When we walked into the house after Lucy’s yearly appointment, her brothers (Sal, age 6, and Gino and Milo, both age 5) clamored to hear the news. Dressed in her mint green owl shirt, little 2 year-old Lucy looked admiringly up at the boys and said one word, “Egg”. Sal, who has no known food allergies, gave her a big kiss on her cheek. Gino, who required 2 doses of injectable epinephrine after he ate egg and who probably has reacted to more foods than he is able to eat, ran to her and threw his strong, tan arms around his sister. “That’s great! You get to try eggs!” He couldn’t contain his smile. His joy for her was palpable. Milo, who is only allergic to egg and soy, sulked. There was no celebratory embrace from him. He shuffled to the family room and sat at the edge of the couch with his serious eyes focused away – away from what he wanted to happen to him, away from the egg talk. I sat next to him. “It’s not fair, Mommy. It’s not fair that she gets to eat egg and not me.” He couldn’t contain his tears and so they flowed.
I brought Lucy to my mom’s house the morning after the appointment and in a clean pan, my mom scrambled up a fresh egg for Lucy and served it to her in her pink bowl. I fed her a bite that was smaller than a grain of Kosher salt and we waited. There were no hives. There was no redness. There were no symptoms. I let her have another small bite and we waited. We repeated this until she had eaten a good amount of that pale yellow scrambled egg. She was fine. She was happy. She was not allergic to egg. I breathed a deep sigh of relief and gratitude to the food allergy goddesses but then I felt my heart sink a little. How would the boys react to this?
I picked up the boys from school later that day and I told them that Lucy ate an egg and that she was not allergic to it. As the boys walked past her car seat to get into their own, Sal rubbed her head in a way you would expect the oldest brother would and told her she did a good job. Gino gave her a tender high-five followed by a tickle to express how happy he was for her. Milo went straight past her and buckled himself into his seatbelt. Gino asked Milo if he heard that Lucy could eat eggs. He confirmed that he did indeed hear the news. Sal asked him why he didn’t smile at her but Milo didn’t have an answer. I wasn’t sure he really knew the answer. He is only 5, after all. He wasn’t mad at her for being able to eat eggs. He was only able to focus on the fact that he wasn’t able to eat them. I could sense his frustration and conflict.
As I thought about the twins’ differing reactions to this news, I contemplated if their individual food allergies played a role. Gino, who may never be able to eat wheat, milk, egg or many other foods, reacted selflessly. He knows that this opportunity may not present itself to him any time soon and still he was able to feel genuine delight for his sister’s stroke of luck. He has learned through living with his food allergies to be happy for others even if you can’t have what they have. He has learned to accept that his life is distinct from everyone else’s and in doing this, rarely compares himself to others or feels cheated. Milo, however, sees himself as the twin who is hardly allergic to food. He relates more to the food allergy-free world. His more self-focused reaction was motivated by his own intense hope to lose his egg allergy. He feels like he is just shy of being like “everyone else” so his competitive drive and his need for equality are intense, often creating a strong sense of rivalry.
I compare these differing reactions to a tennis match. If you are defeated in a match with a score of 6-0, 6-0, 6-0 then chances are you are able to acknowledge that your opponent won fair and square. You didn’t stand a chance against him. In these games, usually one player applaudes the other for his prowess, and moves on, accepting the outcome. This is in stark contrast to the player who loses a match 7-6, 7-6, 7-6 with every game a battle of deuces and every set a battle of tiebreakers. The loss of that match may cause one player to dwell on a serve he should’ve made or a call that wasn’t right or a backhand that had a bit too much muscle on it. This kind of match leaves the loser just barely out of the competition. It leaves him hungry for another round. It leaves him knowing he could easily be the winner next time. See what I mean? It’s like the more foods that allergy stacks against you, the more likely you are to accept your fate. The fewer foods that are seen as victorious opponents, the more likely you are to feel you should be able to overcome them. I am obviously not equating having food allergy to losing but after years of playing tennis matches like the ones I have described, I have felt how I think Gino and Milo are feeling.
We also left Lucy’s appointment that day with a future milk challenge in place. Lucy had anaphylaxis to cow’s milk at 4 months and like her brother, required 2 doses of injectable epinephrine in order to decrease her airway swelling. So as excited as we are for the chance to knock yet another allergen off of her avoidance list, I am sick over the thought of her having a reaction. But I am also a little sick over the thought of her being able to eat cow’s milk. (I cringe as I write that because it is almost too honest to share.) How could I possibly feel that way? The truth is that I am concerned how her brothers will feel. The kids find refuge in having shared food allergens with their siblings. There is something safe about that. Something sacred. And not having a food allergy that another one has gives the one without the allergy a very important role as a protector. See how complicated this gets?
Well, if she is able to eat cow’s milk, Sal will be thrilled even though he does pride himself on keeping an eye on Lucy whenever there may be milk around. There will be an adjustment for him because he takes this role on with intense and instinctive responsibility. I know how Milo will see this. He is not allergic to milk so there will be no sense of rivalry there; he will get the chance to celebrate with his sister and boy, do I hope that he has the opportunity to feel this emotion. It is so important for siblings to feel pure excitement for another’s success. It’s that sort of empathy that forges long-lasting friendships between brothers and sisters.
But what about Gino? This is where my sadness comes in. With Lucy’s ability to eat cow’s milk, the gap begins to widen between Gino and his siblings. As happy as we would be for Lucy to have one less allergen, Gino will also have one less ally in avoidance. Right now, they make a great team. At Starbucks, they both order an orange juice, while the other two drink their cow’s milk. If Milo and Sal get a cookie, Gino and Lucy share their own safe cookies. Her milk allergy plays a critical role in the balance of power among the siblings. Will Gino handle a milk victory as well as he did the egg? And what if he can’t? That possibility breaks our hearts.
Of course, I want few things more than for Lucy to be able to eat cow’s milk with no reaction. But the truth is, with that ability to drink cow’s milk comes a change and it will be a change that has a lot of emotional strings attached. It’s a change that I desperately want for her, but one that I don’t know if I want for Gino. Although chances are that if she is able to have cow’s milk that he will graciously throw his arms around her and revel in one more food allergy victory with her – because he has learned not to see his limitations as punishments, because he has learned to be happy for what he has, and because, well, that’s just the kind of kid he is.
Here’s hoping that next Tuesday afternoon I get to see that victory hug.
What a perfect moment that would be…