Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl
by Sandra Beasley
There are only two birthdays that stand out in my memory as distinct, chronologically certain events. One: my sixteenth birthday, when we watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. That was the year my friend Elizabeth, while using the swing anchored to the underside of our second-story deck, pushed off so hard that the whole shebang – girl, swing, unhooked chains – went sailing twenty feet out into the woods behind our house. Two: the year I got diagnosed with mononucleosis, too late to cancel an Italian-themed dinner party. So I stood in front of a stove for two hours – achy, glands swollen, stone-cold sober – cooking pasta for two dozen while my friends went through six bottles of wine. That was, undoubtedly, my twenty-first birthday.
Beyond that, it blends into a murky party. Which years did we go to Chuck E. Cheese’s? When did I get my Rainbow Brite doll? Which years were my father home, and which years had the army sent him off to the War College, Saudi Arabia, Bosnia?
There is one constant in my birthday memories. When it came time for a cake, my mother would bring out whatever Sandra-friendly sweet she’d designed. Some years it was sunflower-margarine Rice Krispies treats, and some years it was an applesauce-and-cinnamon-raisin Bundt cake. I’d get my serving. Then we’d dish out the real dessert of cake or brownies or pie a la mode for everybody else. After singing, after blowing out candles, after presents had been opened, after everyone had eaten, someone would say it: “Now, don’t kill the birthday girl.”
When it came time for a cake, my mother would bring out
whatever Sandra-friendly sweet she’d designed.
Which meant no kisses, no hugs, no touch of a hand or mouth. From that point onward, anyone who touched me ran the risk of giving me hives, or worse. Even today, it’s a phrase I repeat as part joke and part prayer. Don’t kill the birthday girl.
It’s the same at every holiday. My uncle Jim is notorious for forgetting about my allergies, holding out a dish of ice cream and asking, “Want a bite?” He’s the fun bachelor uncle, the one who rides a motorcycle and would give a little girl a windup sewer rat, complete with blinking red eyes, as a Christmas gift.
Once upon a time, it would fall on my mother to protect me at the end of the night, when the aunts and uncles and cousins were making the rounds for good-byes. Now I step to the side on my own. Everyone understands why I avoid contact. Yet I can’t help but wish it wasn’t their last impression of me before the long drive home.
I am allergic to dairy (including goat’s milk), egg, soy, beef, shrimp, pine nuts, cucumbers, cantaloupe, honeydew, mango, macadamias, pistachios, cashews, swordfish, and mustard. I’m also allergic to mold, dust, grass and tree pollen, cigarette smoke, dogs, rabbits, horses, and wool. But in particular, I am one of the 15 million Americans who have been diagnosed with food allergies, a figure that includes 8 percent of all children. Even with so many of us in the conversation, there are huge disconnects in the dialogue. Parents who have never met a food they couldn’t eat struggle to empathize with their child’s allergies. Those crusading for community accommodation misguidedly conflate allergies with intolerance and confuse discomfort with anaphylaxis. Advocacy groups focus on youth allergies and largely ignore the complexities faced by those who grow into adulthood, travel, marry, and must figure out how to raise children of their own. There are multiple dimensions of data out there, but no one has set the gyroscope spinning.
Allergies are quirky beasts. Unlike many syndromes, they are primarily sorted according to their outside catalysts. (Have you ever heard someone claim to have type-peanut diabetes? Eggplant flu?) Allergies are widespread – and widely misdiagnosed. There is a whole range of symptoms and degrees of sensitivity, and these symptoms can change for any given individual at any time. For those with allergies like mine, each day requires vigilance in terms of what we do, the company we keep, and where we sit in relation to that bowl of mixed nuts. One person’s comfort food is another person’s enemy. One person’s lifesaver is another’s poison.
I thought my family’s habit of calling the foods I can eat “Sandra-friendly” was unique, until I saw a book by Emily Hendrix called Sophie-Safe Cooking: A Collection of Family Friendly Recipes That Are Free of Milk, Eggs, Wheat, Soy, Peanuts, Tree Nuts, Fish, and Shellfish. The more I have read, the more I realize a whole culture of catchphrases has emerged in addition to the key medical terminology. Safe, friendly, free: these words come up over and over again in literature about allergies.
Don’t kill the birthday girl. Leftover omelet clings to the edge of a breakfast plate. Butter greases the stir-fry. Walnuts go commando in an otherwise tame brownie. There’s a reason they’re called allergy “attacks”; you never know where a food can be lurking.
But those with food allergies aren’t victims. We’re people who – for better or for worse – experience the world in a slightly different way. This is not a story of how we die. These are the stories of how we live.
Sandra Beasley is an author and poet who lives in Washington, D.C., where her prose has been featured in the Washington Post Magazine.
Excerpted with permission from Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl, by Sandra Beasley, copyright © 2012 Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Allergies & Asthma magazine, Spring/Summer 2012.