By Rachel Wohrlin
As most parents of adult children will tell you, many memories fill our heads from when our children were small, but several truly stand out. We probably don’t realize at the time, but that moment will define so many others for the rest of a child’s life. My daughter is 19 years old now, but 17 years ago her life changed in an instant in, of all places, our favorite shopping mall.
She was born in Denver, Colo., and I was lucky enough to spend a year at home with her. When I went back to work, she attended a lovely day care (which we called “school”), and our home was only seven miles away. In everyday rush-hour traffic, this would be a 30-minute drive, but in a snow storm, this would be at least an hour. If you’ve tried to drive with a hungry 2-year-old complaining in the back seat, you can barely think of much else. So, our snowstorm custom was to hit the mall, grab a bite to eat, hang out, then and head home when traffic had died down and snowplows were out working their magic. One such bite to eat changed everything.
A cookie would be good (yes, sugar. Don’t judge). After all, it had oatmeal and walnuts in it—whole grains AND protein! After a few bites, I heard her mumbling, “Ouchie! Mouth hurt! Ouchie!” At first, I thought the bakery snuck in a gross raisin or she swallowed a big bite or something, but then I looked down and saw it—her tongue was swollen.
I froze. She was my first born (and only), and I had no idea what was going on. I took it away from her while trying to figure out the next step. Her entire mouth wasn’t swollen, just her tongue; her airway wasn’t compromised so she hadn’t choked; and she seemed better now that the cookie was out of her sight. So, I thought maybe she just needed to be soothed. I pushed her in the stroller for a couple minutes, then it hit me: allergic reaction.
I didn’t really know what to do next. Calling 911 for an “ouchie” seemed extreme. After all, she wasn’t getting any worse; I later learned this is typical for first reactions. But I knew she needed something. I didn’t think this warranted a trip to the emergency room, and the urgent care clinic was notorious for hours-long wait times. So, I loaded her up in the car, and we drove to the pharmacy at the grocery store. By this time, she wasn’t complaining at all. I asked the pharmacist if he thought we were looking at an allergic reaction. He said yes. We cracked open a bottle of liquid Benadryl and gave her the recommended dose. In ten minutes or so, her tongue returned to normal size.
Thus began the journey of life with a child with allergies. The first stop: a trip to the pediatrician. As anticipated, I was severely chastised for not taking her to the emergency room. “This could have been much worse! Don’t you know children die from allergies?” I ended up crying more about the cookie incident while my daughter shed not one tear. We learned the allergy was from tree nuts. (Not peanuts, which my daughter will tell anyone to this day that those are leguuuuuuumes.) We were told to avoid walnuts (obviously), pecans, almonds, macadamia nuts, pine nuts, and any other nut from a tree. We were given a prescription for the now ubiquitous Epi-Pen.
We started a maze of informing schools, parents of friends, reading food ingredient lists, asking about nuts at every restaurant. We couldn’t keep any tree nuts in our home, much to the chagrin of the adults. I had to learn all the common foods—mostly desserts—that contain nuts, and the list is huge. Carrot cake at a friend’s baptism party turned into an immediate need for Benadryl. I’m not a fan of that dessert, so I had no idea to expect walnuts in it. A seemingly innocuous muffin on a playdate ended with the other mother calling me to pick up my toddler, then telling me how irresponsible I was for not telling her about my daughter’s allergies. In my defense, I had told the mother not to feed my daughter any snacks; I suppose I should have told her why.
When she was 9, she experienced her first ER visit. We had cracked open one of those boxes of mixed chocolates that includes a map of specific delicacies, and either we read it upside down—which would mean she was now allergic to coconut also—or those dang candies cross pollinated in the box. The result was still the same. Not only was her tongue swollen, but her whole mouth was. She refused the scary Epi-pen, so we rushed her to the closest ER. She watched the nurses insert the IV, and then she was out—thanks to a shit ton of Benadryl.
After that experience, she could pretty well taste on first bite if an errant tree nut was part of the delicacy that was about to eaten—mostly cookies, muffins, and candies—and immediately spit it out. For nearly a decade, she kept Benadryl in her school bag and her schools and other activities were well informed of the allergy. I only got a few calls during those years, and luckily my bosses were very understanding when I had to bolt out of the office because I had to get to my daughter.
We operated like this, and it seemed to work with her spitting out a tiny piece of nut before it was ingested then taking the Benadryl, until one time it didn’t.
In high school, a kind yearbook teacher would bring snacks for his students. One such snack was a bar of some sort with a peanut and pecan crust. Because she only tasted the peanuts, she thought it was okay to eat the rest of it. This was the first time she ingested more than a tiny nut. She called me from her school, and I made a hurried 16-mile trip to pick her up. Her previous run-ins with nuts seemed so infrequent that she stopped carrying the Epi-pen and sometimes even Benadryl. Luckily an administrator had some of the antihistamine on hand which slowed the reaction. It didn’t seem like much, so I just took her home to rest off the Benadryl.
A few minutes later we could tell that her throat was closing and her whole body was swelling. Still afraid of needles and that damned Epi-Pen, I rushed her to the ER which was less than 5 minutes away—the ambulances were stationed at the hospital, so I posited that a ride in one would take twice as long. She was rushed back to a room, hooked up to two IV lines (which she was actually begging for because she knew they would provide the medicines to stop the process and give her relief) and received so many meds. Parents who have seen their child in distress know how important time is. I forced myself to be in the here and now and not the why. Watching her body and face swell were things I never want to see again. Ever. After a couple hours, she was pretty much herself again. A much-needed nap at home was a welcome relief to both of us.
Now she has graduated from high school and is living on her own. I must trust that she will take that Benadryl and get herself to the hospital. I won’t always be able to show up and make the assessment as to which step to take next. Hopefully she will at least have Benadryl in her handbag, know when to call 911, and have a companion to sit with her while it all unfolds.
That, my friends, is the very essence of being a parent to an adult child.
Rachel Wohrlin is a contributing writer and the primary copy editor for The Next Ten Words. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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