Sara, Jess and Tyson Owen (foreground) meet Tobi for the first time on April 6, 2012.
As the guardian of a service dog puppy, sometimes I think I understand what it must feel like to be the parent of a foster child. I’m thinking of Tobi, this precious and precocious little creature I’ve potty trained and praised and disciplined and exercised and played with and lived with and loved, a constant companion who’s been at my feet or by my side, hungry for my guidance and approval, practically every day for the first year of his life. And soon, too soon, I’ll fly or drive him to Colorado Springs, where I’ll remove from his collar the bone-shaped stainless steel dog tag that just before he came to live with us I had engraved with his name and our address and will be tacked to the frame of his portrait that will hang with the others on the west wall of our living room. Then I’ll hand over his leash to the Angel Service Dogs scent detection trainer who will school and certify Tobi as a peanut dog. If all goes well, in six months, maybe a year from now, he’ll go home with his forever family. “How do you do it? I could never let go,” is what the regulars at Vancouver’s Ross Off-leash Recreation Area typically say when they learn that the pup I’m walking is destined to be someone else’s.
I’ve done it three times, I explain, and each time, it felt like the hardest thing I’d ever done. But from now on, if anybody asks me not how but why, I’ll tell them about Sara, Jess and Tyson Owen.
Last Thursday, I received an e-mail from the executive director of Angel Service Dogs, asking if I wouldn’t mind showing off Tobi to a new client, a couple from Washington who were coming to Portland for the day and were considering acquiring an Allergy Alert dog for their 10-year-old son, a fifth-grader severely allergic to several different foods. Of course I said yes, and so a week ago today, after taking Tobi to Vancouver for his usual morning romp, I do something unusual: I give him a bath. Not because I want him to look his best (but I do), but because the previous night I had allowed a little girl at a neighborhood candy store to pet him, and I couldn’t be sure that she hadn’t left peanut or egg or milk residue on Tobi’s fur, invisible, but perhaps enough to trigger a reaction in a medically fragile child diagnosed with multiple life-threatening food allergies.
At the appointed hour, I leash Tobi and trot a very excited dog, his curly black locks tamed and gleaming, out the front door and down to the parking strip just as a silver Mercedes with Washington plates coasts to the curb.
A back door pops open and instead of the socially awkward and sheltered food allergy kid I’d been expecting this quintessential American boy with a dimpled chin and a Tiger Beat coif and smile, au courant in modish black jeans, jacket, sneakers and shoulder bag, jumps out and exclaims “Tobi!” Tyson Owen falls down on both knees and Tobi jumps into his lap and accepts the laughing boy’s hug, burrows his nose deep into Tyson’s jacket, his butt-wiggling and tail helicoptering so furiously his back end’s almost levitating.
“Hi, I’m Sara,” says Tyson’s mom, a mama griz in bluejeans and cashmere accustomed to looking out for and protecting her cub. Smiling, watching this boy-meets-dog scene unfold, Sara tells me about Tyson’s allergies, to eggs, milk and peanuts. He was colicky as an infant, she explains, realizing now that her son already had been reacting to the diet of cheese and ice cream she practically had lived on while nursing. As a 10-month-old, Tyson experienced his first full-blown anaphylaxis reaction, when, after biting into a bread roll, his lips starting swelling to cartoonish proportions.
“We had him tested at 11 months, and that’s been our life ever since: learning how to read labels, looking for product recalls, learning how to cook for him,” says Sara. “As a parent, you know you have to teach your child about Stranger Danger but you don’t think you’ll have to protect your child from ice cream, from candy, protect him from something that’s part of most kids’ lives.”
Tyson outgrew his egg allergy by the time he was three, and he is slowly overcoming his allergy to milk, but his peanut allergy, which is so severe it’s almost off the charts, isn’t getting any better and will probably be with him for life.
“If I touch [peanut protein], I go into anaphylactic shock,” says Tyson, matter-of-factly. “That’s why I carry this.” He’s talking about the satchel stocked with emergency epinephrine pens that’s always within arm’s reach, even when he’s rolling around on the grass with Tobi.
A burly guy in bluejeans and a black leather motorcycle jacket, a head taller than Sara, offers his hand.
“This is my husband, Jess.”
Also known as “The Culinary Madman,” a nickname he earned during a tw0-year stint as executive chef at Ocean Crest Resort, a 45-room getaway on the Washington Coast that’s been in Jess’s family for three generations. Last summer, the resort’s restaurant and gift shop burned to the ground. Jess and his family manage the property together (Sara’s the resort’s public relations and marketing manager) and now they’re rebuilding. Just another setback that a decade of parenting a child with life-threatening food allergies has taught them to handle with grace and aplomb, an attitude they model for their son. I invite Tobi’s guests inside; Tyson and Sara sit next to each other on the couch, and Jess folds himself into a love seat.
“When we first found out about Tyson’s allergies, it hit us really hard,” Tyson’s father explains. “It was very scary for us and we cried quite a bit. But then we put into perspective all the different things that could be wrong. He could’ve been born with Down syndrome or spina bifida or whoever knows what else. All we have to do is control his environment. This is manageable.”
Tobi, adopting the role of canine host, trots back and forth to his toy basket in a far corner of the room and brings out a ball for Jess, a mangled rope bone for Sara, and a tug toy for Tyson.
“When Tyson starts feeling sorry for himself, I remind him there are kids who are fighting leukemia,” adds Sara. “It’s not to belittle how he feels, but there are kids with challenges that are far greater than what we’re dealing with. We tell him, ‘you just have food allergies. We can control this.’”
And control it they do. They don’t allow peanuts or peanut products in their home. They rarely dine out (as Sara says, “It’s just too nerve-wracking.”) and when they do, there are only a few restaurants they trust (including Red Robin, and its accommodating allergy-friendly menu), and even then, only after a rigorous Q&A with the server and the manager, who sometimes feel sorry for Tyson, and offer freebies, which is perfectly fine with him.
“They freak out, ‘Oh no, it’s the kid with food allergies!’” says Tyson. “Sweet! I’m getting free sorbet. Pity sorbet!”
Jess adds: “The sweetest sorbet of all!”
Once after learning Tyson was allergic to ice cream, a server commented, ‘Gee, that sucks,’ which prompted a scolding from Sara, who notes, “I wouldn’t say [I went] ballistic, but I do correct people when they tell Tyson his life sucks.”
“Why would you tell a kid his life sucks?!” she asked. “He eats well, he has a wonderful family who supports him. He doesn’t do without!”
Certainly not with The Culinary Madman for a father.
Tyson only eats food that his parents have prepared or packed for him; he sits at a peanut-free table at school, and he has taught his classmates how to use an EpiPen, and regularly quizzes them. I ask for a demonstration, and the boy stops playing fetch with Tobi, opens his satchel, and takes out an EpiPen Trainer, an injector without a needle or medicine cartridge that’s used for practice. He stands, becomes the teacher.
“What I tell everyone is first you take the blue cap off, then jab it into the fleshy part of my thigh.”
He bangs the pen into his leg, and the spring-loaded barrel contracts.
“Wait ten seconds, then pull it straight out because if you pull it sideways the needle will break off in my leg.”
Jess prods him: “What else?”
“Find the nearest adult and call 911.”
Passing the EpiPen quiz is a precondition for sleepovers, which are allowed at the homes of only two friends whose parents have been screened and prepped and passed muster with Sara and Jess and are supplied with the dairy- and peanut-free staples of Tyson’s restricted diet.
I ask Tyson what it’s like to be the food allergy kid, and he responds in a way that’s atypically nuanced and reasoned and perceptive for a ten-year-old, which may have something to do with the way his parents speak to him, not as a kid, but as an adult.
“It’s not very easy because kids are constantly asking me to talk about it and I don’t like to,” he says. “It’s uncomfortable for me because I don’t want to come to terms with what’s going on. When they ask me about it, it means I have to come to terms with it and I don’t like to think about it at all. If I think about it, I remember I have this huge roadblock in my life and I have to get over it so I try to forget about it.”
Sometimes, kids at school tease Tyson about his EpiPen satchel, calling it a purse.
“I think as a society, we all focus on our similarities because everybody likes to fit in,” observes Jess. “When we start focusing on our differences, it’s a little bit more uncomfortable.”
And sometimes, as much as Tyson and his parents try to insulate him from being labeled as the peanut allergy kid, there’s no getting around the fact that he’s different. Sara talks about how after the final game of T-ball season, after all the kids received their trophies, the team celebrated with a party at a local pizza party. Everybody but Tyson. Even though she and Jess took Tyson someplace special, it helped, but it didn’t make the hurt go away.
“It breaks my heart all the time that he can’t have whatever he wants, that he can’t do whatever he wants, that there are things he can never eat,” says Sara. ”It’s not like he’s missing out on a lot because if I take the right chocolate and soy nut butter, he can have something that tastes similar. But it’s not the same and he’s going to have to be careful his whole life. And he’s going to have the conversation every time he goes into a restaurant. It’s just going to be there. That’s always going to be his challenge.”
This seems to be too much for Tyson to bear.
“I don’t want to be special all the time!” he insists, sitting there on the couch, overcome with emotion, hating that his voice is breaking. “And I do appreciate a lot that you guys try to make me feel okay when my friends are going off and having a pizza party and you try to do something for me so I don’t feel so left out. But I don’t want to have to do that. I don’t want to have to be the kid who has to leave just because the pizza got brought out. I don’t want to be the kid who has to go someplace else … “
Tyson’s crying now. And Tobi pulls him out of his funk, literally, by initiating a game of tug of war.
I ask Jess and Sara why they came all this way to see Tobi, about what they hope a $20,000 dog can do for Tyson.
“We can protect Tyson from the dangers that we can see, but the service dogs, with their sense of smell, they can detect such a minute amount that we can’t see, a smudge of something under a table or a chair,” says Jess. “It’s just such a larger safety net. Which would give us an immense peace of mind.”
I point out that they seem to be doing a pretty good job of protecting Tyson themselves, given that Tyson hasn’t been to an emergency room for anything other than the usual stitches or a broken bone since he was an infant.
“If I could wrap him in bubble wrap and keep him in the living room I would,” says Sara. “When he’s little, when he’s four or five, you can completely control his world wherever he goes but the older he gets the more he wants to be independent and the more I want him to be. We need to be able to let him go out and traverse the world and having another vigilant partner that’s not Mom or Dad, I hope it helps him gain independence to be able to do things with his friends on his own as he gets older but still stay safe.”
Tobi brings Sara his rope bone, looks up expectantly at her with a doggie grin
“Having a partner like you, Tobi,” she says, putting her nose to his. “If I could take him right now I would!”
“Do you mind,” Tyson asks me. “After meeting Tobi, I want to take him home right now.”
“I think he does,” says Sara.
I don’t. If it were up to me, this would be the family I’d want for Tobi.
“At first, he thought that if he didn’t get the dog, he didn’t have deal with it,” explains Sara.
“It’s classic avoidance,” adds Jess. “Like when my grandpa died and Grandma put his things in a box and told me to look through it and I’d find every reason not to because if I didn’t go through the box, he wasn’t gone.”
“And that’s someone in his thirties,” points out Sara. “Imagine trying to deal with something like this when you’re ten.”
Tobi’s fully engaged Tyson in a tug of war, and the boy’s winning, lifting the dog off the carpet.
“Careful Tyson! Don’t pull his little teeth out!”
“He’s pulling my arm off!” Tyson exclaims, delighted. “At first I didn’t want him, because … if Mom wasn’t with me, there has to be someone watching over me because I couldn’t do it right. That’s how I felt.”
“So how do you feel right now?” Sara asks. “That’s what I want to know.”
This is the moment of truth, the reason they’ve traveled three hours to Portland. Does Tyson want a service dog?
“I still haven’t fully changed my mind yet,” he waffles. “But I think I’m coming to terms with it, that if I don’t have this dog, I could possibly die.”
“As you can see, we’re still struggling,” apologizes Sara, who delivers an ultimatum, posed as a question, a tipping point for Tyson. ”Which would you rather have following you around in high school, a service dog, or a service mom?”
“I definitely don’t want my mom following me around when I’m 15!” concludes an aghast Tyson, still attached to Tobi.
A dog would be so much cooler, I point out.
“Absolutely,” agrees Sara. “Especially when it looks like a Fraggle!”