Nuts on plate similar to those that caused allergic reaction in DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley
Family & Friends

Pistachio Nuts, Epipens and Friends

Last Thursday was a great day. Claire tried out for the local rock climbing team, and since I don’t have childcare in the summer, I took the boys to watch. They had fun too, and we all drove home with the windows down and the music blasting. I put frozen taquitos in the oven for my kids as we all re-lived the fun we’d had that afternoon.

And then I almost ended up in the ER.

You see, I’m super allergic to tree nuts, and somehow, I’d ordered a salmon meal for my dinner that contained pistachio nuts. In my haste to get everyone’s food ready, I didn’t read the label. Two bites in, I could tell that something was wrong. My mouth was burning. I went to the trash, and took out the label.

“Shit!” I said, loudly.

“What is it?” Claire asked. (At the same time, Tommy said, “oh! Mama said shit!” For those of you that are horrified at my language, remember that this is a blog about being a widow, not a blog about being a stellar parent.)

I looked at my kids. I knew what could happen next. My nut allergy takes up to 15-20 minutes to manifest. I might just get a bit sick, or we might have to go to the ER. At this point, I didn’t know how much I’d eaten, as the nuts were ground into the food. “Listen carefully, kids,” I said. “I just ate a pistachio nut by accident. I need you all to get ready in case we have to go to the hospital.”

Tommy went back to watching TV. Austin nodded his head and said, “okay, I’ll eat my taquitos really fast then!”

Claire burst into tears. “ARE YOU GOING TO DIE???” she shrieked.

“I’m not going to die,” I said, “but I need you to calm down just in case we have to go to the hospital.”

(As a sidenote, since apparently this post is turning into one about parenting, telling someone to “calm down” basically never has that effect.)

I texted a couple of friends who live close by. Immediately, Michelle replied, “I’m on my way.” (Turns out, she was home alone with her kids and our friend Suzanne’s kids, so Suzanne had to come to her house and then Michelle had to get to my house, but they made all this happen in under 5 minutes. At the same time, Michelle consulted with our friend Robyn, who is an EMT. Impressive what women can do under pressure.)

I called my dad. “Just keep taking Benadryl every 30 minutes. Call me back if it gets worse.”

I turned to Claire. “Do you remember how to use the Epipen if I need it?” I asked her.

“Noooooo! I can’t do that!” she wailed.

Okay, I thought, time for Plan B. I looked at Austin, who was cramming taquitos into his mouth. “Austin,” I said, “I don’t think I’ll need you to do this, but if things get worse, you may need to use the Epipen. Remember, you push it as hard as you can into my leg.”

He looked at me with intensity. He stopped eating and nodded. For a split second, I saw Shawn in his eyes.

In fact, the last time I had an allergic reaction, Shawn had been there. It was a few years ago, and I managed to drive myself home from the restaurant where I had eaten an errant cashew nut. Shawn came home from work, and by the time he walked in the door I was very sick. I threw up about 30 times before we decided that I needed to go to the hospital (yes, you read that right, THIRTY times.) I had epinephrine within 2 minutes of arrival – it was that bad.

But this time, I didn’t have Shawn. In fact, the worst-case scenario had happened – I’d had an allergic reaction when I was home alone with my kids. This is the stuff single-parenting nightmares are made of.

I tried to remain calm. For the next few minutes, Austin watched for Michelle while I drank water and tried to keep my heart rate down. Claire kept crying. “What if you die and I don’t have any parents?” she screamed at one point.

Then, before I could answer, she looked me directly in the eyes and choked out one word: “Fuck!”

It was one of the more horrible moments of my life. In an instant, I forgot about my swelling throat and itching eyes.

“I’m not going to die!” I said, forcefully. I looked right back at her. “Look at me,” I said. “I might throw up. I might have to use the Epipen. But. I. Am. Not. Going. To. Die.”

Michelle showed up shortly thereafter. She took to calming Claire as I mainlined more Benadryl. My swelling didn’t get worse, and the hives that signal anaphylaxis never arrived. I felt really sick to my stomach, but I held it together. “I just need to take a shower,” I told Michelle.

I went upstairs with Claire and we showered and got ready for bed. I reassured her that it wasn’t going to get worse, as I could already tell that things were stabilizing. I brushed her hair, and she leaned against me and I almost broke down sobbing. “It’s all okay,” I said over and over again.

As I put Claire to bed, I could hear Michelle in the neighboring room reading “Dragons Love Tacos” to the boys. I stroked Claire’s hair, and she kept asking me how my throat felt.

“That was scary,” I said, “but it’s over. I feel fine.”

I was lying a bit. I still felt really sick, but I knew I was going to avoid the ER, so no need to scare her further.

“I think I had a panic attack,” Claire said. “I even said the f-word!”

I laughed. “Claire, you know what? Sometimes it’s okay to say the f-word. I think tonight was one of those times.”

She smiled at me. It took her a long time to fall asleep, as each time she would nod off, her eyes would spring back open and she’d ask, “are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m okay,” I kept saying over and over. I could hear Michelle saying soothing words to the boys in the next room.

I had terrible anxiety for the few days following this event, and I think it can only be attributed to the fact that one of my worst fears came true. I was in real distress, and Shawn couldn’t be there for me.

But I didn’t die. I asked for help, and dammit, people came through for me in the best way possible. In fact, as she left that night, Michelle wrote her home phone number out for Claire to keep by her bed. “If you get scared and your mom can’t help you, now you know my number,” she said. “We always answer our land line. So you don’t need to worry.”

Without Shawn, I’m always worried about things like this happening. But do you know what? This night reinforced something for me: even in the worst of moments, we’ll be okay.

Maybe Michelle was talking to me too. Maybe she was saying, “Marjorie, you don’t need to worry, either.”


  • Melissa

    What a scary time for all of you! I’m so glad your friends stepped in to help and you didn’t have to go to the ER this time. I did have to chuckle, though, when Claire dropped “the f-bomb.” To me, that just summed it all up perfectly. I would have done the same thing. 🙂

    • Marjorie

      Totally! I actually tell my kids and my students this: “don’t use bad language. It’s rude and distracting. But I care more about hurtful language – I definitely don’t want you to say things that wound other people. But as far as the actual bad words go, well, sometimes – VERY RARELY – there are times for a carefully placed swear word.” I think this was one of those times!

  • Keith

    Recently stumbled across your blog and really enjoy reading notes from someone who really “gets it.” I don’t have life threatening allergies, but I have lived that fear in my daughter’s eyes. (“Are you going to die?” Equivalently: “will I be an orphan?”). Funny how even in our moments of personal crisis our child’s anxieties take priority. Lost my wife three years ago to cancer. Even at 18 my daughter worries. Every conversation ends with my saying “I love you”, followed her “love you, too…love you lots”, and my answer “love you more.” Those were the last words between her and her mom. Should anything happen she *needs* those to be our last words. It is a crazy club we’re in. Hang in there…and thanks for sharing!

    • Marjorie

      Oh, yes, I remember having terrible anxiety as a 19-year-old (when my mom died) that my dad would die too. It’s primal, in a way. But one thing I do know is this: my dad got me through it. He kept me whole. And you’ll do that for your daughter.

  • Eric Swanson

    As far as I can tell from reading your blog you absolutely qualify as a stellar parent. Keep up the good work.

    • Marjorie

      Well my 5-year-old just yelled from the other room, “mom, can I watch the iPad?” and I said, “no, not right now.”

      In a whisper voice I heard him mutter, “mom is the WORST!” right as I read what you wrote. It made me chuckle. 🙂