The kids were off from school last week, and at the last minute Joe and I decided to take them on a short trip.
No, we didn’t decide to go to Florida or Saint John’s or Mexico like most people we know. We didn’t opt for a sunny climate with glorious beaches and ice-cold margaritas.
Instead, we went to Buffalo, New York. The home of lake effect snow and Niagara Falls and the best chicken wings on the planet. I was invited to do a reading by a woman who runs a play place and candy shop called Sweet Charlottes, and we figured it was the perfect opportunity to take the kids back to our old stomping ground.
Reader, it’s time for me to provide you with a few details about myself. I hate to travel. I hate flying. (I especially hate traveling and flying with anyone under the age of say, thirty.) I get very nauseous on planes and I’ve been known to scramble for the little white bag tucked into the back of the seat in front of me when the plane lands, while my seatmate (usually Joe) watches in horror.
But even more than the discomfort of travel, I despise the break in my routine, the change in my normal schedule. The idea of missing my 7:00 am Crossfit class and drinking my coffee out of something other than my favorite blue Dovetail Dental mug makes me, well, anxious.
(I know, I know. This all sounds a little too familiar, doesn’t it?)
My family, on the other hand, loves to take trips. They’re constantly begging to go to Disney World and California and Yellowstone Park during school vacations. I brush them off, saying things like what, you’re too good for the town pool now and why would you ever want to leave this place as I load the car up for our weekly trip to the dump.
Every once in a while one of them will suggest the unthinkable: a cross-country trip in an RV. I consider this a version of my own private hell. Cooped up with dirty, sweaty kids for days on end while Joe maneuvers some huge vehicle from campground to campground. No Crossfit. No coffee mug. Just miles and miles of open road, whining, and porta-potties.
But for Buffalo, I broke my travel as little as possible rule. Because wings and snow aside, Buffalo is very special to Joe and I. Although we weren’t born there and we no longer live there, it was where we started our family. In many ways it’s the place we consider home.
Jack was excited to go, and surprisingly, he enjoys traveling. I think he’s come to realize that he’s going to have to go beyond our teeny-tiny town in Southern New Hampshire if he’s ever going to see the elusive license plates of Wyoming, Louisiana, or South Dakota.
This is not to say travel doesn’t cause him stress, because it certainly does. In no particular order, these are the things Jack worried about for the entire week before we left for Buffalo: black widow spiders, what time the plane would leave, if he would go to bed at the regular time, whether JetBlue would hand out the same blue tortilla chips they did when we flew to Orlando on June 26, 2013, what time does the plane leave, does Buffalo have 94.1 on the radio, and will the plane leave on time.
He packed and unpacked and re-packed his suitcase nearly a dozen times, switching out underwear for modeling clay and his recorder, trying to stuff his weighted blanket into the side pocket as Joe and I explained the blanket would be too heavy for the bag. At one point Joe thought maybe we could bring it after all, and I said if he can bring that blanket than I can totally fit my coffee mug.
Joe turned and walked out of the room.
But at long last, we made it. The plane left on time Thursday afternoon and we touched down at the Buffalo-Niagara Airport with neither a weighted blanket nor blue coffee mug. We spent Friday sightseeing at the falls, and Friday night I spoke in front a group of friends and family, moms and dads.
When I was finished, a woman stepped over and started to tell me about her own experience with autism, how her five-year old son who was diagnosed with spectrum disorder, and she asked, “When did Jack start to talk?” I hesitated, reluctant to answer that he was about three when he started speaking regularly, in case her little guy lacked speech altogether. “Well,” I told her, “He really didn’t start putting words together until after his third birthday…”
“No, no,” she interrupted. “My son can talk. He asks me for things all the time, he tells me he wants pepperoni on his pizza and when he’s thirsty. But he doesn’t, you know, talk.”
Instantly I realized what she meant, and I recalled how, about a year ago, I complained to Joe that Jack never really has conversations or an exchange of dialogue. Aside from pointing out license plates as we drive, he rarely makes observations or remarks.
Oh, Jacks asks questions and makes demands and obsesses over things like pancakes for breakfast, but there is no banter with this boy, no I wonder what the weather is like today and maybe we should try somewhere different for dinner. No discussions.
Together, this mother and I chatted for a few minutes about talking vs. talking. We giggled over our boys’ Arnold Schwarzenegger-like intonations and their shared affection for ice pops. I thought about our conversation for the rest of our visit to Buffalo, and in the midst of trundling five kids around town, I kept my ears tuned a little more to Jack.
And I noticed a few things.
On Saturday, after a beautiful afternoon of laughter and reminiscing and watching our kids who were once babies together now play in the backyard together, we all stood on the front porch of our friends’ house, saying our good-byes. When prompted, Jack ambled over and offered his signature hug—where he backs into the person instead of embracing them with his arms—and said stiffly, “Next time. You come visit to our house.” Joe and I exchanged surprised glances.
Before we knew it, the two days were over and we were right back at the airport again. We shuttled five tired kids, four red suitcases, three booster seats, and one carry-on bag from the car-rental to the terminal, and as I bent over to brush a dirty cigarette out of Henry’s hands just before he raised it to his lips, I heard a muted, “This is so fun.” My first instinct was to shout, “FUN? This is fun? Who said that?” But then I realized where it came from. Jack, as he struggled to pull his suitcase over the curb, looked up and flashed a quick smile. He was having fun.
About halfway through the plane ride, Jack leaned over and asked me to take him to the bathroom. As you can imagine, I leapt at the chance to bring him, because nothing—and I mean nothing—relieves my flight-induced nausea like standing in the narrow overheated aisle of the plane as strangers who may or may not have washed their hands squeeze past me. It’s way better than Dramamine.
As Jack and I stood outside the bathroom door, I noticed how big he’s getting, how his head reaches my shoulder now. I watched as he leaned across two empty seats to peer outside the window at the blue sky, his brow furrowed in concentration. He looked back over his shoulder at me and said, “If I ever fell out of a plane, I would land on a cloud. They look soft.” And then he straightened up, shoved his way past the man coming out of the bathroom, and locked the door with a loud click.
I sat on the arm of the empty seat with my arms crossed and looked back out at the fluffy clouds. They did look soft. I thought about how much Jack’s changed since we left Buffalo, how he was a plump three-year old just starting talk, and now’s he’s a gangly eight-year old who is starting to talk; it just took a little trip home for me to notice the difference. Maybe traveling is not so bad after all.
Oh, and when we went to Niagara Falls we saw this in the parking lot: