The first time she turns red, your husband blurts forcefully, “Get in the car.”
You whisper, “Oh God, oh God,” through half sobs as you race her to hospital.
The second time she turns red you run with her in your arms to the GP clinic next door. They treat her urgently and slowly little specks of white skin start to appear through the raging redness enveloping her.
You are exhausted afterwards, there is a sore feeling in your head and chest and you feel bewildered at the not knowing.
You are finally sitting in the specialist’s rooms after months of the not knowing and he tells you of her poisons, all six of them. He tells you how to save her life, he shows you how to puncture her little thigh and infuse the magical antidote to help her breathe again.
On the drive home, little specks of understanding start to appear in your muddled mind, the weeping open skin, the explosions of red and the raking of her fingernails across her face. Mother’s milk tainted with tiny traces of her poisons, eaten unknowingly, innocuous to most, but rejected violently by her little body.
You feel relief that you can help your baby now, you instantly cease eating her poisons, throw them out of the house. The frequent peaks of panic cease. Her tiny being is safe with you, safe in your house. You wrap her in your protective arms, and hold her close in a cool bubble.
But others want to hold her, others with poison on their hands, someone pops a biscuit in her mouth at a party, she turns red, and your head and chest thump. There is a realisation that every occasion, every milestone, every phase of her life means stepping out of the bubble, momentarily.
You tell everyone you can about her vulnerability, tell them all to wash their hands, their mouths, remove the poisons from her reach. You tell everyone, even strangers at the park. You tell the world because it feels safer for her if everyone knows.
She gleefully opens her little beak for her first solids. An opening in her bubble demanding habitual vigilance. You are the gate-keeper. She thrives beautifully, and her world expands. You leave her at kindy, so excited on her first day. She slides down the fireman’s pole and asks the teacher, “When are you going to teach me something?!” You look up to the sky as you walk away, blinking through tears just like the other mums, but your head is screaming thoughts of whether you have taught the teachers enough, explained enough, showed them how to give her emergency dose, have they practised…enough?
“How can anyone be as vigilant as me?” you torture yourself. The ‘what ifs’ circle above you in the clouds.
You make mistakes, the call from your husband; she has eaten the wrong muffin. Two batches, one for her, one for her brother, left hastily beside each other on the bench, and you hadn’t explained to her they were different, hadn’t put them out of reach like usual, hadn’t told your husband. You speed home, she is on the bed, writhing, her tummy is sore. You catch a litre of vomit, her little body expelling the poison.
You make mistakes, the two milk drinks, you swear you put the right milk in hers; she drinks it and instantly says, “My throat stings.”
Her perfect red lips swell. You call the ambulance, and watch her, watch her, so closely… you sleep in her room that night.
You become expert at educating others about her needs, at providing safe food, at giving your spiel to her teachers, at training them. You make mistakes, but learn from each one, how to better protect her, and anticipate and intercept a potentially disastrous chain of events before it unfolds.
The raging fire of anxiety when you leave her fades to a candle now, and you place it in a dark room and shut the door.
Her kind Sunday school teacher hosts a party and she is able to eat every plate, so carefully chosen. Her eyes twinkle, amazed, for once not needing her own separate treats, for once not wandering off nonchalantly at cake time.
The white specialist’s walls surround you each year as you are told she has not outgrown her allergies. She may never.
You watch her with awe as she never complains, accepts what is. You watch her in awe as she slowly starts to become her own protector, taking caution and care beyond her years.
She is stepping further out of your bubble with each wonderful day, and you hope that fear will never hold her back. You know there will be camps, backpacking excitement across Europe, awkward teenage boyfriends, and wild parties. You know she will eventually be responsible, that you won’t always be there, watching, close by.
You know it can take just 30 seconds for her to stop breathing. You can only hope that you have taught her well.
But forever branded into your heart is the fierce desire to keep her safe, to protect her, and so you hold her close while you still can. The little flame of worry will always flicker somewhere in a back room of your brain, but it’s also a flame for her, for her life, for the exciting adventures she will have, the journeys she will take and the joy she will feel as she chases wonderful floating bubbles, galloping along her life’s glorious path.
“Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown. In my heart it don’t mean a thing.”*
As our children grow and become more independent, we might become a wee bit complacent about their existence, lost in the daily grind and focusing on the world outside the home. But it doesn’t take much to realise how shockingly fragile human life is, and how quickly childhood will be over, though the connections and feelings that bind us will remain for eternity.
* Tony Morrison (American novelist, editor, and professor)