Two days ago, my two-year-old suffered what we believe was an anaphylactic reaction to a dinner I made for our family. What began as a toddler’s panic-stricken expression escalated quickly into vomiting, gasping for breath, and our very first (and hopefully last) Epi-pen use.
I held down her tiny frame with my body as tears rolled down her cheeks and she struggled to find air to fill her little lungs. I then injected her with a shot of adrenaline, capping off the exact scene that’s been playing in my nightmares since she was first diagnosed with life-threatening food allergies at 12 months. This situation is the very source of my anxiety — the reason we don’t go to restaurants anymore, the reason I wince at birthday party invitations, the reason I hold my breath every time I introduce a new food to her.
And in a matter of minutes, my nightmare played out — unexpectedly, as is usually the case — in our own home.
As my husband and I held her down, I was struck by a dichotomy of both fear and calm in the air. I was terrified. She was terrified. My husband and son were terrified. Everyone knew what was happening. But there was also a force that emerged from within myself, one that never existed in my anxiety-fueled nightmares. It was a quiet strength.
I am the type of person to break out in a heart-pounding sweat just talking to her allergist about what could happen in these circumstances. I am the type of person to drop the AED kit in CPR class and forget the whole resuscitation process under the pressure of a very friendly instructor watching. I am an incredibly nervous person by nature, never the one anyone would call for help in an emergency. And here I was, in the moment I feared most, thinking of nothing but what had to be done.
I didn’t fumble with the Epi-pen. My panicked eyes didn’t glaze trying to hastily read the instructions, and my hands were shaking but controlled. I opened it. I braced her, warning her that what was about to happen would hurt, and told her I was so sorry. I prayed for God to be with us and to help me. And I did it.
I scooped her up, strapped her into the car, and sped to the hospital.
Losing a child is every parent’s worst fear. A few times over the course of the next few days, tears flowed as I allowed myself to crumble under the crushing realization of how close we came to this. My chest caves thinking about it, my own lungs gasping for air.
So it seems my Mother’s Day gifts came a few days early this year.
The first is a deeper sense of gratitude. Upon our middle-of-the-night return from the hospital, I laid my daughter in my bed and clutched her there until the sun came up. I kissed her endlessly, remembering my promises during that car ride when I said I would give her all the treats and jewels and cuddles she wanted if she would just stay calm and keep breathing. We are one of the lucky ones.
The second gift was more unexpected. The closest name I can find to describe it is empowerment.
Looking back on how the episode played out feels like an out-of-body experience. Watching myself — the fumbling, awkward, risk-averse mess that I am — stepping forward and taking action to save my child’s life feels like a new lease on my role as a mother. Who was that woman?
The nightmare still lurks in the back of my mind, knowing this can happen again. But knowing I had the strength inside myself to handle it lets me loosen my white-knuckled grip on the fears that once crippled me. We’ve now been there. We know what it feels like. And should this ever happen again, we will know: we got this. As horrifying as this experience was, and as much as I wish it never happened, what a bittersweet gift it’s proven to be.
Anaphylaxis may not be a part of your family’s story, but being a parent almost ensures you will have to face your greatest fear at some point. I like to believe, especially now, that there’s a strength that runs through all of us. Whether a spark of the divine or the most human part of us, it’s there — even if we don’t know it yet — lying dormant until the moment we need it.
So if and when you find yourself staring down your own personal nightmare — though I hope you never do — remember the lesson I learned this week: never doubt a mother’s strength — especially if that mother is you.
Happy Mother’s Day ❤️