99 Problems

Published on October 1st, 2021 | by Sumitra Mattai


What I Learned From Accidentally Poisoning My Son With A Hamburger Bun

It was Friday night, and I should have been enjoying some well-earned quiet after my one-year-old daughter and six-year-old son, Miles, were finally in bed, celebrating the end of another week with Netflix and a glass of Malbec. Instead, I was force-feeding Miles Benadryl and pumping his rescue inhaler. I realized something was wrong after dinner, when he held his belly in pain. He’d had seconds that night, and I thought maybe he’d just overeaten. But by the time the baby was asleep in her crib, his face was swollen, his breath ragged.

My brain whirred as I tried to figure out what happened. I’d made pizza burgers that night, veggie patties with spoonfuls of marinara sauce and melted vegan cheese. Mentally, I walked through the cooking process, visualizing every knife, pan and food item, until it hit me: the hamburger buns. I had bought the wrong hamburger buns. I ran to the kitchen to confirm my suspicion, and there was the culprit printed in tiny red block letters on the plastic package: non-fat milk, the seventh ingredient on the list.

We discovered Miles’s food allergies when he was a few months old. I can still remember the angry red bumps all over his little body, and the first of many emergency trips to the doctor. The pediatrician had given us hope that he would grow out of it, but instead, his symptoms worsened. Over the years, I had become an expert in training caregivers, teachers, and camp counselors about the hives, vomiting and asthma attacks that occurred when Miles ingested dairy or eggs. Like so many parents, I was a compulsive label-reader and that annoying patron at restaurants quizzing the waitstaff on every dish. In the light of the open refrigerator, holding the bread that had poisoned my son, I felt the weight of my error.

After multiple calls and messages, I got the pediatrician on the phone. With a clenched feeling in my chest, I detailed what happened, every medication I administered, and at what time. When I was done, she told me I did everything right. Everything, of course, except the one thing I had done wrong.

Miles’s birthday was a few days earlier, and remnants of the celebration were still all over the house. A cluster of Mylar balloons hovered above his bed, an oversized, shimmering number “6” floating amongst colorful stars and a grinning Lightning McQueen. The living room floor was littered with wrapping paper and ribbons, and in the kitchen, a glass stand displayed the remaining vegan chocolate cake I had baked from scratch. Six years into being a mother of a child with food allergies, I could hardly believe I’d made such a blatant oversight.

Photo by David Underland on Unsplash

Like any parent in the Covid-era, my sanity was frayed. That Friday marked the end of my first week back in the office, full time and in person, since the pandemic began. My husband was traveling, and I was juggling nannies and summer schedules. I was still adjusting to the commute, and the reality of having to put on complete outfits every morning. Working from home, I took walks on my lunch break and even managed to exercise a few times a week. Now, those small acts of self-care were a distant memory. Over-extended and multi-tasking, I clicked on the wrong hamburger buns on my grocery delivery app—an easy misstep with brutal consequences.

The worst part of the night was not watching Miles’s symptoms manifest one by one, but having to admit to my puffy, wheezing child that Mama messed up. I wanted to lie and blame someone or something else, but I told him the truth.

“You just forgot?” he asked, his contorted little face confused. He was dressed in rainbow striped pajamas, and his dark curls were still wet from the bath.

I knelt down to face him, nodding slowly, my eyes blurry with tears. “Everyone makes mistakes, my love.”

Alone that night, I worked out the math. 365 days in a year times three meals a day equals 1,095. Multiply by six. With few exceptions, 6,570 meals had helped Miles grow into a strong, wiry boy who loved science and cars, who chatted with strangers on the subway and never fussed about wearing a mask. He came into the world via an emergency c-section, and it felt like I had been fighting for his survival ever since. That night, I sat next to his bed watching his chest rise and fall as he slept, crying with shame and gratitude.

It took a few days for Miles’s face to return to its usual, beautiful symmetry. Every time I looked at him, I felt the sting of my incompetence. Together, we suffered—him, physically, and me, mentally. I wanted him to see me as his infallible protector forever, but it was a facade I couldn’t maintain. As wretched as I felt, as much as I wished I could redo that meal, I realized that he needed to know I was only human.

It took me a month to make burgers again for dinner. This time, I bought the buns in person at the grocery store, where I could stand in fluorescent lighting and read the ingredients a dozen times. I mentally prepared for Miles to remember what happened and refuse the meal, but he didn’t. I was relieved to know that his trust in me was still intact. He took bites of his burger between long winded dispatches about the bird house he wanted to build, and the plot of a Paw Patrol episode. His legs, still too short to touch the floor, swung back and forth, and his cheeks were smeared with ketchup. I took a breath and let the moment sink in, the small success of another meal in his belly, another dinner in the proverbial books.

Photo by Nixx Elle on Unsplash

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About the Author

Sumitra Mattai is a New York-based writer, textile designer, and mother of two. She holds a BFA in Textile Design from the Rhode Island School of Design and an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. She explores themes of identity and culture in her work. To read more of her writing, please visit www.sumitramattai.com, or find her on Instagram @sumitramattai.

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