Friday, December 14, 2018

The trip that actually felt like vacation

The trip seems to materialize on it’s own. The perfect combination of airline miles and drastic price cuts land us five tickets to the Los Angeles area. Graham has wanted this for some time. I feel less passionate about the idea but am content to go along for the ride. For their birthdays in late August, we gift the girls an envelope of letters, and instruct them that the gift is to be shared with the rest of us.

S. I. Y. A. D. D. N. L. N. E.

They spread the scrambled letters out before them.

“What does it spell?” we query, quietly coaxing them to put them in the correct order.

I’m surprised that it doesn’t take long; they rapidly solve the mysterious nature of their gift.

“D-I-S-N-E-Y-L-A-N-D. Disneyland!” they scream in unison. In the blink of an eye, a flash, a lasting memory has burrowed its way into their little brains. At least I hope it has. I am taking it on faith, along with a heavy dose of personal experience when my parents did something similar for me, that this will be a gift they remember into adulthood.

Their excitement. Oh, how I wish I could capture these moments in a bottle and cork them, so I could relive them in miniature releases throughout the years ahead when the going is tougher.

It’s a financial stretch for us to be here. Technically, this isn’t a trip we should really be taking right now, that is if we were living as we hope our kids will one day live, practicing what we preach. We would always, always advocate one should have the money before spending it, but in this case, we acted a bit impulsively. It’s one of those instances that we will cover with our kids with a glossy, “Do as we say, not as we do.” We jumped on the airfare and hoped the remaining funds would materialize as we went along.

And they did. Sort of. The belt is tighter right now than any of us would like as we head into Christmastime, but I would venture to say the memories we made back in October were well worth the expenditure. After slogging through an exhausting spring and a rather difficult summer with all sorts of therapies and diagnoses, our family needed to break away from the grind and just have some fun.

As I sift through the moments we shared together, I feel an undeniable urge to write them down. In a season where so much is hard and heavy, I went to remember the times that were laughable. I want to jot down the crazy idiosyncrasies of each of our tribe, to be able to look back on the times where we became “those parents,” or those moments when the joy on our kids’ faces was so explicit it could stop time.

I want to remember how exciting it is to fly in an airplane when you are a child. Free juice! Cookies! Unlimited shows! And all those tiny turquoise-blue squares you spy on the ground below? Those are swimming pools!

The kids are finally at an age where they can all carry or drag their own luggage, and they do so with great delight. We travel entirely STROLLER-FREE (such a milestone!) and the only “kid gear” we need are 2 booster seats. Booster seats! After a decade of bringing all the things, this feels like a miracle.

The kids are amazing on the plane. They exclaim over Mount Rainier and then they pass the rest of the flight looking at our phone screens. I read a book. Unbelievable!

We land in an LA suburb. It’s sunny and we rent a kind man’s personal BMW. We drive to meet Uncle Scott at his mid-century apartment complex in Pasadena. He makes us tiki drinks and we jump in his pool. I find myself holding a book again. While traveling with my 3 kids! I could get used to this.

He walks us down the hill, past a local hardware store, to a ramen joint and we enjoy our first ever ramen. We tell the kids its like pho, but not. Isla eats it willingly, declaring that she “enjoys pho more” but that it’s still good. The younger two eat less, but they are well behaved. I’ll take it!

We have a drive ahead of us, to get to our Anaheim hotel, so we part ways from Scott. The kids aren’t thrilled with their three-in-a-row set-up in the back of the BMW and I’m not thrilled with their squabbling. We pull over for gas and I sternly tell them to shape up and deal. We get to the hotel after 9 and we still need to grab groceries for our in-the-park picnics. Graham is the only one allowed to drive the rental so I make him a list and stay back with the trio, attempting to get their 3 tired bodies somehow settled and comfortable in one double bed plus a wedge of floor.

The next morning, we are out of bed early, catching our hotel shuttle to the parks. We burst through the gates of California Adventures and make a bee-line for the Radiator Springs Racers ride in Cars Land. Jack has reservations as we board our race car, and his concerns double after seeing a terrifying tractor combine come at us on the ride. Even though our car “wins” the race and he was obviously enjoying himself during moments of the ride, he pleads that we “not do it again” as soon as we get off. (Spoiler alert: we don't listen).

Our next move, in a strike of parenting “genius,” is to drag the kids onto Guardian of the Galaxy, the scariest ride in all of the Disneyland Parks “because the line is short.” As we wind our way through the display cases of entertainment leading up to the ride, the kids, showing off their perceptive natures, inquire incessantly whether this is perhaps a “scary ride.”

“Nevermind the darkness!” we titter. “Ignore all the animal skeletons in glass receptacles! All the masked and costumed characters that appear extremely angry – please disregard! Of course this ride isn’t scary! Kids, this is obviously very fun!”

I smile at Graham stiffly as I hiss through gritted teeth, “I don’t think this is a good idea.”

But we are beyond the point of no return! Retracing our steps now would mean taking a walk of shame out of the entrance, a move neither of us are willing to make. We are above this! Plus, which one of us would sit out? We both want to go on this ride. Surely our kids can handle it.

With anxiety building and tears forming in the eyes of the younger two, we continue our forward advance, cramming into an over-crowded elevator where we receive our “safely briefing.” We board the ride, strap ourselves into our seats, and hope for the best, having little idea what we are in for.

Imagine our surprise when we shoot upward with a start, only to freefall unexpectedly back down toward the ground before launching again toward the sky. With each vertical hurl and subsequent drop, we swallow the internal organs that have gathered in our throats and re-secure the backpacks that have levitated to face-level during freefall, released temporarily from gravity’s hold. Blood curdling screams fill our enclosure and it takes a moment for me to realize they are coming from our very own offspring.

A theme park enthusiast, I find the ride rather delightful. A brief check-in with each child determines that two thirds of them feel otherwise.

“It was terrible!” Emma slurs through tears.

“I hated it!” spits Jack, emphatically, his opinion about The Happiest Place on Earth now permanently soured.

“It was fun!” exclaims Isla. “As long as I can just squeeze my mom’s hand and close my eyes as tight as possible, it’s great!”

At least we have one thrill seeker among us! Alas, one willing ride participant is not enough to counterbalance the other two very opinionated offspring who are now struggling to trust their parents’ assurances about any and all rides moving forward. Sigh. Parenting. It’s at least one thousand percent easier when done in hindsight.

Eventually, Emma (mostly) comes around, though it takes some heavy convincing before she tries any new ride. But she ends up loving every ride we take her on. Well, except for Guardians of the Galaxy, Splash Mountain and the Indiana Jones ride, which literally breaks down RIGHT when we are the next to board and when one of us is already sobbing in fear. Cue wails of fear. This is wildly fun! It is even more fun when the ride restarts but stalls five times during our short jaunt through it. Of course it stops at THE LITERAL WORST times (like when the walls are crawling with spiders, when you are driving through pitch blackness, when the rock is coming at you etc). Sheesh. You never realize how deathly terrifying Disneyland is until you go there with kids. Which….leaves me with so many questions. Anyways, like I said, Emma loves everything we take her on. Except for the ones she doesn’t. Obviously. Had we not (mildly) traumatized her a few times over at the beginning, I suspect she could have been our most darest devil. Oh memories!

Jack doesn't fair quite as well. After our Guardians of the Galaxy ordeal, we have to drag him on every ride for the remainder of our two days in the parks. By the end of our second day, his stipulations are as follows: as long as it doesn't go fast, tilt sideways, go upside down, have water, involve getting wet in any way at all, have hills or drops, involve darkness, have frightening creatures, isn’t scary, AND has a roof, he is totally on board to ride. Which opens up a whole world of possibilities for us.

Like the good American family that we are, we find ourselves at moments thinking thoughts like “We paid a lot of money for this. We WILL go on these rides and we WILL have fun. GOSH DANG IT!!!”

It isn’t until we are in line to make Graham’s Family Splash Mountain Photo dreams come true and we have two screaming, BAWLING children that we realize our ridiculousness.

“I don’t think this is healthy,” I say to Graham, as I soothe-bounce one crying child on my hip and cup the other one in comfort under my arm. “I think I will just sit this one out with Jack,” who is obviously beyond the point of calming and coping.

Without even realizing it, we had become “those parents,” those crazed idealists who lose sight of the whole point of the time together “having fun.”

I watch Graham’s face fall in sheer disappointment, as he accepts the fact that we aren’t going to get the family photo op he had hoped for. But what had we been thinking, anyway? What already-anxious 5-year-old sees a log boat full of people careening down a freaking waterfall and thinks, “Hey, that looks fun! I want to do that!” None that I’ve met, that’s for sure.

After a brief pow-wow and exchange of words and possible options, Emma rallies and decides to stay with Dad and big sis and give the ride a go. Jack and I duck out of line and take a break on a bench where he rests while I stroke his hair and mentally regroup.

In the end, I would venture to say, despite my highlighting the things that perhaps didn’t go as well as we’d hoped in this post (those are always the most interesting for story-telling), the trip was quite possibly our best ever. No one was ruined permanently (that we can tell) by our moments of poorer parenting. Everyone looks back at our trip positively (ok, except for the Guardians of the Galaxy part) and begs to go back for a repeat.

Our family needed this time. After a more or less brutal spring (sleep and anxiety-wise) and then a really challenging summer (OCD-wise) with some rough trips where it felt like one of us spent more time crying than not, this trip felt like ointment on a sore. It was redemptive.

There were so many fun, lasting positive memories that will make me grin for years to come. Like hearing Isla scream in glee on Guardians of the Galaxy, after she asked to go on it with me for a second time. Or watching Emma exclaim over the simulated flight ride around the world in California Adventures. Or hearing Jack talk about “driving” the car on Autopia, and how Dad kept taking his foot off the pedal suddenly so that Scott and Emma would rear-end them (Gasp! Against the rules!) and then Isla and I after that.

But the memory of all memories for me will probably be the time I made Graham reach arm-pit deep into the Dumbo fountain to steal a quarter so that I could purchase feminine products from the park bathroom that I, in my poor planning, needed to make it through the day. I’m telling you, sometimes it pays to have a non-rule-following member in the tribe.

Other highlights of the trip included:

The kids' first video game experience (Mario Kart), which Mom was 100% OK with because it meant she could read, unbothered on the patio in the sunshine. 

A trip to the beach for a picnic where, even our water-fearing boy got in the ocean and returned to our towel to exclaim in surprise, "Mom! I'm having fun!" 

A visit to the observatory in Griffith Park.

And lastly a memorable stop (especially for the littlest) to see some old trains.

Though there were a handful of parenting faux pas on our trip, the good news is that it doesn't appear we ruined any of our kids in the long run. They are already asking when we can return to Disneyland. Our answer? Give it 5 years. 

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posted by kelsie