We were walking through our neighborhood, holding hands, my mind was wandering. I lost track of the conversation as I felt mesmerized by seed fluff floating by and underfoot. It brought me back to my walk with Nora through the snow in this very spot only six months before. I looked up at our favorite maples and dropped my eyes to her and returned her smile.
“It looks like snow,” it gave me a jolt to have her echo my thoughts within the moment yet it was an obvious observation. Goosebumps ran down my arms and the sensation was a relief from the sun.
“It does, doesn’t it?” I smiled at her, squeezed her hand, and silently wished for the snow to return as my feet already ached from the heat only ten minutes into our walk.
Jamie caught up with us as Owen babbled and stomped beside him in excitement, “Is that from flowers or trees?”
“I don’t know,” I didn’t stop or turn because to do so meant Owen would lose track of our intended destination and run off.
“I just know it’s pretty.” I heard the sigh and tried to mullify what must have been perceived as sarcasm, “It’s probably dandelions, cottonwood trees,” Nora sneezed, “…any number of plants making us sneeze.”
They all laughed and Owen began dancing at the sound of our combined laughter. Nora added, “Yeah,” giggling, “it sure is, mama.”
“I call it summertime snow,” she looked up at me, grasped my hand to her cheek and gasped in delight, before laughing once again. “That’s magic, mama.”
I think to myself, “No, you are.” Yet there wasn’t a chance to say it because the moment flitted past faster than her retreating steps and I was off after Owen before he ran into the street.
It’s moments like those that give me hope and lure me into planning outings. Most of which we don’t undertake. I have Pinterest boards filled with ideas for family adventures that I talk myself out of attempting unless someone talks me out of it from the start. The list of perils has to be considered for any idea to make it onto the lists.
Does it open early enough? Because he needs to be home to nap… Will it be too crowded? If it is they’ll be overstimulated and he’ll run away while she shuts down and doesn’t listen so she gets left behind…. Is it too loud? They’ll get upset and meltdown… Can you navigate it with a stroller? Because he’s likely to run off and needs to be contained… Is it too hot out?
“Let’s go to the coast,” Jamie says. A trip to the beach to beat the heat. I suggest seeing the fireworks in Astoria where it wasn’t too crazy with crowds. Simple idea, right? It’s rare that my husband suggests an outing and I do love the coast and visiting family there. We decided to do it and I began making arrangements for us to see fireworks for the first time in seven years. (The night I told Jamie I was pregnant with Nora was the last time we saw fireworks in person.)
Two weeks of planning, four hours of packing, hours of researching pit stops and distractions, phone calls to the hotel to confirm we had a room that could view the fireworks (since it was doubtful the kids would last that long or be able to handle the crowd, noise, smoke, etc.) and wouldn’t bother anyone with our early 4 a.m. riser, and we were ready to go out of town overnight.
A car full of snacks, emergency supplies, the Bob’s Burgers soundtrack, and lots of hope for fun. We had successful pit stops without meltdowns and zero diaper blowouts. It was an epic two hours of roadtripping.
Then we arrived. We were having fun with family and friends but the signs of impending meltdowns were there in the background and building. Nora became withdrawn and quiet, she sensed it too.
The restaurant was the tipping point. It was what the adults wanted but, much as I feared, ill suited for Owen. It had an open balcony over the water, high ceilings, concrete floors, metal chairs, sharp cornered tables, and loud music. He lasted ten minutes.
Too often to count this scene plays out. It’s hard for neurotypical people to relate to our dilemma and the tendency is they want to help but really they want to impose their expectations whether that’s their parenting views or dining etiquette. So they pepper you with offers of help and questions while hovering over you as you try to calm your child who’s screaming, thrashing, and hitting you. I don’t hesitate, nor do I have guilt, in now saying to them, “Stop, I can’t hear you,” or, “Please just give us space.” All too often it means one of us, typically my husband, has to abruptly leave with him for a break or we all go home.
Because, in reality, we want it to stop too as much as they do. Yet the more they pester and demand our attention when he needs it, the more overwhelmed he is, the angrier I get, and the more upset he becomes. So the day played out in that cycle again and again. He struggled to behave like the other children, couldn’t quite hold it together, we would leave and try something else because we were struggling to have a family vacation.
We visited shops, stopped for ice cream, rode the trolley (Nora even got to help the conductor by ringing the bell!), and hung out with family at a barbeque where Jamie and I got to sit in alternating five minute shifts with each other so someone was constantly chasing Owen. Nora didn’t want to leave and asked if we would leave her there. I didn’t blame her.
In photos, it looks like we’re having a great time except there isn’t a single shot of all four of us, no one took a single picture of me with or without the kids, and all of us took turns crying except for Jamie. I finally took a selfie with the kids when they were most cooperative, asleep. I’m sunburned, my outfit rumpled and ruined, they’re filthy and sweaty, and they fell asleep twenty minutes before the fireworks. We spent the evening driving around sightseeing from the car.
We arrived back to our hotel room that night that my husband had checked us into and said looked “ok”. I’ve worked in hotels, I know better, I should have done it myself but divide and chase children and all of that.
The moment I walk in it smells like cigarettes. There’s the tell-tale signs of the hotel trying to cover the evidence but the ionizing air cleaner stashed in the corner and the nicotine oil on the glass of the balcony door tells me I’m right. I tried to keep it together and reminded myself that Owen’s asthma wasn’t that bad, that we just needed to get the kids to bed (which those thankfully appeared to be clean) and then I could rest. The kids transferred easily from the car to the beds and I breathed out a sigh of relief. I could finally take a shower.
It was something akin to the National Lampoon Vacation movies when I started to open the bathroom door and pulled up short for a double-take. There was a bloody finger smear just to the right of the doorframe. Anxiety, disappointment, exhaustion, discomfort from sunburn, pain in my joints from standing and walking in the heat for too long…it all comes crashing down. The grinding reality of not being able to give my kids just a simple trip to the beach without every moment tense with disaster, arguments, and sensory issues hits me. The interior of the bathroom was just as filthy. I sat on the plastic toilet lid and let myself cry. Once I was done I took a poor bath in the sink with baby wipes. I did my best not to touch the unknown person’s hair remnants on the counter or their toothpaste smears as I wiped them into a trash bag with hand sanitizer covered baby wipes. I doused the counter with rubbing alcohol for good measure. (Yes, I travel with disinfectant and a full first-aid kit. You would too if you had my kids.)
Jamie was sitting on the balcony drinking a beer. It was dirtier than the room and covered in spider webs. The boards looked rotten and the exterior security lights on the building enhanced the creepiness of the overall appearance when they weren’t blinding you. I made a half-hearted attempt to clean the other chair and decided to sit on the edge of the chair instead. My tepid cider cheered me up for a moment. We waited for the fireworks but couldn’t see them from the balcony. I climbed into bed next to Nora not long after and tried to sleep.
The next day I complained to the front desk without raising my voice. The clerk mumbled “sorry” without making eye contact after me explaining our situation and experience. She obviously knew they were in the wrong but didn’t care.
The rest of the trip had a similar pattern. We took them to the beach in Seaside the next morning with them excitedly chanting “the beach!” from the backseat. Neither Jamie or I knew they hosted a huge party on the beach every fourth of July in Seaside with their fireworks display and that people camped out on the dunes to watch. Nora asked why people were asleep on the sand and if they were alright. I told her they were and thought to myself it looked like an open casting call for The Walking Dead.
We navigated our way through broken tents, party cups, and cigarette butts to make it out to the surf past the tractors and volunteers collecting trash. It was overcast and cold. I’d never been on the beach on a day like this. It frightened me how endless and monochromatic it was. Like a dreamscape with our brightly dressed kids sticking out like beacons in the mist. It made me wonder if they felt that way at times. I know I do, something that doesn’t belong.
It was Owen’s first time to see the ocean. He had no interest. He shoveled in the wet sand, flicked bird poop, ran after seagulls, and stomped in the tide pools all with his back to the water. He broke his cheap, plastic shovel and was disgusted with the beach. He wanted to leave after those ten minutes.
We slugged our way through the sand and my hips ached from dragging myself back to the boardwalk. We had a similar experience again that day, as the one before, and I tried to accept that this was the best I could do for my kids and hoped they would have happy memories.
Neurotypical or not, tantrums and meltdowns happen even when you try to cram fun into every moment of the day and possibly because you are doing so. You can lead a boy to the ocean but he might just prefer running through a park to pee himself. He saved that for our last pit stop before driving home. (Sorry, awesome slide and anyone who went down it after him.)
We returned home later that day after five hours of driving because we had to double back down the highway because of a wreck.
Owen seemed nonplussed and wanted to go to our neighborhood park the moment he was out of the car. Nora asked if there was anything else we were doing that day. Jamie and I waited for them to go to bed.
Later that night I looked at other people’s happy vacation photos on social media and wondered if they experienced the same inadequacies as myself. If they were calming tantrums, swallowing disappointments, and bribing for good behavior out of desperation in between the camera shutter moments. I decided, if they were honest, they probably were but no one stops to take those photos.
In reality, the kids thought our trip was great and that was the whole point really. Time together as a family, as imperfect as we are but no different than any other day. Just a lot more sand, sunburn, and peeing down a slide.