People, forgive me if this post lacks the professionalism and panache that my blog normally has. We’ve just returned from our annual Memorial Day trip to New Jersey, and I’m feeling a little punchy.
You can understand, I’m sure. You see, in the past two days, I’ve spent a total of twelve hours in the car with my family. For me, that is about eleven and a half hours too many. Right now I’m holed up in my office, desperately trying to quiet the buzz in my ears.
For those of you who didn’t read this post last year, every Memorial Day weekend our family drives to New Jersey to visit Joe’s brother Frank and go to their big Italian family reunion. We leave Saturday morning, drive three hours, stop at the same McDonald’s in Connecticut for lunch, drive another two hours to Uncle Frank’s house. We hang out there for a little while, and head over to the Point Pleasant boardwalk, where we ride the rides and eat the food and play the games until about midnight.
All of my kids love this weekend, especially Jack.
You see, Jack is one of those beautifully rare birds perched on the spectrum wire who actually likes to travel. He just loves exploring new places and taking pictures and visiting family. Every time we go somewhere he packs up his three different flavors of Chapstick and his nasal spray and his favorite stuffed bunny, and he hops in the car, giddy with excitement.
Unfortunately for his travel-mates, he also packs his rigidity, his bossiness, and his anxiety. On car trips, this trifecta of autism symptoms manifests with an ongoing stream of questions that begin with three words: how many minutes.
How many minutes until we’re in Connecticut?
How many minutes before lunch?
How many minutes until we need to get gas?
How many minutes until I light my eyelashes on fire?
(That last one was mine, in case you weren’t sure.)
Apparently, “How many minutes” is autism’s version of “Are we there yet?” And Jack does not care for approximations or estimations. He is not interested in the answer, “Oh, I don’t know, a little while!” He wants an exact number, and if you don’t know it, well, he’ll just keep right on asking until you figure it out. Or until you lie.
Joe has the most annoying habit of whispering when the kids ask him something in the car. No, no, that’s not right. He doesn’t even whisper. It’s more like he mouths the words like a mime. He can’t, it seems, amplify his voice around the wad of gum he keeps in his mouth while he drives.
Jack: “How many more minutes. Until we’re out of New Hampshire.”
Joe (weird fake mime voice): “About a half hour.”
Everyone else in the car except me: “An hour and a half how many minutes what I can’t hear you what did he say I think I have to go to the bathroom how many more minutes is it can you hear him I can’t hear him!”
Then there’s eight-year old Charlie, who gets carsick about sixty-one minutes into long drives. Every single time. Right around an hour into the trip, he starts to whimper, leans over, and throws up in his lap.
It defies logic, really.
My inability to prepare for this very predictable travel event also defies logic. Saturday morning, as I was organizing the matching orange shirts I bought for the boys so we could keep track of them on the dark boardwalk later that night, Joe suggested maybe I should bring a change of clothes for Charlie in case he got sick.
“Nah,” I waved my hand at him. “That can’t happen every time, can it?”
Well, it can and it did. Exactly one hour after we left our house, he was leaning over and whimpering. The cacophony of voices in the second and third row of the van hit a fever pitch and sounded like this:
“He’s throwing up again I don’t feel so well how many minutes until lunch I’m all right it’s not too bad oh that is so gross why does he always have to do this?”
In Connecticut, we made our usual stop for lunch at the same McDonald’s. After a feast of French fries and nuggets, we all posed with a random panda bear who was strolling around passing out sunglasses. Oh, how fun! You see, this was only three hours into the drive, and despite the carsick incident, there was still a sparkle to the day, some shine to the trip.
The shine started to wear off about an hour later, when Joe decided we should take a detour through Brooklyn to show the kids the block where his parents met when they were young.
Remember Jack? The guy with autism? Yeah, not a big fan of detours. Detours bad. Change in plans bad. Detours and changes in plans lead to a lot more questions about minutes.
Jack (shrieking): “How many MINUTES MORE will this take?”
Joe (weird fake mime voice): “I don’t know, Jack. Maybe twenty.”
Everyone else in the car except me: “MAYBE? You mean you DON’T KNOW I thought Grandma and Grandpa were always old you are ruining my life does Brooklyn have a brook in it how many more minutes why is it so hard to hear him I think I need to go to the bathroom.”
By Memorial Day, after four hours at the boardwalk Saturday night and the family reunion all day Sunday and pizza for dinner on the bed at the Hilton Garden Inn and a hotel pool that was closed for maintenance, the sparkle was all but gone.
We loaded up the suitcases and trundled our tired selves into the van. I’m pretty sure I overheard Henry mutter, “This goddamn thing,” when he couldn’t fasten his seatbelt around himself and the enormous stuffed pig his cousin Jenny had won for him on the boardwalk. But I didn’t care. I didn’t even flinch. By that point, I had stopped parenting altogether.
As I’ve mentioned, Charlie never gets sick on the ride home. He does, however, always, always have to go to the bathroom about an hour after we leave the hotel. This annoys me so much that we have, in fact, learned to prepare for it.
“We can’t stop now, Henry just fell asleep! Use the empty Gatorade bottle!”
“Okay, but I have to unbuckle my seatbelt for a second!”
“Fine, make it quick.”
Now, Jack takes safety very, very seriously. He does not tolerate nonsense in this area at all. His eagle eyes are always peeled and on the lookout for driving violations which include, but are not limited to: forgotten blinkers, passing on the right, unnecessary honking, texting, and of course, unbuckled seatbelts.
While the rest of the kids dozed comfortably, Jack started a full-blown campaign against Charlie using the Gatorade bottle. It went something like this:
“Dad SLOW DOWN he is unbuckled Charlie hurry up why do you always have to do this how many more minutes will it take you go slower Dad this is so unsafe!”
Then he took a deep breath, was silent for a second, and shrieked:
“Charlie, you are going to DIE NAKED!”
For the rest of the ride home I pretended to be asleep while Joe kept his hands clenched to the wheel and looked straight ahead. He didn’t even do his fake mime voice. In fact, he just didn’t answer the questions about how many more minutes at all.
We dragged ourselves across state lines and drove up our driveway at last. The kids scattered to different corners of the house after they helped Joe unload the Pepper, and he went upstairs to lie on facedown on the bed.
And I was starting to unwind here in my office, to chuckle, even, about the absurdities of autism and minutes and Gatorade bottles and panda bears. But just this second, Jack burst in and demanded, “How many minutes until dinner?”
Excuse me while I go find some matches and light my eyelashes on fire.