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November 25, 2013
"Attention, ladies and gentlemen. There is a passenger on board with a severe peanut allergy. Please refrain from eating anything with peanuts while you are on this flight.”
I dutifully push my supply of snack bars deep into my carry-on bag. We never travel without them. Who knows when we’ll have trouble finding safe food?
My mind turns to the family, the person or parent dealing with a food allergy. The condition is severe enough to warrant two announcements to a full airplane. My empathy kicks in. This person, whom I’ll never know, and I have a lot in common. We live our lives in hyper-vigilance (the necessary attention to the mundane) and with the regular necessity to boldly call attention to ourselves, like this announcement to the packed plane.
My daughter has celiac disease and is sensitive to dairy. Her dietary needs require a continuous boldness that I, a natural introvert, would rather not have to exhibit.
The first couple times I followed a reluctant waiter into a restaurant kitchen, I was embarrassed, although not nearly as mortified as my kids. I tried not to let it show. Head held high, confident, assertive, helpful tone (not demanding), I killed them with kindness. “I’d be delighted to come read the label on that #10 can. I do it all the time.”
And I do.
In our early gluten-free days, I worked hard to maintain some sense of normalcy for my child. I baked a lot. I made sure there were gluten-free snacks at school for birthday celebrations and I arranged for gluten-free pizzas on pizza-sale day. I sent her off to summer camp with boxes of homemade muffins, cookies and pancakes.
In those days, I wanted my child to feel as much like everyone else as possible. She hates to be singled out, a feeling I completely understand. Don’t most of us want to avoid that kind of attention? While I respect diversity, I am loathe to feel so different on a daily basis.
Fortunately, this desire to feel “the same” has shifted with time. I no longer cringe when asking the waiter to deliver the chef to me. I’m confident when I ask for full information about ingredients, cooking practices and school policies.
Still, it can occasionally feel exhausting to be so vigilant. In those moments, it helps to remember that I am in excellent company. As the plane gains altitude, I think about my fellow passenger – the one with the peanut allergy - and I am grateful for the reminder that none of us is alone on this journey. Strangers who will never meet, we are heading in the same direction, sharing space and an experience. Each bold act of assertiveness clears a path for others to follow.
I send a silent message, a wish for continued courage, safety and blessings on this traveler…and on us all.
Elaine Taylor-Klaus (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a life coach who lives in Atlanta with her husband and three children.