstborn child is perfect. No one can tell you otherwise, right? Oh, he's just a little itchy, that Phil! I am sure he will grow out of it! The truth of the matter was that Philip had severe allergies to peanuts, tree nuts and eggs. Now, not only did I need to worry about normal mommy stuff that we first time mommies all obsess about like developmental milestones and nutrition and taking turns and sharing and sleeping through the night and potty training, but, oh, yeah, by the way your son could die pretty much anywhere from normal food that people eat all the time without thinking twice about. No big deal, right? I felt like the walls were closing in.
I stayed strong at the hospital for my little boy, I stayed strong in the car (and also said a thankful prayer that it wasn't a milk allergy since milk was his favorite "food"), I got home, put the boys down for a nap and started going through my kitchen cabinets. . . and the tears began. Wow. Everything was poison. POISON. It's like finding out your house is full of loaded guns and you didn't even know it. Contains nuts. May contain tree nuts. Contains traces of peanuts. Processed on shared equipment with eggs, peanuts and tree nuts. I started making piles- food pantry, give to friends, throw away. It felt good to purge. I pulled myself together. I called Paul at work. We talked. I made grilled cheese. We bathed the kids, put them to bed, I grabbed the keys and headed to Meijer. When you don't know what to do, just keep moving forward. My first trip to the grocery post diagnosis was both terrifying and incredibly annoying. Reading every package, with one part of my brain thanking God for food labeling laws and the other part of my brain cursing people for loving nuts so much. For Paul and I, who lived on a steady diet of peanut butter and fried egg sandwiches, a major lifestyle change was in order. The next few weeks were full of trips to the library, searches on the internet, reading blogs, painfully long trips to the grocery and chatting with friends. I had to educate myself as much as possible. One day at a time, keep moving forward. I couldn't allow myself to think too far into the future, and I still don't. One day at a time.
Even taking it one day at a time. feeding Phil seemed overwhelming. I mean, he still needed to eat 4 or 5 times a day, right? His allergies had caused him to have a fear of food in addition to normal toddler picky-ness. I cringe when I think of the foods I fed my trusting baby, imagining how awful they made him feel. I felt like all I was feeding him now was cereal and macaroni and cheese. . .I felt so limited. I felt like a bad parent. I felt like I had failed. Then, Paul suggested I sit down and make a list of all of the things Phil COULD eat. I still have that list. It made me feel better then, and it makes me smile now to think of all the things we have been able to add to it. We get magazines from Catholic Relief Services all of the time, and we just so happened to get one the day after I made that list. Every magazine is filled with the faces of women and children who struggle to eat, or even have clean and safe water to drink. Any time I feel like feeding my family is overwhelming, I think of those faces. The women who have to send their children to bed with hungry bellies. Who have to pick through trash, or sell their bodies to provide for their families. Meanwhile, I prance down the aisle in a grocery store full of food. Yeah, my son can't eat everything. But I can give him everything he needs. For that, I am deeply grateful.
Over three years later with the benefit of time, perspective, and experience everything seems much more manageable. The fear lingers, but I can't let it grip my heart. DO NOT BE AFRAID, God says. In some aspects, this allergy diagnosis has really been a gift. We have seen the true love and care our friends and family have for us in the amazing consideration they have shown for Phil. What a blessing they are to us. We have learned to appreciate the things we can have instead of the things we can't. I have learned to be assertive, which is FAR, FAR outside of my comfort zone. But when my child's life is at stake, I ask for the strength and grace to swallow my irrational fear of inconveniencing any other human beings and just think of the one that God gave me to love and protect. We worry less about the other first-time parent things, because, hey, he's alive and he's happy and he's just doing great! And, we have finally learned to laugh. Especially thanks to our second son, Daniel, who I think was born just to bring us this gift. Consider this conversation between my children at age 2 1/2 and 3 1/2.
Phil: Sir, I am allergic to peanuts. And eggs.
Daniel: Did you say penis??
Phil: Nooooo sir. PEANUTS. PEANUTS.
Daniel: Oh, penis and eggs. OK, got it.
Daniel: Yeah. Penis. Penis and eggs.
How can you stress with a brother like that?