I am going on vacation for a week in August. I am not taking my son.
My daughter and I are packing up on a trip to the San Juan Islands, off the coast of Washington Sate, to visit an old friend. My son is staying home with Special Needs Papa and our trusty babysitter, Gloria. This past May, the tables were turned: my husband took our daughter to Hawaii for five days to see relatives. My son stayed home with me.
It's been four years since our boy flew on an airplane, when he was small enough to sit in our laps. He wasn't walking and didn't have the temper tantrums that now plague us when we go anywhere new or different. But even on that trip it took him five days to get used to the new environment and routine. He couldn't tolerate the sand so I carried him across the beach into the water. My husband and I tag-teamed it in restaurants, bookstores, and museums; one of us inside with our daughter, the other outside with our son.
On our return home, Evan let out the longest "ah" I've ever heard from him as I lay him in his crib. That was our last vacation together as a family.
Many of the special needs families I know have specific criteria for family vacations: there must be help, both along the way and at the final destination. There is the need for extra gear (oxygen? Feeding tubes? Favorite toy trains?). If a caregiver comes along, our families need an extra hotel room on the other end. All the engineering and arrangements add up to what even typical families know: a family vacation sometimes isn't much of a vacation.
Instead of planning these trips, with their unpredictable outcome, my husband and I have discovered a way for us both to get a break: we go our separate ways. Hence the trip to Hawaii this spring, and my trip in August. In between, we try to plan a weekend with just the two of us, somewhere local, a nice hotel. Often, I lament the fact that we can't all get away together, but like most laments with a specials needs child, I don't complain for very long, or very loud. We do what we can, as we can.
These split vacations work for me, and they work for my husband and daughter. We each get a break, my daughter has some alone time with each of us, and we get to go where we want without negotiating a spot that's right for all four of us. My husband loves visiting family and the beach in Hawaii. My daughter is right there along with him, telling me "Hawaii is the best place in the world." I like to take my daughter up north to see friends or back east to see my family. "Philadelphia rocks!" she'll say upon our return.
And Evan loves to stay home, in that same comfy bed, with his favorite park and swings, the familiar routine he has come to know so well.
In France, the country breaks for the month of August, an annual ritual referred to as "en vacances." Cars stream from the cities to the countryside, banks and offices close shop. The literal translation of the word vacances reminds me that the true meaning of a vacation isn't that a family must join up for summer time bonding. Rather, we are meant to empty ourselves of worry, duties, responsibility. It's a time to take a break from the daily grind, to effectively "vacate" our lives.
And so, my soul is not heavy with grief as I pack my bags to travel without my son. Instead, I contemplate the journey and smile to know that as I myself vacate the premises, I'm taking the time I need to restore myself. That when I head home I will have missed my son and husband, and, ultimately, that I will be rejuvenated and more than ready to take up my place again as the special needs mama I am.