traveling with my kids sucks, but not as much as it used to

best airport pizza ever

best airport pizza ever

Tuesday, 6:30 am PST, Stockton, CA (8:30 am in Wisconsin). Nick and Jesse are awake. I beg them to snuggle just a little while longer so that we don’t wake Little Grandma and Grandpa up. They sort of comply, but it involves painful wiggling and poking all over me, and lots of shushing.

7:00-9:30 am. We explode out of the bedroom. More accurately, two little people explode. I stumble out, slouch-shouldered and exhausted from yet another sleepless night spent between Scylla and Charybdis on a queen-size bed, alternately poked in the eyes by Nick’s elbows and bludgeoned by Jesse’s head. Jesse has also had a terrible night’s sleep, full of bad dreams and much moaning and groaning. She’s in dissonance mode, trapped between sadness over leaving Grandma’s house and happiness over getting back to Dad, and loaded up with anxiety over the changes to come. My mom’s already awake when we hit the living room because she always gets up early on the day I leave, which I forgot happens, otherwise I would have unleashed the kids on her at 6:30. Thank heavens she’s made coffee. I do a one-quart coffee bong, feed the kids, rush through a shower, get everyone dressed, and pack.

9:30-9:45 am. I secretly run to the grocery store by myself in Grandpa John’s car to buy a few travel snacks for the kids. Actually, that’s a tangent to the primary reason for going, which is that I’m desperate for just a few moments away from Nick and Jesse before I’m hopelessly stuck with them for hours and hours in travel mode. I get 15 minutes’ peace.

10:00 am. Jesse’s dissonance is reaching full pitch as we prepare to depart. My brother Mark’s dog, a gorgeous and gentle pit bull poetically named Girl, has been relaxing with Jesse; but even this sweet therapy dog can’t help her now. Jesse’s starting to cry, ululate, and disappear silently to places we can’t find her (literally, somewhere in the yard), in a repeating circuit that appears to be designed to make it easy for relatives to say goodbye and rush us out of town. Meanwhile, Nick has decided he can only pee outside where the feral cat goes. As I’m pulling up his pants after that fun thing, I notice there’s a huge tear in one pant leg which will leave him in a half culotte by the end of our trip. I rummage through our suitcase, find new pants, and tend to that. Nick gets in the car and we start yelling for Jesse.

10:15 am. Got her. Sticky roller has been used to get visible dog hair off her (don’t forget the crotch of her pants) so she won’t freak out about that, and she’s in the car. Everyone’s gotten kisses and hugs, and Uncle Mark is ready to drive us to the San Francisco airport.

10:15 – 11:45 am. Nick is an angel who falls asleep in 15 minutes. Jesse spends most of the drive groveling, whining and groaning about feeling sick, and also making gagging/choking/coughing noises that suggest she might puke. Uncle Mark tells her she’s faking it as he cheerfully swerves over the Altamont Pass, mixing bold accelerations, terrifying lane changes, and sudden braking to maximum effect. I cling to the oh-shit bar and try not to yawp too much, while snapping helpful things to Jesse like, “If you puke on yourself, you’re gonna smell like puke for the next 10 hours so you just ask yourself if you can handle that!” I ask her several times if she needs us to pull over. She says no each time and then groans even louder. She asks me 427 times when we’re going to visit Little Grandma again. Jesse’s sense of time is off. She wants to know if we’ll come in summer, in two weeks? How long is it to summer? How many days? How many months? Will I be out of school? When will we visit Grandma again?

Deep down, I know this is all an expression of anxiety and transition issues, and intense sadness over leaving family (human and canine) behind. Knowledge does not stop my irritation, nor does it stem my rising panic about the 7 hours ahead of me.

11:45 am – 12:30 pm. We check in with relative ease. Jesse even helps with the luggage. We spend a final 15 minutes going crazy with Mark before heading into security as late as reasonably possible. Saying goodbye to Mark is always difficult for the kids and me. We spend a lot of time together whenever I visit Stockton, and I always want that to last longer. The kids handle it remarkably well this time, and there aren’t even any visible tears shed.

Jesse and I visited Mom when Jesse was 3 and I was pregnant with Nick. On our last day, Mark and Mom both came to the airport to see us off. Only passengers were allowed up the escalator to security. We said our last goodbyes, everyone started crying – even Mark – and apparently this is when Jesse realized Little Grandma and Mark weren’t coming with us. She was shocked. She wailed as we rode up the escalator, reaching back as if her parents had just died in a fiery car crash right before her eyes, or I was a kidnapper. She didn’t stop. It cascaded into a 7 or 8 hour ordeal as we made our way back to Wisconsin. More on this later.

12:30 – 12:45 pm. Security. This is when I start saying one of many blessings to my brother Ted and all his future progeny for using his frequent flyer miles to get these tickets for me and the kids. Ted travels a lot for work, so he gets “premiere” tickets on United. We’re flying coach, but we’re treated first class. We get to skip the line at security. A security dude lets us through a cut-in-line rope while about a dozen waiting travelers glare. I don’t even care, because Nick immediately makes a run for it, with Jesse after him like a dog to a rabbit. Two security guards herd the kids back to me, and then we have a minor melee as shoes come off and I dig out the 18 electronic devices I’ve brought for the kids, along with Jesse’s epi-pen and emergency allergy meds. Then we’re sent through a couple odd rope angles to get to the x-ray box kids are allowed to walk through. It takes several more guards to keep Nick and Jesse on course, because they’re confused now and moving in completely random directions, like pinballs. We make it through and collect our things. I don’t bother to apologize to the 4 businessmen whose crotches have been mashed by Nick’s erratic moves.

1:15 pm. We’re at the gate, after a quick stop to pick up a pizza which we’re sure has an egg-free crust. (Finding safe food for Jesse during travel can be difficult. Firewood Cafe is a pizza joint in the SF Int’l United concourse that’ll make you a fresh thin-crust pie in 5 minutes or so, delicious and to-go. Whenever we fly out of SF, we stop in.) The first boarding group is already through when we arrive at the gate. I thought we’d be a little earlier, but Jesse dawdles at every step and refuses to stay close to me, driving me crazy as we move through heavy crowds. Still, with a good deal of snapping and cajoling from me, we make it; and I and my premiere access tickets march right over to the attendant, skipping ahead of all other passengers. But my kids aren’t with me. I look around wildly. Where are they?? Oh. Nick is right behind me, hiding as my third butt-cheek. Jesse is dawdling 50 feet away. I yell at her to come over here NOW, gesticulating madly, oblivious to whatever wicked observations others might be making. She shuffles over, ornery, and I shove the kids ahead of me down the boarding tube. I shove them all the way to row 42. If I was a tired soldier holding a bayonetted rifle and moving unruly POWs along, I’d be using the same move.

1:15 – 6:00 pm PST, or 3:15 – 8:15 pm CT in Wisconsin. On the plane. Direct flight to Chicago. Dreamliner! Yay (blessings to Ted). Free TV and on-demand movies for each passenger! Double yay (more blessings)! Also I have my iPhone, two iPad minis, a Kindle, and two DVD players. We’re set, except for not really. I could go into excruciating detail, but what’s the point. Four year old, eight year old, grumpy mom, 5 hours on an airplane. You can imagine the rest. I’m on call the entire time of course, filling a need, moving things around, managing feelings, taking potty breaks, finding food. As my mom used to say: ee-tee-see, ee-tee-see.

About twenty minutes before we land, Jesse starts losing her cool and Nick gets loud. Nick’s volume control goes out of whack several times a day, and it happens on the plane. It’s hard to be mad, because he’s a really cheerful little guy and he’s yelling happy things, but it’s still painful on the eardrums. Also no one really wants to hear him bellowing at me about the angry birds level he just nailed. Jesse’s issue is that I tell her to stop playing the touch-screen video games on the United TV, because she’s beating the chair in front of her with her feet while poking the screen so hard that the passenger in the seat has to feel like he’s being bonked at both sets of cheeks. By the time we settle that row, Jesse has punched and head-butted me a number of times, and I’m making empty threats about taking her iPad away. As if. Still, she quiets down for the rest of the flight. She’s got the crack in the dam plugged with a little finger. I’m satisfied.

8:30 pm. We find Anthony by baggage claim. Despite Nick’s best efforts as he careens around, I haven’t lost him, but my voice is getting hoarse. Jesse has been crying and whining since we started deboarding. She doesn’t stop when she sees dad. Unfortunately, just then is when I observe that the kids have gotten something yucky and black all over their hands. I pull out wipes and try to fix this, but Jesse’s tired OCD mind becomes absorbed for some long moments with how totally disgusting this is, a la Adrian Monk, and she just lets loose. In fact, she pretty much keeps crying (with brief intermissions) for the next hour, until we’re in the car and well on the way home. The only thing that eventually shuts her up is simple exhaustion: she falls asleep.

11:00 pm, Glendale, Wisconsin. After driving through nasty snowy conditions for two hours, we make it home. The kids are fast asleep. It’s been almost 11 hours since we left Little Grandma’s house. Anthony gets out first to take the dog for a walk. The plan is for me to wait until they’re around the corner (otherwise the dog will be too excited to do her business) and then unload the car before waking up the kids. But of course, they wake up without any help at all. Nick comes to first, and he’s in whiny mode. He wants to snuggle, he wants mommy, he wants his iPad. He dissolves into tears in a few moments and I stop being able to understand anything he says. The noise of him wakes Jesse, and she starts crying too. She wants Little Grandma, she misses Girl and any other dog or relative whose name she can remember, she wants to snuggle, and everything else isn’t human language. That goes on incessantly for a good half hour until we manage to get them into jammies and settle them down to sleep. I only yell at them a few times.

Whew. Time for an episode of MI-5.

* * *

But really, it wasn’t that bad a travel day. I’ve had some awful experiences traveling with Jesse, and this trip doesn’t even touch them. When she was about 7 months old, we traveled to California for Christmas. She had a fit of diarrhea so bad that it shot up her back all the way to her neck. It was inhuman. It wasn’t fit for an airplane restroom, so Anthony and I took care of it together at our seats, best we could. No one complained, but the flight attendant refused to take our ziplock bag full of used diaper and 500 wipes, claiming airline rules prohibited it. So, I’m thankful no one pooped their pants this time around, or vomited, or peed in their pants, especially since I didn’t keep extra clothes with me.

The trip home when Jesse was three, which I mentioned before, was one for the ages. After the betrayal of leaving Little Grandma and Uncle Mark behind, she screamed at me with only a few minutes’ pause until we boarded the first of two flights. Back then in the stone ages (almost 5 years ago), I didn’t have an iPad, and also Jesse was still at a place where any electronic visual stimulation sent her into unbalanced sensory overload for hours. So I had books and toys, and I applied my best effort, and I nursed her, but it was all to no avail. She screamed, cried, ululated, kicked, head-butted, punched, and tortured me all the way to Colorado. The man sitting in front of her stood up and glared at her a couple times. Notably, that did not help. In fact, no one helped me. When we got off that flight in Denver, Jesse was calm for about 15 minutes and then started yelling again. I wasn’t sure they would let us on the second flight, and I had a 2-hour layover. I didn’t know what to do, and I was pregnant and uncomfortable. I eventually buckled her into the umbrella stroller and just sat glumly next to her while she screamed at me. This is when I saw the man who had been sitting in front of us on our first leg. He stopped as he walked past to say some rude niceties to me about Jesse’s behavior, so I asked him what connecting flight he was on. He told me someplace other than Milwaukee but I replied, “Hey, that’s where we’re going, maybe we’ll be seated near you!” He ran off in dismay.

The second leg of our journey was on a 3-seat-wide commuter jet. Jesse was just quiet enough for just long enough that they let us board. But as soon as the cabin doors closed, she released her misery. She never fully calmed down. It was 2 more hours from hell. The flight attendant swung by a couple times to ask me things like, “Is there anything else you can do to help?” Not “I.” Again, no one helped, except for one lady sitting in the row behind me who put in about 5 minutes’ effort distracting Jesse. By the time we landed, which was late in the evening, I was cooked. I got Jesse off the airplane eventually, set her on her feet, and walked away. When I got to the end of the security zone, she was 30 yards behind me, lying in the middle of the empty concourse screaming. Anthony and I waited until she got up and came to us, and then I walked away with no feeling of guilt.

To this day, I have to fight back tears when I think of that trip. I felt alone, crushed under the wave of Jesse’s emotions, and no one stepped up to show me kindness. Compared to that, Tuesday’s trip home was a happy dance in la-la-land. Final assessment: traveling with my spawn doesn’t suck as much as it used to.

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