We drove out to Stockbridge yesterday to celebrate my husband’s grandmother Pat’s 90th birthday. I don’t make it to all of the myriad of gatherings Ben’s family puts together, but this was an occasion I had set my intentions on attending for months. Because my health and how I’m faring on any given day is so unpredictable that I am often uncertain I can confirm my attendance until just hours before an event, I was unsure but hopeful I could make Pat’s party. Fortunately, I’ve been feeling pretty well the past couple of days, and I felt up to the trip. Gatherings like this party are quite overwhelming for someone on the spectrum. There are the obvious social stressors: the fact that there were probably 75 people there, most of whom I didn’t know and had to meet, and then all the small talk I had to try to participate in (certainly not my strength), and all the communication taking place around me that my brain was trying to decode. Then I have all of the sensory troubles: the loud roar of everyone boisterously catching up, the smells of all the catered foods, everyone touching my arm to get my attention or greet me, all the action around me to watch, etc.
One of my biggest challenges with social get-togethers is my food allergies and subsequent inability to eat much of anything provided. Because of the sheer volume and severity of a potential contamination reaction, it’s either not feasible or wise for me to partake in any of the meals, which not only means I have to eat around the event (before and/or after), but it leaves me feeling like an outsider, embarrassed, and draws unwanted attention. By now, most of Ben’s extended family understands the general scope of my allergies, but it’s human nature to want to provide for your guests and our societal norm to engage in communal eating at celebratory events. I wish I could eat many of the foods offered that others are enjoying for the basic fact that I like food and it looks delicious, but I also want one less reason to feel different or “weird.” At least if I could eat alongside everyone else, I could better blend into the scene around me without compounding my social awkwardness. Especially with my history of anorexia as a young teenager, I feel particularly concerned and self-conscious that people will think I’m not eating due to voluntary restriction, and that is far from the case. Even when I am extremely careful at home, my food can get cross-contaminated with an allergen and then it’s all-hands-on-deck to mitigate the response. Although relatively infrequent because of how careful we are, even today I had an anaphylactic reaction to a kernel of corn that snuck its way into the bag of frozen peas I was eating. While two doses of Benadryl or an Epipen usually are sufficient to quell the swelling tongue and throat, it helps to be home and near medical care and supplies in case things spiral into a more serious issue. Sometimes, my tongue swells so much that it pops blood vessels on the bottom and starts gushing. Layers of gauze and ice have to be instantly applied. Some of these food reactions are genuine allergies, but I also recently was diagnosed with Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, which is an immunological disorder that affects the body’s histamine and inflammatory response to perceived allergens. My medical providers are just in the infantile stages of the diagnosis of this condition, so we haven’t yet devised much of a treatment plan. For now, it’s still avoiding triggering foods and other allergens.
I felt I did a good job making small talk with various people at the party, but when I needed a break, I took a step away alone by one of the nice trees on the property. From my post, I watched the interactions and festivities from a distance and thought about my own grandparents, family in general, love, and communication. I considered how families change and evolve over time as people age and die, marry and divorce, grow up and add children, and move and change. My own extended family looks quite different than it did as a kid and I imagined how my grandparents would have loved seeing all their progeny and legacy celebrating under one tent had they made it to 90 and had that been something my family did. Instead of jealously, which, admittedly I sometimes feel of families that are still large, happy, and vibrant, I looked at Ben’s family with such awe and appreciation. I felt inspired by their resilience to fair changes that naturally occurred with time and find so much to celebrate. I looked at Grandma Pat, eating a plate full of foods and giving hugs and genuine smiles to each person who came to celebrate. I began to imagine how much change she must have seen in her body, family, life, and the world in 90 years. At just one-third her age, I feel like I’ve witnessed so much change in every facet of my life. In ninety years, the scope of these type of changes must be even more impressive. I recently wrote a note to my late grandmother because she’s been in my mind a lot, and while I have many questions I wished I had asked her when she was still here, somehow, watching grandma Pat seemed to answer some of the things I long to know.
When we left the party, I was tired and hungry. We hit a brutal traffic jam on the drive home, which rendered me even more tired, stressed, and headachey, but I honestly had no regrets that I made the trip and pushed myself to take on what I knew would be an overwhelming party. I hope Grandma Pat not only feels proud that’s she’s taken such good care of herself that’s she’s still a spunky and healthy woman, but that she’s also proud of the family she’s helped create and raise, a loving and lovely bunch of unique individuals, caring for and about one another, celebrating life and connection, and enjoying the gifts of one another. My birthday wish for Grandma Pat is that she has a healthy and happy year and that she gets to soak up more time with what and whom she loves. I’m so thankful that I was there to see what she’s built in this world and honor all that she has done.