Chocolate · Faith · Food Allergy Family · Peanut Allergy

All Is Well, and Dark Chocolate Almond Clusters

“We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment.”

Romans 5:3-5

Dear Joey,

Now that October is wrapping up, all sorts of traditions are lining themselves up in a row, like dominoes, and this week will knock the first one over and set in motion a series of events that will swirl through the final two months of the year and plunge us into the new year. What’s waiting for us at the end of it all is a big heaping pile of exhaustion. As tired as I am already (and it’s not even November!), our much-anticipated New Year’s Day tradition of starting a Harry Potter movie marathon is beckoning me. Call me a nerd, but this is one of my favorite traditions of the whole year: a time to put the Goobies to bed and veg out in front of the tv without having to set up or attend a single party for the first two weeks of the year. This time around, as I look forward to the promise of those two relaxing weeks, I can’t help but think about two very specific lines from the series, lines that resonate with me in a new way: “Eat this. It helps. It really, really helps” and “All was well.”

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The first is spoken in the early days of Harry’s adolescence by Professor Lupin, an older, wiser man who saves Harry’s life before they have properly been introduced. When an unforeseen force singles Harry out and forces its will upon him by sucking out hope and love and any semblance of normalcy, Professor Lupin steps in to fend off the attacker. When the danger is over, he offers Harry a piece of chocolate, telling him “Eat this. It helps. It really, really helps.”  (Is it any wonder why this line speaks to me?) The second line is “All was well,” the famous last line of the 7th book that assures readers the Boy Who Lived actually continues to do so–happily, even.

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I totally 100% believe Professor Lupin’s words that chocolate helps. Every time I take a bite I sigh a prayer of thanksgiving for its power to soothe. I am convinced God smiled as he dreamed up chocolate, and that He had a smirk on his face as he slipped the cacao bean into creation like a treasure hidden waiting to be found. The same is true in our house: the stuff is stashed in nearly every room. It’s in the medicine basket, high up on the pantry shelf, deep in the freezer and wedged between bottles of wine. Half eaten bars are strewn on my nightstand and tucked deep under piles of books; wrappers are wadded up on the counter and full bars are piled precariously on top of the checkbook. It’s on my mind and on the shopping list and in my plan for how to spend the evening. Chocolate helps, you see, so I keep it in arm’s reach at all times. I know ultimately it’s God who helps, of course, but for me, chocolate provides a way to taste the goodness of who God is. It slows me down, helps me breathe, and reminds me to appreciate the sweet things in life, not be bogged down by the bitter things.

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This is what happened a few short weeks ago when I took Mia to the allergist’s office for her follow up scratch test to see whether she had outgrown her peanut and pine nut allergies or not. That brave little girl walked in a little nervous about whether or not the scratches actually hurt or not, but calm and certain she would walk out of the office that day rewarded with good news. As I watched her back erupt in those telltale firey red splotches, I panicked. Disappointment welled up from within me and silent tears came as I wondered how a little girl with resolute faith that she had been healed would swallow this bitter pill. I felt powerless to defend her against this adversary, but somehow all I could think of was what Professor Lupin says about chocolate.

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The doctor is the one who broke the news to our girl. He started with the good news that her allergy to pine nuts was gone, but quickly followed that up with the not-so-good news that she was still very much allergic to peanuts. He commended her for being so diligent in avoiding them, talked about upcoming desensitization therapies, and urged her to be brave and add tree nuts to her diet because they would help with her allergy. In short, he offered her the hope that I couldn’t. But her sidelong glance betrayed her uncertainty about eating things like almonds, as if she was silently asking me if this guy was for real. “How will almonds help my body gain strength against peanuts?” her glower seemed to whisper. I smiled, rubbed her back, and told her, “I don’t know, but maybe we ought to try?”

 

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Mia has been scared to let any sort of nut into her system. I can’t blame her: the last time she had an allergic reaction it was to cashew butter that had been contaminated with peanuts. The jar did say “May contain peanuts,” but I hadn’t seen it until it was too late. Oops is an understatement. That’s the day we learned to take the ingredient note that says “May contain peanuts” very seriously. (“May contain” now means “definitely contains,” as far as we’re concerned.) The poor little thing broke out in hives and her face started to swell, and as I cried and prayed, she apologized, saying “I sorry I had ‘lergic ‘action, Mommy.” It wasn’t her fault at all–it was mine, completely. I hadn’t read the label correctly, and she was paying the price for my mistake. From then on, that poor girl has lived with an unnecessary fear of nuts, and every time she freaks out about it I feel bad that I did that to her.

 

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But here was the allergist–her trusted doctor whom she knew to be an expert on allergies–encouraging her to eat those dreaded tree nuts, perhaps by starting by swirling almond milk in smoothies or pouring it over her morning bowl of cereal. Mia was dubious at first (insisting she hates the taste of almond milk), but she took the doctor’s orders seriously and we brainstormed other ways she might enjoy eating almonds as we drove away from the his office that day.  “What about chocolate covered almonds?” I asked.

Mia’s eyes lit up and she gasped, “Ooh, yeah! Good idea, Mama!”

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And so, we set about making chocolate covered almonds at home. I have bags and bags of chocolate chips at the ready almost always, and almonds are a pantry staple too. Melting those chocolate chips down and spooning it over a pile of almonds for our girl was healing, in its own way. Those little candies finally convinced Mia that almonds aren’t something to be feared anymore, that they are a safe food for her and that missing out on pre-packaged, peanut-contaminated treats aren’t such a big deal when stuff like this lingers on the kitchen counter. As she happily ate them, I finally breathed a sigh of relief, believing all would be well.

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And really, all is well. Mia walked into that doctor’s office with the calm assurance that God had already healed her–not just from the peanut allergy, but from the pine nut allergy too. The scratch test was a formality, in her mind–a hoop to jump through before she joined the ranks of the other kids who don’t have to sit at the cafeteria’s allergy table at lunchtime. When the test results were in and she peanuts were clearly still a problem, my heart sank. I imagined Mia’s did too. She was so confident in what she hoped for and certain of what she couldn’t see yet. What must it have felt like, I wondered, to not only be disappointed, but to also to have to face her fear of tree nuts head on too? I thought she would walk away disappointed and angry.

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But Mia’s hope did not disappoint. In her classic wiser-than-her-years style, she pointed out, “But Mommy, I did get healed. I don’t have my pine nut allergy anymore!” She’s right, of course. She believed she had been healed, and she had been, if not in full, then at least in part. The whole situation buoyed her faith; it didn’t drown it. And sure, she had to face her fear of letting tree nuts back into her diet, but she did so with beautiful courage I wish I had myself. (Well, courage and chocolate, because chocolate helps.) Whatever residual guilt I feel for the fact that she has to live with a peanut allergy is washed away when I see the character she’s developing in the midst of this adversity. Time and again, this girl shows me all is well, and all will be well.

Love,

Scratch

Dark Chocolate Almond Clusters

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These clusters are super, duper easy. Three ingredients (or just two, if you only use one kind of almonds.) Sure, you could fuss with them and make them fancier (vanilla extract, a sprinkle of sea salt, a swirl of caramel) but as written they are straightforward enough to make on a whim. I like to melt the chocolate in a saucepan (and don’t bother with tempering it), but you could melt them in the microwave to make things even more simple. If you keep chocolate and almonds on hand almost always (like I do), you could make a batch right now and be done in less than 15 minutes. To make them truly peanut free, choose chocolate chips that are made in a peanut free facility or otherwise certified peanut free (like Enjoy Life or Guittard brands). I use Guittard Extra Dark Chocolate Baking chips, which are made in a peanut free and gluten free facility, and do not contain milk. They are perfect for our food allergy family, but please read labels to make sure they are suitable for yours. (Ditto for the almonds.)

Ingredients:
  • 1 cup Guittard Extra Dark Chocolate Baking Chips
  • 3/4 cup dry roasted, unsalted slivered almonds
  • 3/4 cup dry roasted, salted whole almonds
Method:

First, spread out a large sheet of parchment or wax paper (about 12″ long). Next, measure the almonds into a medium mixing bowl and give them a quick toss. Then, pour the chocolate chips into a small saucepan and melt over medium heat, stirring constantly, until all the chocolate has melted and there aren’t any lumps left. Pour over the almnods immediately and stir until all the almonds have been coated.

Scoop the chocolate covered almonds onto the parchment paper by the tablespoonful (or so), and let cool until set. (If it’s warm in your kitchen, you might want to put the whole batch into the refrigerator until they harden.) Makes about a dozen.

 

 

Bravery · Food Allergy Family · Peanut Allergy · Wrestling with Reality

“The Talk” and how I broke the news to Mia about what living with a peanut allergy really means

Dear Joey,

Mia came home from school full of stories yesterday, as always. Yesterday’s tale was enough to make my stomach lurch, my mind spin, and my silent prayer of “ThankyouJesusthankyoujesusthankyoujesus” audible to all the host of heaven.

“Mommy, guess what? Today at school some kids told me to eat a muffin they promised didn’t have any peanuts in it. I told them no, but then they kept saying eat it, eat it! It doesn’t have peanuts! So you know what? I ate it. And it didn’t have any peanuts in it.”

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I’m pretty sure I looked horrified as she told me this story, because her excited smile turned timid in a flash, and she sheepishly nuzzled up to me as I thanked her for telling me the truth, told her I was happy the muffin didn’t have any peanuts, and admitted I was disappointed she broke the rule. I stroked her hair and reminded her that until she’s a little bit older and responsible enough to read and understand food labels, she may not accept food from anyone else at school.

And then, we had the talk: the one in which I tell her that other peanut allergy kids have died because they have mistakenly eaten peanuts they didn’t know were in a treat. I’m not sure we’ve really had that talk before.

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The language we use around here consists of things like Peanuts make you sick and Here’s your emergency medicine just in case, but you won’t need to use it because no one will have peanuts around you. Sure, she knows she gets hives, and she is aware in a cognitive sort of way that they could make her tummy ache, throw up, give her an itchy tongue or make it hard to breathe, but I can’t put my finger on a time we’ve told her they could actually make her stop breathing. For a preschooler who is only ever in an environment supervised by myself or teachers at a strict nut-free preschool, this was sufficient. We haven’t needed to tread farther down the road yet.

But she’s not in preschool anymore. She’s a Kindergartener who eats lunch in a cafeteria at a nut-free table around which peanut butter and jelly sandwiches surreptitiously swirl. She’s on her own out there, and until yesterday I trusted that she would fervently obey our rule to only eat the food I packed in her lunchbox. I was mistaken.

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Shaken by her story, the whole truth about why her allergy is so dangerous spilled out of me like a confession: peanuts might make her stop breathing, and could ultimately take her life away from her. I told her it has happened to other kids like her, kids who mistakenly ate snacks with peanuts hiding on the inside, which is why it’s so important for her to not take food from any other kids at school–no matter what.

Her eyes fell, and they looked steeled against this new difficult truth like dams struggling to hold against the pressure of the river behind it. She burrowed into my chest, and didn’t say a word.

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I don’t want her to be bogged down by fear, but what choice did I have? How long can she scamper into the schoolyard, wide eyed and trusting that all other kids will take her allergy seriously if she doesn’t know the whole truth herself? It’s the fear I live with every time I wave goodbye to her: that food from sources unknown will cross her lips and enter her body, setting off a series of events more terrifying than I really want to tell her. Sending her into a place where peanuts swirl around her, where she is relegated to the nut allergy table, where she feels marginalized and left out because of something that is completely, 100% not her fault breaks my heart. But she had to know, didn’t she?

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The truth is this: lots of kids have peanut allergies. Very few of them die from them. Those deaths are tragic and infuriating, and I pray our Mia continues to live a healthy, happy life without so much as an unexpected bout of hives causing her trouble. But I have to remind myself that kids can live lead a happy, normalish life even with a peanut allergy. I have to be courageous as I begin to relinquish responsibility for Mia’s well being, choosing hope as I ease the truth into her hands, even as I wish I could carry it for her forever.

We never stop praying that Jesus will heal her from this allergy. We know He can. We don’t know if He will this side of heaven, although Mia firmly believes He’s already healed her. I pray she’s right, and glory hallelujah the party we will throw to celebrate if it turns out she is–and it could be as early as this month (because another scratch test looms in the weeks ahead). But until then, we live in that in-between place, doing the best we can to protect her, train her, and empower her until the healing is done.

Love,

Scratch