Death sneaked in, coated in chocolate.
To this day, we swear the label read that the Easter Bunny was peanut-free. Perhaps we were just exhausted parents, with 1- and 4-year-olds, and accidentally glanced over the Trojan horse.
Our oldest daughter turned to us with the words every parent of a child with a severe allergy dreads: “My tongue is fat, and my throat feels funny.”
That’s when fear dropped its suitcase in the front hall and moved in.
It’s always been a frequent guest. My father-in-law is a former district attorney who once, when we moved into an apartment complex, used his flashlight to show us all the places where a criminal could attack us at night.
My father, a veterinarian, became overwhelmed with the cost of health insurance and made sure his staff had it but canceled his own. Then he got Stage 4 colon cancer.
It doesn’t help that I’m a journalist and my wife is a former reporter. Woman sleeping on her couch killed when a car smashes through the window? Seen it. School shootings, tornadoes, house fires? Check, check, check.
But it was the bunny incident where fear really overtook us, even after our daughter was given the prescribed medicine immediately, threw up, and was just fine.
Yet the damage was done. The bunny incident showed death was just a peanut butter cup away. We’ve met twice with her allergist just so she could inquire about the hundreds of ways — in her mind — that she might die, including whether there was such thing as inhaling peanut dust in the air. She compulsively reads the ingredients on everything she eats and politely asks waiters in restaurants whether her hamburger even sat on a surface that maybe — just maybe — had nuts prepared on it.
My wife and I try to put on our bravest faces, but the fear sunk in like a splinter in our hearts that could never be pried out. Teaching parents before a sleepover how to inject your daughter with lifesaving medicine doesn’t strike the most joyous of tones, but they understand. After all, they don’t want a kid dying on their watch, either.
I’m hardly the first person to worry that we are living in a fear-driven society. How many times have we lamented that as kids, we ran around our neighborhood until dusk and no one worried about us? On my way to work the other day, I saw a girl riding her bike by herself to school, and that familiar anxiety churned. I thought of Tabitha Tuders, who walked to the bus stop, just three blocks from her East Nashville home, and hasn’t been seen since 2003.
We worry about kids playing football (concussions!). We slather on sunscreen (skin cancer!). We hover by the pool on high alert (dry drowning!). We coat our kids in bugs or keep them indoors (West Nile!). This is what our generation of parents is particularly grappling with. Will we see our kids at the end of the day if an angry, disgruntled peer decides to bring a gun to school?
If anyone suggests we all chill out a bit, we can all lean back and say knowingly, “It just happened yesterday.”
But I know we’re doing a disservice not only to our children, but to ourselves. Why are we so prone to regurgitate the terrors of the day? Does it build up a false sense of protection, that if we state why we’re so afraid, that it makes us safer?
Perhaps the time has come for a reckoning where we begin to retrain our conversations, our thought processes. It’s easy to point out a recent disaster, but do we then, in the next breath, tell of how people survived it? We are honest about the challenges, but give equal weight to the stories of those who made it through.
It will not be easy, especially for those of us who are on the other end of the Pollyanna spectrum. We pride ourselves in being realists, doing our best to be educated about the world and all its terrors.
My wife and I had to reach this point with my daughter. How do you encourage a true life, where the risks are worth it and chances must be taken, while rushing to wash off her face after she tried her friend’s lip gloss?
So we encourage what she does naturally. She is especially drawn to fiction of children surviving slavery, the Holocaust, and a dark wizard who-must-not-be-named. Characters who lived in frightening worlds and made it through.
We are raising two girls, one with a deadly allergy. We remind her that once, she could have died, but because we educated ourselves as to what to do, she lived. And if it happens again, she now knows how to survive.
She is recapturing the true spirit of an 11-year old girl, spending the night at friends’ houses where peanuts are eaten and prepared, with her Epi-Pen tucked in at the bottom of her drawstring bag that reads on the front, “YOU GO GIRL.”
Jeremy Finley is the chief investigative reporter for WSMV-TV, the NBC-affiliated station in Nashville. His investigative reporting has resulted in two national certificates from Investigative Reporters and Editors and 18 Emmys and Edward R. Murrow awards. He lives with his wife and daughters in Nashville. “The Darkest Time of Night” is his first novel. Find him on Facebook and Twitter.