Logan bounded out of the raft, which had just reached the bottom of the waterslide. “Let’s do it again!” he cried.
“Don’t run!” I called as he trotted ahead, back to the gigantic staircase leading to the top of the waterslide. I held Sadie’s hand tightly, and we hurried after him. With rain pounding down outside of the indoor waterpark, the line today reached about halfway down the multi-level stairs.
At the bottom of the stairs, a family was starting the ascent. I’d seen this family before (at least, I assume they are a family), in the hallway of our hotel. A mom and two boys, maybe 16 and 18. The younger son was in a wheelchair, his upper body held stiffly and his neck turned sharply to the left. I only saw them for a split moment before I turned, but I had gotten the sense the boy was nonverbal. I know it’s not something you can see. It was an assumption, perhaps made in ignorance, perhaps from intuition.
The mom was now rolling a walker back to the where we’d just come from, where the waterslide emptied into a landing pool. The son, with skinny legs and skinny chest, was standing at the base of the stairs with help from his brother. It seemed to me an insurmountable climb.
But the older brother stood backward a step above his brother. He leaned forward, gripping his brother’s arms. When the mother returned, she helped lift the younger son’s leg. Slowly, haltingly, they began the climb.
Coming up behind them, I was unsure what to do. Normally, I think it’s rude to run ahead of people on the stairs–even though the line hasn’t really started yet, I sort of see the whole staircase as the line. Lots of people do it, though, particularly the energetic teenagers. So with a twinge of guilt, Logan, Sadie, and I stepped around the trio and climbed to the end of the line, about halfway up the stairs.
As we stood in the hot, humid waterpark air, the line was excruciatingly slow. A step every 10 minutes, it seemed. As I glanced backward, I saw them–the family had climbed their way to the end of the line, surprisingly only about a half dozen groups behind us. Impressive progress, I thought, choking up a little at their determination and love.
We were in Wisconsin at a waterpark for a week’s vacation with my husband’s sister and her family, Logan and Sadie’s cousins. Worried about how we would stick to our diet on vacation, we loaded our van with two large coolers and two medium-sized coolers full of vegetables, from asparagus to zucchini. With the kids at another aunt’s house, before we left we premade grain- and dairy-free waffles, lasagna, muffins, and roasted pumpkin seeds. I filled two grocery bags with “Logan-safe” snacks to take to the pool each day, plus more for evenings. It was a lot of work, and of course, we complained plenty.
But it wasn’t worth giving up after two years trying to be sugar-free to starve off yeast in Logan’s gut. It wouldn’t be worth the quick vacation for yeast to creep back into his system and gain hold.
Still, even with planning, even with careful strictness, even the progress we’ve made to recover Logan from autism, autism definitely came on vacation with us in the form of extreme silliness and aloofness.
Some of the wiggles and giggles are par for the course with cousins. That didn’t make it any easier just about every time I heard someone trying to engage him in a conversation. It was like he was stuck on a bad phone connection, where only a word or two of a sentence would come through. It’d go something like this:
“Logan, what was your favorite waterslide?”
“I like waterslides. I want to go to my favorite water park for my birthday.”
“Yeah, but what about today?”
“And I only want to invite the boys.”
I never thought about teaching my son how to talk. I assumed that, like breathing and laughing, was a skill everyone would arrive at naturally–unlike potty training and reading, things I worried about being able to do when I was pregnant. Imagine my surprise now, when potty training was a breeze and Logan seemed to learn to read overnight, but simple conversation still eludes him. It’s may not be as daunting as a 10-story staircase, but some days, it seems just as impossible to conquer.
“Mom, when we’re on the waterslide, don’t scream,” Logan instructed me.
I laughed. “I might!”
Logan frowned. “But you said you’re not afraid of the waterslide.”
“No, I’m not afraid. But sometimes people still scream even if they’re not scared—just because something unexpected surprises them. Even if it’s fun and happy!”
I could see in Logan’s eyes that made no sense to him. People scream when they’re scared, and if you weren’t scared, you should remain silent–as he did, for every ride.
How hard would it be to be the family behind us in line, I wondered, grateful our challenges were not physical. I’ll never have to lift a teenager up 10 flights of stairs so he can experience the thrill of a waterslide. Their choppy ballet up the steps made our challenges seem trivial. We were lucky Logan was mobile, lucky he was verbal, lucky he was so smart. I kept sneaking glances back at the family, the older brother now standing sturdily behind his brother, his arms locked around the brother’s thin chest as the line stood motionless. What love.
It breaks my heart to see Logan unable to goof around effortlessly with friends and cousins, and more so, their not understanding because he’s on that line of close-to-normal-but-maybe-not. It also breaks my heart to see the boy in line behind us, willing his way up the stairs with his family’s love. I think about all the times I’ve yelled at Logan and Sadie to keep their hands to themselves, to stay out of each other’s personal space, and the two brothers behind me, one leaning into the other’s body for support, the other hugging him tightly in the hot, sticky waterpark air.
Maybe I’m wrong about how difficult physical special needs would be, like I was wrong when I assumed teaching Logan to read would be harder than teaching him to talk. Maybe with that much love, lifting a brother or son up the stairs wouldn’t be as difficult as trying to explain why it’s polite to say “good morning” back to people who say it to us. And maybe it would be simpler than trying to pack a week’s worth of sugar-free, gluten-free, and dairy-free food for vacation, especially for a 5-year-old who has begun to tell me that when he’s a grown-up, all he’s going to eat is candy.
As we reach the end of the line, Sadie, Logan, and I step into our raft. Sadie grabs my legs, huddling close but with an eager grin on her face. Always fearless, Logan sits opposite us, grabbing the handles, kneeling headfirst toward the black hole. The lifeguard motions to him that he must sit down, that he must keep his back to the raft’s edge. Reluctantly, he turns inward and faces his body toward me. He cranes his neck around to try and peer into the tunnel.
“Next time we should bring a flashlight so we can see what’s coming!” Logan declares.
I smile. “I wish we could see ahead, too, buddy.”
The lifeguard nudges the raft, and together we plummet into the twisting darkness. Despite what I told Logan, I do scream with a bit of fear–but mostly surprise and joy.