My husband and I have enjoyed a number of truly fantastic spring breaks in our day. We married right out of college and ran away to grad school, where we studied for as many years as possible to [become well-rounded scientists and] delay our entry into the Real World. Our first year of grad school, we earned a total of $20,000 in teaching and research stipends. Back then, it was all we needed. We spent that spring break backpacking along the Oregon coast and filming cheesy home videos — that was us at age 23.
Before kids, spring break meant: 1) debauchery, 2) freedom, and 3) insanity.
Now that we have kids, the only thing left from that original list is: 3) insanity. And believe me, it’s not the same kind.
Leading up to Bunz’ spring break last week, we’d both kind of hoped it might ignite a flicker of the freedom and excitement from decades past. And why not? Even though my husband’s job is ending soon and we’re skimping as much as possible, we had enough credit card rewards points to pay for four flights to Arizona and several nice hotel rooms. (And importantly, enough points to pay our way back.) What better place than Arizona to live adventurously?
But things are different now than they were in our 20s, which somewhat hampers our ability to live on the edge. In my 20s, I worried about who would take care of our cat and my bacterial cultures while we were away. These days, I lose sleep worrying about the dangers of flying far from the safety net of doctors, therapists, and babysitters who help our world go round.
This year I lost more sleep than usual because our destination was Middle-of-Nowhere, Arizona, where one can drive for hundreds of miles without seeing a gas station, much less a neurologist. Suddenly, Arizona was not looking so good. How would we survive when the only dinner food Bunz eats is macaroni and cheese? What if they don’t serve macaroni and cheese in the desert? Could we invite Bunz’ food therapist to come along? Does anyone have her number? Sigh. 3 am is probably too early to bother her anyhow. I’m sure she has other plans.
Since we can’t afford to bring our safety net with us – and because we don’t normally have an opportunity to enjoy each others’ company quite so continuously – the first few days of vacation were rocky. You could call it a Period of Adjustment. I would call it Insanity.
That first day, Little Bear asked a zillion questions as my husband and I navigated kids and suitcases through the crowded airport.
“Mama? What’s that red thing?”
Which one, Little Bear? That one?
WHICH RED THING?!?
“Mama? What did that man just say to Daddy?”
Which man? OMG. No. Just stop.
“Mama? Is that a picture of a bat? Do they have bats in Arizona? Don’t you know that bats don’t see wif der eyes? They use echo-location. Echo-location, Mama. I’m-a tell you what dat is. Stop walking so I can tell you what dat is.”
Before we boarded the plane, I asked Bunz multiple times if he had to go to the bathroom. No, he insisted. No, no, and no. Fifteen minutes before boarding, he looked at me with panic in his eyes. I picked him up and we dashed to the nearest restroom. Thank God for special needs restrooms with showers. It was that bad. As I washed him off, he sang merrily and talked about our trip to Utah.
“Arizona, my love. We’re going to Arizona.”
WHAT? NO!!!!! I WANNA GO BEEHIVE STATE!!! HOO, MAMA. HOOHOO.
Meanwhile, my husband and I bickered constantly about everything we could think of. When we ran out of ideas, we bickered about why we couldn’t just enjoy being on vacation without bickering. Someone should have arranged to bring along our freaking therapist, I said. Seriously. WHO WAS IN CHARGE OF THAT.
Traveling without your safety net is hard. But if you’ve ever traveled with a child, special needs or not, you know that impatience and stress only make things worse. I know this, too. My brain knows that no amount of rushing or nagging will help Bunz walk faster through the airport or eat foods that are not macaroni and cheese, even when he’s famished and the airport shops are closed for the night. No amount of answers will quench Little Bear’s curiosity about the world (nor should they … and I hope they never do). Few things will help a man forget that his job is ending soon, and none of those things are appropriate for the airport. Or a family vacation. I know this. But knowing isn’t always enough.
Bunz has an interesting way of coping in times like these. Maybe just to escape our stress, he takes these opportunities to befriend as many beautiful and kind people as possible. Whether he has some secret formula for attracting extra-friendly people or whether he naturally brings out the kindness in regular people, I’m not sure. But one minute he’s holding my hand, walking with me through the airport. The next minute he’s gone. I turn around and see him several feet back, smiling into the adoring eyes of a huggable woman with grey hair. By the time I backtrack and grab his hand, he’s already learned that her name is Evelyn, she’s 68 years old, and her birthday is April 2.
“Come!” Bunz appeals to Evelyn as I pry his fingers from her arm. Evelyn looks conflicted, like maybe she’d like to come depending on where we’re headed. But there’s no time for this, my ruthless inner introvert insists. I wave goodbye to Evelyn, grab Bunz and our stuff, and dash to the gate.
Though I don’t always appreciate it right away (or at all), these meetings are a beautiful reminder of the love and patience and gentleness that surround us. So often, we special needs parents commiserate over the stares that follow us through public places. We imagine judgments passed in silence as we walk by. We wonder what people think as they behold the children we love so dearly, whose differences are beautiful to us.
Thanks to Bunz, I now have the inside scoop on this and I’m happy to share it with you. Before some of these people even know what they’re saying, their stories come spilling out and everything begins to make sense. Many of the stares aren’t judgmental at all, it turns out. Some of them are thinking about nieces or nephews or grandchildren with similar issues. Others are thinking that Bunz is cute. Or weird. Many want to understand, but there’s no way to do that without being intrusive. And the teenager I thought was so rude when he came up and asked, “Is he deaf or something?” actually volunteers in a special needs classroom and loves to make the kids laugh. He’s just awkward, that’s all.
So there you have it. More than anything, these random interactions remind me that we’re all immersed in different stages of learning. You see? Learning. It always comes back to that. It’s hard to be in a foul mood when you’re learning about new friends, hearing their stories, and discovering surprising things that we have in common. Believe me, I’ve tried.
When we board the plane, I usually seat Bunz on the aisle and take the center seat so that 1) we can access the bathroom easily and often, and 2) the person who climbs over us to take the window seat really, definitely, for sure, absolutely-without-a-doubt understands what they’re getting into. You’d be surprised at how many people will go to all this trouble to sit in a cramped seat with a frazzled lady and her special needs kid. Even when the flight is only half full and there are no seat assignments. This aggravates me to no end.
But more often than not, these people turn out to be amazing. Not that I think they are angels sent by divine intervention or anything crazy like that. But maybe sometimes I do, just a little. Once, we sat next to a psychologist who counsels parents of special needs kids. I mean, what are the chances? He even offered to play his clarinet, which was stowed under the seat. Who are these people? Lol.
Another time we sat next to an attractive older woman wearing a green one-piece jumpsuit that showed off her toned legs. Her son has autism and is nonverbal, she told us, and she immediately fell in love with Bunz. During that short flight, I could tell something was bothering Bunz. Usually he overwhelms his new friends with repetitive questions but this time he sat quietly with a concerned look on his face. As we were landing, he leaned across me and addressed her for the first time:
“Where are your payunts?” he demanded.
“I ate them!” she said, with a bright smile.
“You … ate them?”
“Yup! Sure did! And they were YUMMMM-Y!”
“Your green pants. You ate them?” he asked, worried.
“I did! Did you eat your peanuts?”
Bunz paused for a second. A slow smile spread across his face. He shook his head, then leaned over and buried his face in my chest.
“GHEEEEHEEHEE!” he squealed, barely able to contain himself. “Dat lady ate her pants, Mama! Her pants! AH! GHEEHEEHEE!!!!!!”
My body shook with suppressed laughter. Tears streamed from my eyes. I looked at the lady, sure that she understood and worried I would embarrass her by laughing out loud. But before I could say anything, she gave me the sweetest hug and said, “I know. Sometimes I cry, too. Some days are just hard, aren’t they?”
Oh man. I felt so bad. I should have told her. But by that point it was too late.
This spring break, Bunz met a number of interesting people, all of whom wore pants. Bunz and his new friends really helped us out of that first-day funk. By day 2, my husband and I remembered that we’re best friends and we stopped bickering over every little thing. We used all that extra energy to answer Little Bear’s incessant questions and bribe Bunz to eat one microscopic bite at a time with Scrabble Cheez-Its as rewards. This is what it means to live on the edge these days.
Here are some of my favorite spring break moments that wouldn’t have happened without Bunz:
Meeting the real-life “boss of the airport”:
Saying “Yá’át’ééh!” to Carl, a Navajo silversmith whose high school track and field team competed against mine, though we didn’t know each other at the time:
Befriending a German family at the Grand Canyon in hopes of grabbing the middle man’s awesome handlebar mustache (check it out!):
Meeting a donkey named Pedro who shares Bunz’ obsession with bells:
Getting an amazing 90-minute craniosacral and massage session that helped Bunz feel better, sleep through the night (yay), and walk more confidently on the rocky desert trails:
Looking at these photos, I’m struck by the irony of it all. My husband and I are definitely not talkers. It’s not easy for us to chat up random people. But my husband’s mother would talk to anyone and everyone. Talk, talk, talk. Man, that woman could talk. We always chalked it up to her being a schoolteacher, but I think her mother was a talker too. My parents lived by the mantra that the humble will inherit the earth and when I was young, they chatted up as many humble people as possible. All the humble people were then invited to our house on Friday nights to play cards. From those experiences, I learned the true meaning of poverty. I learned never to assume that wealth equals superiority. But unfortunately, I didn’t learn the art of casual conversation. And from the looks of things, neither did my husband.
That’s one of the reasons we love traveling with Bunz. I’m not going to pretend that traveling with special needs is easy. It’s not; we all know that. But I’m also not going to pretend that traveling with Bunz is hard, because I know what some of you go through and I love you for it.
All I’m saying is that when we travel with Bunz, we discover that the world is a kinder, friendlier, more compassionate place. It’s a smaller world. A gentler world. A world where we are connected by just a few degrees of separation. Far from the intimidating, judgmental world I fear it will be when I venture out with my special needs son.
In Bunz’ 6 years, there has only been one exception. Last year on a cross-country flight, he befriended a man whose intentions seemed shady. To make a long story short, the stewardess reseated us in the first row of the plane next to an 80-year-old woman named Ms. Barbara, with whom I still keep in touch. Ms. Barbara loves Bunz because he’s cute (clearly), but also because she has a 50-year-old son with epilepsy. When a flight attendant mentioned the “incident,” Ms. Barbara and the others around us got all riled up. They demanded to know what this man looked like so they could watch for him and mutter disapproving things under their breath.
It was starting to get a little outrageous when a 20-something girl sitting behind us announced, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this. If he tries anything, I’ll take him DOWN.” I glanced back at her, amused. Well, look at that. My 23-year-old self lives on. Ha! Even as I sit here, years later, relying on an 80-year-old woman to protect us. How times change. When I was her age, I used my Krav Maga skills to attack a flasher who, day after day, would reveal himself to my friend and I on our early-morning runs through campus. If I could go back in time, I might not repeat such a risky, reckless thing. But back then I had no regrets, and he never bothered us again.
It made me happy to see my younger self still out there, enjoying the three magical elements of every successful spring break. Whenever I start to miss #1 and #2, I will think of her pretty face and remember that the spirit of spring break lives on.
Until then, we’ve got plenty to keep us going.