As we rode our last monorail headed back to the hotel, Katie was wistful. “I’m really gonna miss this place, Mama,” she said. “Aren’t you?”
I couldn’t answer. I knew what my answer was, but I didn’t have the heart to say it. No, I wouldn’t miss this place. I was ready – more than ready – to go.
The trip was, in many ways wonderful. Its highs were soaring – liberating, exhilarating, magical. They were truly the stuff from which a family’s memories are made.
I will never, ever lose the image of Brooke’s face on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad – one of the rides that she insisted that we ride again and again and yet again still. I will never forget her giggle as we whipped around the banks and sped over the hills.
I will carry with me forever the look of perfect joy on her face as we zoomed over the Test Track, her arms high above her head – a short, staccato ‘Whoop!’ escaping at each turn.
I’ll never forget her hugging the characters with everything she had, thrilled beyond belief to see them live and better still, to interact with them in her way.
I’ll never forget Brooke climbing onto Katie’s lap so that Luau could push them both in the wheelchair, playing a game that they invented years ago – Katie pushing gently on Brooke’s tummy and eliciting giggles as she said the magic words, “Belly, Welly, Welllllllyyyyyyy!”
I’ll never forget meeting my utterly fabulous blog friend, M and his wonderful girlfriend, Sarah for lunch. I adore M. Have for years. But until Wednesday, I’d never met him. How odd it is to have so much background, so much context with someone you’ve never met in person. But there he was, live and in 3D – all the more vivid in his M-ness. It was one of those gift from the universe moments – visiting with him, hearing his voice, seeing his deliciously dry humor come to life exactly as I’d read it for so long.
I realized later that I’d experienced what Brooke had been feeling all along – I’d gotten to see a favorite, well-loved character in person for the first time. And it was wonderful.
I’ll never forget riding Splash Mountain with Katie, laughing until we couldn’t breathe as we realized that we’d braced ourselves for what turned out to be a tiny dip – the huge splash still awaiting us around the corner.
I’ll never forget the night that she and I wandered alone through Epcot, then stopped to watch the fireworks. I’ll never forget her looking up at me and saying, “Thank you, Mama. Thank you. This really is magic, don’t you think?”
I’ll never forget my day alone with Brooke when Luau took Katie off to Universal Studios to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I’ll never forget the joy of being so close to my girl – being able to go anywhere she wanted to go. Heading to the Magic Kingdom first, riding all of her favorite rides – Pooh, Peter Pan, Small Word, The Haunted Mansion, Snow White, Thunder Mountain and Splash Mountain and then hopping the monorail to Epcot to ride Spaceship Earth, the Test Track, Soaring and the Tour of the Land. That day was simply a slice of heaven.
I’ll never forget getting caught in torrential rain that evening coming back from Epcot – Brooke saying that she hoped we were colored in so that we didn’t get erased by the rain.
I’ll never forget the language, the glorious, beautiful language that enabled her to say, “I’m so very mad about the rain,” and “I’m scared at the thunder noise.” I’ll never forget taking off our shoes and splashing through the flowing waters on the street back to our hotel or sticking us both straight into a warm bath when we returned to escape the chill of being soaked to the bone.
Yes, the highs were magical. And in the end, I don’t doubt that their light will eclipse the darkness of the tough stuff.
But for now, the wounds are still raw. I still can’t shake Katie’s face as she turned around to catch me softly crying as I pushed her wheelchair. “Mama,” she said that day, “I’m really sorry it’s so hard. I understand. It’s hard to be a sib too, so I can only imagine what it’s like for you.”
Nor have I yet managed to find distance from the memory of Brooke spinning out of control at the Bippity Boppity Boutique. As excited as she’d been, as much preparation as we tried to put in, as wonderful and patient and kind as the Fairy Godmothers were, even they didn’t have the right kind of magic to get my baby girl through the one thing we’d been talking about since the moment we’d planed the trip. No one did.
And so those memories flew home shotgun with the others. I can’t recount them all. I don’t have the energy nor if I’m being honest, do I want to. I just don’t want to live there today.
One I know I will need to address, so I will as soon as I can. For me, for my girl and above all for every child who comes to Disney deserving warmth, love and respect from the characters they adore. But that day is not today.
Today, we will unpack our bags and take our time sorting the memories held within. Setting some moments aside for tomorrow and making sure to relish some (like the one below) today.
Ed note: Many of you have asked for my ideas / tips / suggestions on navigating Disney with an autistic child. As different as our kids are, I’m not sure how useful our experience will be, but I’m happy to share what worked (and didn’t!) for us. I will do my best to put something together relatively soon.