The squirrel that taught us about food allergies
Updated: Jan 26
Our son was diagnosed with multiple food allergies at 13 months. He had an anaphylactic reaction to mashed peas as a baby that launched us into a maze of trying to figure out what he could eat safely. The diagnosis took many months as we did not initially suspect food allergies. He had reflux, upper GI concerns, early signs of asthma and itchy, red skin so it seemed we were always trying to untangle a medical web. It took us some time to figure out the triggers. It wasn’t until about a year later and a few appointments that we received comprehensive results from blood work and skin scratch tests. The results confirmed 7 categories of food allergies, one of which was tree nuts. Eight years later he still has all of the same allergies.
To be honest, I don’t think I ever said the words ‘tree nuts’ before learning about food allergies. No one that I know ever said, “would you like tree nuts on your salad?” or "which kind of tree nut should I pick up from the store?" It's not an ingredient that shows up verbatim in recipes. Chop up a cup of tree nuts, then add sugar, butter, etc. I was clueless when I first heard this word.
But after seeing our son’s skin flare up with big welts during a skin scratch test, we quickly studied up and paid more attention to this once invisible word that turned into an alarming threat. I started seeing them everywhere after paying more attention. Pecans, walnuts, pistachios, almonds, cashews, and hazelnuts all showed up on every menu, in ads, and in even in conversation it seemed. I went from clueless to on guard fairly quickly.
Shortly after the food allergy diagnosis, I remember staring out our window one day, shuffling the many worries around in my brain. Concerns were piling up, clouding my thoughts and paralyzing my actions. Our son was nearly 3-years-old. Would he be able to go to school safely? How could he go to a friend’s house to play? Would we go out to eat at restaurants? How would we ever go on vacations? I’d find myself jumping ahead five or ten years into the future and fixating on loss. My heart broke for him and us. I was trapped in a spiral of worries that kept me on guard, revealing newfound dangers at every turn in his young little life.
As I spiraled deeper into the ‘what ifs’, a squirrel caught my eye and broke my gaze. It was balancing on the end of a branch of our large tree in the backyard. This tree is enormous and called a shagbark hickory tree. It's hard to miss because the unique bark peels away from the tree in thin strips that are anywhere from six inches to four feet long. It’s so ugly, it’s charming.
We've always had a love-hate relationship with the tree. I loved it and my husband hated it. I loved it because it provided shade, the squirrels put on acrobatic shows and its height was majestic. The leaves sparkled with the sun and humbly reminded me how small we really are. It’s also really messy with its leaves, stained our patio each fall season, and dropped infinite sticks it seemed from the branches throughout the yard.
It also dropped TREE NUTS.
Yep. The shagbark is a relative of the pecan tree. We had a giant nut tree in our backyard. A red-flag waiting to be cut down. A villain with leaves. The tree was next to a basketball patio and near our kids’ swing set.
I frantically called our food allergist. I blurted out in a panic, “We have a huge hickory nut tree in our backyard. It's a relative of the pecan tree and called a shagbark. I know you’re going to tell me to cut it down. And I agree. How could we have missed such a huge threat right in front of our eyes? It’s too big to miss! How could we be so blind?!”
His response blew me away. He was calm and steady. “Let’s play this out. So you cut down the tree. Then what? What happens when a squirrel starts bringing nuts from a neighbor's tree into your yard? Are there other shagbark trees around? (Yes). You can’t control what ends up in your yard. You can control what you say to your children and how you teach them to be safe”.
I was floored. Speechless. This advice was not what I expected to hear, and yet exactly what we needed to hear.
Eight years later this story still haunts me but also keeps us grounded. We still have a love-hate relationship with the tree today. I now look at the tree as a reminder to be brave, respect the very real dangers in plain view, but also work to thoughtfully protect our children, teach them to advocate for themselves and coexist without fear.
In order to prepare our kids for the world, we need to protect them first, and also work to involve them in their own safety too. We are taking the time to show them the nuts up close, explaining that they should never pick them up, put them in their mouth or throw them around for fun. Our kids react when they ingest food allergens, not when they touch them. We are lucky in that regard. They have learned to take their shoes off and wash their hands right away after coming inside. They will tell their friends that they are allergic to nuts and that they cannot throw or play with them on the ground.
We are trying to empower our kids to live safely in our bubble so that they might eventually be equipped to fully advocate for themselves. If people with food allergies are going to live in this world fully and freely, then we can start preparing thoughtfully. We all need to learn to coexist within the world. We can’t hide from reality forever. Outside of our backyard, the real world is full of nuts! :)
We still remind our son and daughters never to touch the hickory nuts that drop from that tree. I’m happy to report we hardly ever see any of the nuts because the squirrels are stealthy hunter-gatherers.
Even today the squirrels still put on acrobatic shows and our kids do too.
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