Vacation Memories: Four Days and a Difficult Child

The Summer View from My Erstwhile Vacation Cottage

We never managed more than a four-day weekend getaway as a stand-in for a family vacation, during all my kiddo’s growing up years. Why? Suffice it to say, it’s complicated. And to suggest my ex’s own software startup wouldn’t survive longer than a few days without him—pulling stuck labels out of client printers, as he once described his work—is too distilled an answer. Complicated, as I said.

In hindsight I’m impressed we still managed to pull off whirlwind travel to Chicago and D.C. and various East Coast beachy destinations several times during our two decades of married life. And when the kid was still a peanut, we even made the ballsy decision to buy a falling-down cottage in picturesque Highlands, North Carolina, a forlorn little house jammed into the side of Satulah Mountain and propped up on stilts; the property more than made up for what the house was wanting. We hired locals to renovate it to our liking via paint chips and tear sheets we sent them from designer magazines. Et voilà! A weekend vacation house was born. Turned out well, all things considered, including our budget.

Evening Screen Porch Visitor

Even now, when I read these words back to myself, the place sounds idyllic, and the pictures I made the last time we visited as a family confirm it. A sweet cottage tucked away in the mountains of Western North Carolina, not much more than a couple hours’ drive from our East Tennessee home. Here’s the rub: the peanut had a whopping case of ADHD. One thing you should know, if you’re uninitiated: a kid with severe ADHD has a hell of a difficult time transitioning—from coloring to cleaning up, from the bathtub to the bed, and especially from the routine at home to adventuring abroad.

Once you reach your destination, count on a solid day and a half or so for the child with severe ADHD to settle into the new routine: a different bed and sheets, different smells and sounds, different lighting, different food taken at a different table—in short, a sensorial collision (even a good one) that is bound to send him into a tailspin. It took two blockhead parents some years to realize this kid’s need to hole up in his room with his video games for the first day of our long weekend was his way of acclimating to a new routine. So while anybody else might enjoy jumping in feet first, especially in light of a truncated itinerary, this little somebody needed a chance to exhale.

Once we finally had our bearings, we learned to choose our adventures wisely. Nature Center lecture and program? (C’mon! It’s all about owls…it’ll be fun!) Nope. Exploring around the Nature Center the next day at our own pace? Okay, maybe. Shopping on Main Street? Nope, at least, not for very long. Ice Cream at Kilwin’s after dinner? Yep, but only if we bring Teddy Blue (our shepherd) and get him a dish of vanilla. Hiking? Maybe, but keep the trailhead no further than arm’s length, just in case.

In the end, our kid found his favorite vacation pastime right in our own back yard, in the mountain stream that defined one long side of our property: crouched down in that stream on a warm summer’s day, with the cool water flowing over his feet in their teeny rubbery Velcro sandals, he could turn over rocks, again and again, and watch the aquatic creatures living under them go skittering out of their hiding places in frantic pursuit of new ones. Again, and again.

Another thing you should know if you’re uninitiated: once absorbed in something, a child with ADHD tends to stay absorbed, to hyper focus on it, even. (See difficulty transitioning, above.) At least, ours did. I didn’t fully grasp this notion until I had parented that boy for several years.

Last Supper in Highlands: A Beseeching Teddy Blue at the Teenage Boy’s Elbow

But visiting any of the museums at the Smithsonian, to say nothing of reading the exhibit placards? Not so much. I think there’s simply too much to take in, like a wise person once observed to me about a typical elementary school classroom or hallway. Just think of it: all those colors and bulletin boards and things coming at you from all angles? The average elementary school environment is a nightmare of overstimulation for a child with ADHD. Any Smithsonian museum, though, is the elementary school classroom run amok. I once gave a quick primer on museum-ing to a dear friend whose young family was about to undertake their first trip to our nation’s capital. I can tell you how to do it in under twenty minutes, I quipped.

Not yet sensing my meaning, she asked, You mean get through security?

No, I said: get through the entire museum.

It was a phenomenon we called ‘fifteen minutes of fun.’ You’re familiar with it if you have a toddler, but it persisted much longer for our kid.

Case in point: Andy Warhol at the Corcoran. I admit, an art museum is a stretch for a kid with ADHD. Even a fifth-grader. We went because of that particular exhibit: my boy was long familiar with Warhol—we pored over his and others’ work in our bedtime reading, and then an inspired course of study in fifth grade art class culminated in a project where the kids made their own Warhol-esque creations. My kid’s version actually took second place in a school competition, a thing he never crowed or even seemed to care about. Crowing was not really his style.

Still, we thought he’d be captivated once we were standing there right in front of those soup cans. We were wrong. (Turns out the only part of that exhibit he found interesting for more than a millisecond was a room devoted to Warhol’s Death and Disaster series.) We gave him permission to leave the exhibits and go park himself on a bench so we could at least take in a little more during the half day we’d set aside for it, and there we found him still planted a while later, thoroughly engrossed in texting his friends back home.

The idea of undertaking travel for enrichment—or even just a plain old beach vacation—with that particular boy, in four excruciating days, exhausts me now, reflecting on it all these years later.

Holiday vacations are fraught with peril, too. My own holiday vacation is about to wind down: day after tomorrow the daily grind resumes. I’m frankly okay with that: like my own kid, I miss the routine and sometimes find myself out of sorts without it. I had grand plans for my long week-and-a-half furlough. First, the kiddo was coming. But then he wasn’t (he finally could not because of his own work obligations). So I resolved instead to start working through a mile-high pile of tasks pushed for weeks and then months to the back burner. Now, at last, went my thinking, I can finally hang the rest of the artwork/organize the guest bedroom/schlepp clothing up to the attic/organize the linen closet/clean up the office. And on and on. I neglected to work into that equation the final Christmas preparations still awaiting me, and the top-to-bottom cleaning I promised the house before Christmas day.

I ripped through my chores like a dervish and impressed the heck out of myself with the heady aroma of soapy cleanser throughout the house on top of the aromatic just-baked cookies in the kitchen and the fresh evergreen in the living room. And just about the moment when I could finally sit down and put up my stocking-ed feet, I felt that obnoxious little tickle at the back of my throat that says: what list? you are done for, silly woman.

I continued to deny my sickness right through Christmas day (Chef David took me to see a movie, but already I was teetering on the brink of Complete Misery). And by the day after, I was so sick I couldn’t move. I spent an entire day and night glued to the sofa, going through a full box of Kleenex and half of another, binge watching bad movies in an intellectual fog. It made me think back to the unrealistic expectations I held for our absurdly short vacation weekends all those years ago. This time it was my body that said no, emphatically, to owl demonstrations and Warhol exhibits and mountain hikes. But thankfully, I had the luxury of time, several days stretching out before me, to accommodate it.

Several days later and I’m feeling much better—restored, even. I’ve left the television off, but kept on the softly glowing Christmas tree lights. I’ve kept up with the news, but only just: not the couple of hours we routinely subject ourselves to each day. In the quiet of the house I’ve finished a long book and started another. I go to sleep reading and awake ready to dive in again. It’s a joy to rediscover how much I truly love to read. I always have—it’s just that work life, and daily living, conspire to take away simple pleasures, like reading, or napping with the dog, who on these happy occasions has his nose buried in the crook between your butt and the sofa, and is snoring softly while you vacillate giddily between consciousness and light dreaming.

So sickness finally forced my hand: I needed the rest. I wish I could rewind the vacation tape for my now-grownup kid, because I’m pretty sure I’d do a few things differently. I will certainly do a few things differently in my own life this coming year, now just a few hours away. I want a quieter house in my ‘down’ time. I told the Chef I want to eat at the dining table a couple nights a week (met with raised eyebrows), instead of at the coffee table, even if there is something worth watching on the telly. The gym? Yes, I’ve already managed that for the last few months. More time outdoors with Scout-the-Goldapeake Retriever, if this Vermont winter will allow it. And a few changes to eating habits. Those are the big items.

And as I hammer out my list, I’m laughing at myself: here I go with more lofty expectations.

All the best to you in 2019: may you pass your life in the new year—and your time off—exactly how you wish.

A Final Family Mountain Vacation: A Teenage Boy Forever in Motion, and Forever in My Memory

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