Yesterday we went to Joe’s family reunion in New Jersey, and all afternoon people came up to me and said stuff like “I can’t wait to read your next blog and see what you have to say about all of us,” or “Don’t write a post about the joke I just told!” I was like, listen, I have to post tomorrow, there’s no way I would have time to write anything about any of you, so settle down and pass me that last cannoli.
Little did they know, I work fast.
Every Memorial weekend we head to Jersey for what I have come to call The Longest Weekend Of My Life. For four years now, we spend Saturday with Joe’s oldest brother Frank and his wife Carolyn, who take us to the boardwalk at Point Pleasant for a crazy night of rides, playing on the beach, carnival games, cotton candy, fried shrimp, the arcade, the candy store, the ice cream shop, and more rides. On the way out we usually hit the batting cages. Around midnight.
Joe is the youngest of six kids in a big Italian family, and Frank is sixteen years older than him. I really don’t even know how to begin to describe Frank, how to sum this man up in a few words. A father of four, he is one of the most brilliant, loving, generous people I have ever known. He adores kids, food, and family. He is also never on time and keeps absolutely no schedule whatsoever. He seems to require little or no sleep.
We first made this trip about five years ago, when Rose was ten months old. I remember rocking her in stroller in the middle of the bar/restaurant where Frank was ordering “The best coconut shrimp in the world, and it comes with this great raspberry sauce.” It was 10:00 and I looked over at my tired little boys and down at my sleeping baby girl in her pink pajamas and suggested we head home after the shrimp.
“Home?” Frank cried incredulously. “But we haven’t even done the candy store yet! Or the carousel! And we can’t leave until we ride the train around the park, it’s the best!”
And so, a tradition began.
As you can imagine, a trip to the Garden State is the highlight of our kids’ entire year. They live for it. Nearly once a week one of them says something like, “Remember at Point Pleasant when Uncle Frank bought Charlie the lollipop that was bigger than his head?” or (starting in November), “How many more days until we go to Uncle Frank’s?”
So, by 9:00 am on Saturday we began TLWOML. Our kids get carsick on long rides, and this year I convinced Joe it would be better if we took my van instead of his car, because the kids never get sick in the Red Hot Chili Pepper. I also convinced him we should buy two sets of portable DVD players so we could set up four screens on the back of the headrests, and let the kids watch movies the whole way. As I relaxed into my seat and prepared to take a long nap, I turned to my husband and said, “Best money we ever spent! Those DVD players were the best idea EVER!” I’d barely finished saying my second “ever” when Charlie leaned over and started to wretch into one of the plastic bags we’d provided each of them in case they threw up. (The bags were Joe’s idea.)
(I’ve decided, in the interest of word count, to leave out details about the rest of the car ride and what it’s like to drive for long periods of time with a boy like Jack. That could be an entire post itself. In fact, it could be my next book. I could call it “Why You Should Never Take a Roadtrip With A Person Who is Obsessed With Radio Stations, License Plates, and How Many More Exits Until We’re In New Jersey”. I think it could be a bestseller.)
We got to Frank’s around 3:30, and pulled into our parking spot at Point Pleasant at about 6:00. Sixteen people total piled out of minivans and cars; a combination of aunts, uncles, college-aged cousins, and our younger kids. And the excitement began.
This year, we started on the beach and let Henry chase a few thousand seagulls while the rest of the kids played in the sand. Before we hit the rides, we all decided we need a little nutrition in the name of cotton candy, deep-fried Oreos, and lemonade. And just as the sun started to set, we headed to the rides. The older cousins took Joey and Jack on the bigger roller coasters while we watched Henry and Rose go on the flying helicopters and twirling elephants.
We met up about an hour later. I saw Jack stagger off the Tilt-a-Whirl, his face bleached of color, and I knew what was coming next. I knew the way you know when it’s about rain; the way the clouds look grey and ready to burst just before they unleash a torrential downpour.
Only instead of rain, Jack leaned over and unleashed something else, something bright blue all over the boardwalk. Truly, it looked like he’d eaten a Muppet for lunch. Cousin Anna raced over with a handful of napkins, and as she leaned over to wipe his mouth he turned to me and said clearly, distinctly; “F%&$ the Tilt-a-Whirl.”
(Folks, I know this post has an awful lot of vomit in it. I apologize. Please know that I’m actually toning it down a little for you; I didn’t even mention the part where every single person on the boardwalk walked through the blue mess right after Jack threw up. Shuffled, really.)
But Jack recovered. He straightened up, zipped his sweatshirt, and with a finger raised in the air declared, “Now it is time for the SHRIMP.” And onward we marched, Tilt-a-Whirl be damned. The festivities proceeded as planned, with greasy fried food, the dinging bells of the arcade, and candy cigarettes. (I know! I didn’t think they made those anymore either!)
As we were about to leave, Jack started to wave his hands and shout, “The FUN HOUSE! We didn’t do the fun house this year!” I bent towards him to explain not this year, we are done, it’s time to go, when Frank stepped over.
“We go every year, I need to take him in. He’ll be disappointed if we don’t go.” And off they went, Jack smiling a rare smile, to the house of fun and mirrors.
Part two of TLWOML is the family reunion on Sunday at Joe’s cousin’s house, a gathering of about forty or so Italians we see once a year. This day consists mostly of eating, laughing, eating, and dessert. Occasionally the men attempt to play something that resembles a football game, but after all that pasta and wine no one moves very quickly.
Not long after we got there, Joe’s cousin Vinnie walked over and told me he’d been cleaning out his garage and found an old license plate he’d like to give to Jack. As I watched his handsome face light up while we chatted, it occurred to me that, like teachers and friends and soccer coaches and the cashier at Hannaford’s, our extended family has also struggled to connect with Jack over the years, to make sense of his unusual behavior and bridge the gap with a boy who spent hours standing by the radio in case someone tried to change the station. They are as confused by autism as we are.
When the party started to wind down and the aunts were packing up the food, someone suggested we gather for a group picture. As we began to arrange ourselves with grown-ups in the back and kids in front, I saw Jack pull away from the group, deregulated and agitated. I stepped out of the back row and started towards him, just as my father-in-law pulled him into his lap in time for the picture.
And standing there in the late afternoon sunlight as the trees swayed in the cool breeze, I thought about how, together with this large Italian family, we are all beginning to unravel the complicated knots of the spectrum disorder, to understand that F%&$ the Tilt-a-Whirl really means I am terrified when I get sick and how a trip into the fun house can make a little boy smile. I thought about how the smallest gesture of setting a license plate aside while cleaning the garage speaks so very loudly to my heart and says we understand him, we embrace him, we love him too.
The Longest Weekend of My Life for sure, but also a great weekend.