I'll warn you right up front, this one isn't intended as a humor essay, it's just a cut/sad/poignant story about four-year-old Liam, my son. And I'll also warn you, mere text probably does not convey the situation sufficiently, I'm writing it up as much to remind me of the story in future years as to try to convey it to others.
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As many friends and family members know, Liam has a few small medical problems, including a sensitivity to Gluten (a protein found in wheat and some other grains) and Casein (dairy protein), and so we have to keep a strict "CFGF" (Casein-Free, Gluten-Free) diet for him.
In recent months, he's taken to telling people what he can't have. He likes to tell waiters and friends at picnics "I can't have dairy or wheat". In text, it does not convey just how cute this is, coming out of his little mouth, especially since he doesn't really grasp what those things actually ARE and how they make up various foods, just that those are the components he can't have.
Anyway, two nights ago, we were at the local 99 Restaurant, and as so many restaurants do, they now have a gluten-free hamburger bun available. This is approximately equivalent to serving a nice thick juicy filet mignon on a paper plate with plastic utensils, in that the bun doesn't taste quite so much like a hamburger bun as it does like a cross between sawdust (for taste and that subtle dry, sandy feel you just can't fake) and cement (for density).
Nevertheless, Liam likes it when he can get one of those, because it gives him the chance to eat a burger like his siblings do, in hand, in a bun, so when we have the opportunity, we order it for him that way, making sure to emphasize that dairy is also a problem, so to please not put cheese or anything similar on the burger.
So, when the food comes out, Liam's burger has cheese on it. We notice this as they are about to put it down in front of him, so they take it away and Liam barely notices. After all, two of his sisters' entrees had not yet come out, so he was not the only person not yet served.
It took them about 5 minutes to cook another burger, and out it came and they set it in front of Liam and he began to prepare to eat it, having Mommy put ketchup on it, starting to pick it up, but I was suspicious. Understand, taste is not the only way to differentiate gluten-free baked goods, they also have a look that can best be described as "plastic model of food in diner display case". Without gluten, yeast doesn't really make the bun rise so much as kind of anemically swell, with about the same appetizing look as the mumps.
So I asked the waitress, who looked at it, said "I'm not sure, I stepped away and didn't actually watch them make it, but you're right, it doesn't look right, let me go check." And so we had to grab the burger away from Liam as it was literally a second away from his mouth as he was going in for his first bite.
As you might imagine, Liam was not happy about this. He'd been complaining about being hungry (in a very polite way) for a while, and he'd finally received his food, and Mommy & Daddy were taking it away. He started crying, so I got up and picked him up to hold him and try to distract him while the harried waitress (quite as annoyed as we were that the kitchen couldn't get a simple allergy-important order correct) hurried off to rectify the situation and make sure it was done right this time.
So I'm talking to Liam, trying to get his mind off of things, and he's sobbing in that heart-breaking "What did I do? I'm sorry for whatever it was! Can I please have my food?" kind of way, and so to try to make him understand, I explained that the burger had had the wrong bun on it, and that it would make Liam sick, and so they were going to go make him one that wouldn't.
And then, to try to engage him in the conversation, I said "You know why, right? What is it you can't have?"
And in the sort of pathetic, sobbing voice you just can't fake, Liam says "My hamburger?"
Words can not express the mixture of emotions at that moment. A titter swept the table, as everyone else was fully expecting Liam to respond "dairy and wheat", but for me, there was nothing funny about it. All I could see was the anguish in my son's eyes, knowing that he was still hungry, his food had been taken away, and for some reason Mommy & Daddy had cooperated with taking it away. And this little boy, who had been so polite about being hungry, was not throwing a tantrum or demanding his food, but merely sad because for some reason he couldn't fathom, he might have been deemed unworthy of his meal.
The most tragic moment of his life? If so, he'll be a lucky boy. Still, in that moment, a poignant reminder that we can't protect our children from all of the little pains of life. There will always be life's hamburgers.