That’s my alternate title to “An Open Letter to the Woman in the Ice Cream Shop”…
It was 2008, my 6 year old son and I were in a Baskin-Robbins, it was his first visit to an ice cream shop – prior to that his peanut, egg, soy and wheat allergies were far too severe to even think about having ice cream from ‘the bins’. And he was also allergic to dairy, until about 6 months prior. We were having a delightful time; the woman behind the counter graciously scooped my son ice cream from a brand new bin with a brand new spoon. I didn’t ask for that, but when the woman asked my son if he’d like to try any of the flavors, he told her that he couldn’t because he was allergic to nuts but then gave her a big grin and told her it was his first time getting ice cream out because now he can have dairy. He told her he was thinking of trying the chocolate soft serve. There must have been something in his eyes that tugged her heart strings, because she asked if we were avoiding the ice cream bins due to cross contamination. I said we were but he’d be excited to get soft serve. She looked at my sweet little son and told him that if he wanted to tell her which ice cream from the bins he wanted, she’d go and see if there was an untouched one and get his ice cream from that. I think I almost cried. People can be so caring – it made my son’s day. Little gestures go a long way.
We sat down and I watched my son eat his first ice cream cone. I was pretty excited. He was bouncing through the roof with the happiness that only ice cream can bring.
Then it happened.
A mother and daughter were sitting a few tables away – the daughter was probably a couple years older than my son – 1st or 2nd grader at the most. She asked her mom why she can’t bring peanut butter sandwiches to school for lunch. Her mother answered her thusly: “Because some kid ruined it for everyone by having an allergy and his paranoid parents made the school become peanut free instead of having a peanut-free table.”
I desperately hoped my son didn’t hear them. But of course he did – he hears everything. I saw his face fall and my heart lurched in my chest. He’s one of those kids that ‘ruined it for everybody’ but he’d never known an adult to talk about a peanut allergy like that. Before he could even say a word, I assured him that he did not ruin anything for anyone – his school already had a peanut free policy because he’s not the only one with that allergy.
I wish I had the courage to speak up to that woman – to tell her that parents of small children with food allergies are not ‘paranoid’. They’re ‘terrified’ – absolutely terrified. Because for most people with peanut allergies, it’s not just a situation where you get some hives or a runny nose and you pop a Benadryl. You can die. Let me rephrase that. PEANUTS CAN CAUSE DEATH. That’s pretty fucking serious. You don’t really come back from death. I wanted to scream in that woman’s face that she was completely callous – that she did not know the fear of sending a kindergartner to school in hopes that the teachers understand how serious the situation can be. She did not know what it was like to walk into your child’s classroom and see the teacher giving him a snack that wasn’t provided by ME and her response was “well, I didn’t think it would matter.” I wanted to explain (loudly) that a small child cannot be responsible for knowing about sharing foods or touching something that might have had peanut butter on it…that for young children, having a peanut free policy is the safest option for the child and one that gives parents peace of mind. I wanted to tell her that no child wants to sit by themselves at the ‘peanut free table’ and feel like an outcast.
I wanted to do a lot of things that involved yelling and screaming – but I didn’t. I didn’t want to embarrass her in front of her daughter, I didn’t want to make a scene in front of my son and I didn’t want to displace my frustration at the whole food-allergy situation that we’d been dealing with for years on her. My son already felt ‘different’ – having to always bring an alternate snack at birthday parties and celebrations. Never being able to just eat something without having to check all the ingredients or ask ‘what’s in it’. To be totally honest, I also didn’t have the courage at the time.
I’m older and wiser these days (well, older anyway). If it happened now, I would have said something – something kind and gentle (hopefully) about how every kid with a peanut allergy wished their school mates could eat that PB&J sandwich and maybe they might be able to have a bite too; and how every parent of those kids wished it as well. We are not being pushy or helicopter parents when it comes to food allergies and death. We’re doing the best we can.
These days my 11 year old son only has a nut allergy and is very aware of asking about foods. He carries his own epi-pen and feels confident in most of what he eats. I wish that special ‘first ice cream cone’ day didn’t have that black cloud memory – I only hope he’s forgotten the bad part but remembers the ice cream cone and the wonderful woman behind the counter.
I wrote this in response to an article I read about a similar situation and I was completely FLOORED at all the really cruel comments people left. One person wrote that ‘in my day, there weren’t all these so-called allergies’. As if people are making it up – because ya know, it’s fun. Another person thought it was the 5 year old kid’s problem if he/she died from ingesting peanuts (accompanied by a Darwinian comment). Really people? Have we sunk to such a low point in society where children dying from anaphlayxis is somehow humorous? I laugh at death and inappropriate things all the time – but I can’t quite muster up a smile for this.