This week has been one of those weeks that I have struggled to concentrate.
In my part of the world it has been the last week of the summer term.
For my daughter it’s been a time of saying goodbye to her primary school and getting excited for the challenges that lie ahead of her. Equally it’s been a hard week for my eight year old son who has realised that for the first time ever in September he won’t have an older sister to look after him at school.
For me? As I also work in education it’s been about getting through a hectic activities week and indeed bidding farewell to students and colleagues who I have become very fond of.
Every time my thoughts have turned to this column they have been blocked for one reason or another.
This week I could have written about Greece, an economic disaster that is happening before our very eyes but the truth is there is very little I could add. The Greek people are understandably buckling under a level of austerity which we could only have nightmares about whilst creditors are justifiably concerned that failing to address the root cause of a huge deficit will only lead to greater problems down the road. Add a preening, ineffective Greek Prime Minister to the mix and you have a recipe for financial meltdown.
I could have written about the highly contentious issue of fox hunting. The Conservative government are looking to introduce what amounts to a wrecking amendment to the 2004 Hunting Act which would allow foxes to be flushed out by packs of hounds instead of just the two currently stipulated by legislation. It is argued that the amendment would allow for hunting by the backdoor although in reality it only brings legislation into line with current legislation in Scotland.
Had I written about fox hunting I would have been terribly torn in my view, I hate to see animal cruelty but many farmers insist hunting is a better and far more humane way to tackle what amounts to vermin rather than shooting. Then the whole fox hunting debate has horrible overtones of class warfare which I find completely distasteful, really shouldn’t it be about the best way to deal with a countryside pest not whether the people who do it are ‘posh’ or not?
The truth is that Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor was right when he intervened in the argument in 2004 and said, I paraphrase, that there far more important things that government should be spending its time on. Fox hunting is a matter of interest to some but should it really be taking up parliamentary time just two months into a new government when there are far greater issues facing our nation?
So the truth is that I have struggled this week but then, as is often the case, God throws something at you that you simply have to recount.
We discovered about eighteen months after our first son was born that he suffered from food allergies. We had given him a peanut butter sandwich to try and within seconds his whole body had come out in a rash which prompted our very first rush to the hospital.
Over the years that have followed there have been other scares. Regan, our son, was given Kiwi fruit to try at nursery it became apparent that not only was he not keen it also produced an allergic reaction the same as the peanut butter did.
Then there was the time that Regan inadvertently tried ‘Crunchy Nut’ cornflakes because they looked like the normal ones and ‘they don’t really have nuts in do they’?
Over the years the list of food allergies has got longer. It started with peanuts but it soon became kiwi, then egg, shellfish, soya, strawberries, the list goes on and each time we’ve discovered a new food we’ve done our normal rush to the hospital.
Of course as parents we’ve been there to make sure no harm comes to Regan. We have carried the medicine which we have had to use often and the adrenaline injection which, thank God, we haven’t.
We’ve checked ingredient lists and notified restaurant waiters with varying degrees of effectiveness.
We’ve come to hate that phrase ‘may contain traces of nuts’. What do we do? There are no nuts in the recipe but they are occasionally used on the production line and there is a minute chance that a trace of one may have fallen into our sons’ dinner. Countless food items contain that dreaded phrase and if we prevent Regan from eating anything that carries the warning his choices would be massively restricted.
The reality is that over the years, whether it is right or wrong, we’ve taken a pragmatic approach ‘may contain traces of nuts’ and its variants are nothing more than producers seeking to limit liability, I know many other parents of children with food allergies do the same.
We have learned to manage our sons’ allergies. We have come to know that whilst Regan reacts to egg he doesn’t seem to react when it has been cooked thoroughly or that he can eat frozen prawns with no effect as long as the shell is nowhere near them.
But this week, startlingly, out of the blue, we have learned that Regan won’t be in our care forever and that responsibility for managing his allergies will pass to him. It is going to be a very worrying time for us as parents.
This weekend we went out for Sunday lunch and for a change decided to try a Thai restaurant. As usual we went through the list of all of the foods with the waiter that Regan can and cannot eat. The only problem was that we all forgot about soya, it’s on our ‘B’ list things that Regan can eat and even enjoy in small quantities.
We didn’t see it coming when Regan ordered his ‘safe’ starter of duck wraps or that the normal plum sauce had been changed for a miso one. We didn’t know that miso sauce is basically concentrated soya right up until the point Regan started having difficulty breathing whilst at the same time uncontrollably vomiting.
Of course being the laid back 15 year old that he is his emergency kit was left at home; ‘medicines aren’t cool’ and this was the rarest of occasions when neither my wife nor I had our backups to hand.
I have never been so scared or felt so helpless.
We watched our son deteriorate in front of our eyes as we rushed to the nearby urgent care centre and there was nothing we could do to help, to alleviate his symptoms or reduce his pain.
We were lucky. As Regan struggled he was given a strong antihistamine to fight the reaction and he gradually recovered.
But here is the problem. We know at some point it will happen again and that probably the reaction will be worse. We know that chances are we might not be around with our normally reliable backup.
We know that Regan has to start taking more responsibility for his health but we are entering into the danger years when young men with a sense of invincibility don’t tend to do so.
And it terrifies me.
It doesn’t matter that for us it’s food allergies or for other parents it’s asthma or physical disabilities. We spend years bringing up our children hoping that we teach them properly and make them safe and yet in the blink of an eye that responsibility passes on to them and we don’t know if they are ready for it.
We hope we have done things right but how scary will it be to find out?
Of course political debate is important and normal service will be resumed next week but every now and then it’s worth focussing on those things that we can tend to ignore. Our families. We often lose focus of how important they are until we have the type of fright that I’ve had this weekend.
If you have stroppy teenage children, or even incredibly polite ones, or you are a grandparent, uncle or aunt please do take the time this week to tell them how much you love them. You don’t know when you might not have that chance again.