The unexpected - FamilyEducation

The unexpected

April 19,2010
Travelling with children is never dull, that much is for sure. You learn this VERY quickly as a parent, and you also learn—in a sink or swim kind of way—that you’d better develop a sense of humor about it all pretty quickly. It’s do or die, really. Travelling with kids is one thing, though; travelling with a kid who has very inflexible views of the world, and everything in it, is quite another. Remember that bottle of water from the Westin hotel three years ago? The one L. kept by his bedside for months following the trip? It seems, in the three years between our last stay and this one, that the hotel has hit difficult economic times and eliminated the complimentary water bottles they used to provide. From the minute we set foot in the room on Thursday, it took L. all of six minutes to realize this. “There’s no water bottle!” L. said, his voice rising, as he paced around the room in search of the water. Maybe it was in the bathroom? The closet? The cabinet with the wet bar? But there was no key! How could we open it? Scott and I looked at each other nervously, as the tell-tale signs of L.’s unraveling began. “The trip is ruined!” he wailed. “I can’t believe there’s no water bottle!” We couldn’t believe there wasn’t a water bottle, either. How could the Westin do this to us? Three years ago this disappointment, this failure of conformity between L.’s expectations of the world and what it produced would have taken a lot longer to work itself out; now, at nine, we could literally watch him work through the struggle to pull himself out of this setback. Scott and I have learned a lot, too, over the years. We have learned to patiently downplay the situation, to utter calm, non-judgmental mutterings about the problem—nudging L. into the right direction, rather than passing judgment on his inflexibility as we might have done years ago. We have learned what we can do to try and fix the situation (a trip to the front desk to double-check that there are, in fact, no complimentary bottles of water; another trip to the hotel gift shop to check on the same), and what we can't do: snap and tell him to get over it, or wave a wand and make it alright again. Later that night, back in our hotel room, with T. tucked into the huge white bed, L. stood in front of the floor to ceiling windows and we gazed at Atlanta lit up from corner to corner in front of us. L. hadn't been happy at dinner at all--we'd picked a different part of town to eat in, miles from the place we'd eaten the first time we'd made this trip, three years ago. It was too noisy, too smelly, too many strange people, too much traffic noise. Then there was that water bottle business niggling at him--the picture of the way things should have been askew, off-center, wrong somehow. One time, when L. was two, I took him on the Amtrak train to DC to visit my parents. He was so excited about the train, since at that time he was all about all things train--not the Thomas the Tank engine trains with their frozen silly expressions, but real trains. I remember him standing up on the seat next to me, looking out the window and chatting non-stop the way he still does when he's excited and nervous. But at Union Station on the way home after our weekend, something went horribly wrong. We descended the escalator to the platform and his world was thrown by the sight of the uncoupled pasenger car. There was a black gaping hole in the front of the car where the engine was supposed to go. Where's the engine? He wailed over and over again. It's wrong! Where's the engine? It's wrong! He went into hysterics. He dug his heels in and I had to carry him kicking and screaming onto the train. He was so scared that things weren't right that he wouldn't leave his seat, and when we finally arrived at our station in North Carolina, I had to carry him off the train again, while he kicked and screamed, unable to fully explain his fears, yet overwhelmed by this ominous, dark sense that something just wasn't right. I always think about his words, it's wrong! and about the dull thud of fear I felt in my own stomach, as I hauled him onto the train that day. I think (hope? hope oh so fervently) that he'll learn on his own how to salvage things, when they don't go his way. I know that when he's on his own some day he'll be the master of orchestrating things just right, but even then, life is unexpected, and things change, and the little security beacons marking out the parameters of his life will shift, or fall away. Sometimes I see him in the middle of some gigantic connect-the-dots puzzle, and he's drawing the lines, connecting himself from one point to the next, looking for the markers, the anchors, the signposts he can touch, and take comfort in, even when things just aren't the way they should be.