The Awkwardness of Almost Dying

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I was on a second date in Charlottesville, Virginia, home to some of the best-kept culinary secrets on the east coast, when I went head-to-head with Death again.  My date and I had already blown through the tartare, two main courses, and a couple bottles of wine when the waiter interrupted our discussion of the relevance of Keynesian economics or post-modernism or whatever cringe-inducingly sophomoric topic I probably insisted on dissecting with the dessert menu.  (Dating me is basically a nightmare and should not be attempted by anyone.)

When prompted for a suggestion, the waiter offered the brownie sundae.  I asked whether it contained peanuts.  He hesitated, then guessed no.  I asked him to double check with the kitchen, if he wouldn’t mind, because it was very important; I had a serious allergy.

The waiter returned and assured us our dessert was peanut-free, so we ordered it.  Then, one bite in, as the sun sank behind the Blue Ridge mountains, I began to feel the tingle in my mouth that would signal a cascade of unpleasant symptoms ranging from the uncomfortable to the life-threatening: my face would swell, my body would break out in hives from head to toe, and my throat would close.  I retrieved my Epi-Pen from my bag and jammed it into my outer thigh, leaving a puncture wound that bled Rorschach ink blots into my white dress.  “We need to go to the hospital,” I managed.

On our way out, my date said to our server, “Hey, man, you said there were no peanuts.”

Our server replied: “Oh yeah, there are no peanuts, but there’s peanut butter.”

In the ER, my date held my hair back as our gourmet meal made a re-appearance, an IV hanging out of my hand, my face, hands, and feet bloated to twice their normal size.  “How long have you two been together?” the doctor asked, once I had stabilized.

“Uh… a week and a half?”

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Imagine a life wherein you have to know the contents of anything you put in your mouth.  This means hours of scrutinizing nutrition labels, countless servers inconvenienced, home cooks interrogated, and close friends appointed taste-testers.  Now imagine, even after all that hassle, still living in constant fear before you take a bite that your vigilance has failed, and your body will soon initiate the process of shutting down and dying.  That is my life, in its every-day banality, and that is what constitutes my relationship with food and the primal act of eating.

In the absence of modern medicine, someone like me would have succumbed to natural selection years ago.  I am Darwin’s pariah.  Perhaps the advancement of treatment for severe allergies, which have a demonstrated genetic component, accounts for their pervading the population.

The type of reaction I experience–medically known as “anaphylactic shock”–is rare, however, in Asia, where I live, and where peanuts are a staple in local cuisine.  To exacerbate matters, because it is an unusual condition, people in food service tend to interpret my request to eschew peanuts or isolate my dish in food preparation to be more of a dietary “preference,” as though I were a vegetarian or gluten-free, which they also view as ridiculous, anti-traditional, and worth ignoring.  Compound dismissive attitudes with a language barrier, and you get a number of conversations that go as follows:

“Excuse me, does this dish have peanuts?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?  If I eat a peanut, I could die.  Are there any peanuts in this dish?”

“Yes.”

In areas where the threshold for risk is much lower–possibly negatively correlated with the litigiousness of a society–I encounter Food Witholders and cowardly mercenaries of a hospitality industry desperate to shift accountability wherever they can.

In Quebec, for instance, where slapping a label of “May contain peanuts” on a box of paper clips is standard, manufacturers apparently do not even have to be knowledgeable of–much less responsible for–the ingredients found in their products.  Some products’ ingredients lists may as well read, simply, “Nobody knows!”

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I was there for a high school trip in 2008 when a waiter refused me a slice of chocolate cake.  Mais, pourquoi?

“It might contain coconut.”

“I’m not allergic to coconut.”

“We don’t want to take any chances.”

“Coconut isn’t even an actual nut.”

“We can’t be sure.”

“I’m not even allergic to nuts — peanuts are legumes.”

“We can bring you a fruit plate.”

“Then bring me a coconut!”

But the alternative is markedly worse.  And each time I have an episode, my immune cells get that much better at detecting and binding to protein markers on even the smallest trace of peanut.  They bind, and then they deploy the troops: neurotransmitters and hormones that dilate my blood vessels and inflate my cells to eradicate the intruder–the peanut, my nemesis.

There is a very real likelihood that I will die this way.

Maybe this is the reason all those dinner conversations invariably pivot toward the philosophy du jour, because my dinner dates are host always to an invisible and uninvited third wheel–my impending mortality.

And yet talking about it, in a scripted conversation that I repeat up to three times a day, is tantamount to discussing your hip dysplasia or irritable bowel syndrome.  On an episode of This American Life entitled “The Seven Things You’re Not Supposed to Talk About,” Sarah Koenig interviewed her mother, who had a litany of conversation topics to avoid at any cost, which included both health and diet as separate points.  Maria Matthiessen, Sarah’s mother, advised, “Don’t talk about your health, either. Nobody cares. Nobody ever cares about other people’s health. … it’s tiresome.”

No, I care, and I say, well, I’m so terribly sorry, and oh, you poor thing. And then I forget about it, go on with my life, as most people would.

When Sarah tried to elicit a bit of sympathy from her mother, using the hypothetical of calling her up when she had the flu, her mother elaborated: “No, I care, and I say, well, I’m so terribly sorry, and oh, you poor thing. And then I forget about it, go on with my life, as most people would.”

On one hand, volunteering your physical ails reeks of attention-seeking; there seems to be little utility in it other than grasping for Ms. Matthiessen’s token of, “I’m so sorry, you poor thing.”  (I can’t remember the last time a friend complaining of various symptoms appreciated my ad hoc medical advice as a response.)¹  On the other hand, at the crux of the issue of discussing health and diet, is the plain fact that it’s boring, it’s pedantic at times, and nobody wants to hear about it.

And yet I must discuss it; my very existence revolves around this one thing.

If I were more dramatic, I would draw a parallel between my dilemma and the passage from Dante’s Inferno in the ninth circle of hell, where Satan, encapsulated waist-deep in ice, beats his wings in an effort to escape, which only begets icy gusts that freeze him further and prolong his imprisonment.  If I were more dramatic.

I am the most bored out of anyone of the whole situation now.  And it will continue to be boring until the next time I find myself in the back of a cab or an ambulance choking out, “Fai di laa!” to the driver.²  (Alternately, “GIVE ME THE DRUGS!”)  Or squinting through puffy eyes at a room of five or six nurses, staring aghast, trying to focus on staying conscious, and praying to the deity I suddenly believe in that I did not hear the word “intubate” in English.

I’ll find myself on the other end of reproach and admonishments to be more careful, though the topic of balancing my wanderlust with risk aversion is one for another essay entirely.  And then I’ll go on with my life in its awkward insignificance, punctuated by the embarrassing fact that I could be vanquished by a nut.

Actually, it’s a legume.

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1.  A year and a half of pre-med at University (coupled with decades of experience as an insufferable know-it-all) qualified me as the designated dormitory doctor–specializing, of course, in gynecology.

2.  “Fai di laa” is Cantonese for “Hurry!”

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