When the four of us reminisce about all of our crazy adventures, formerly known as vacations, we all agree that many of our fondest memories are of times that did not go as planned – mostly due to Ian’s shenanigans. With each excursion, Ian steps out of his comfort zone a little more, and we learn as a family what to do better next time. Sometimes I am lucky enough to enjoy an hour to myself to drink coffee and read a book.
My concept of a vacation is to venture far away from our comfortable environment to explore places that are unique and different. We usually seek experiences that are unlike our day-to-day life. For Ian, however, he would prefer to magically relocate our house, the three cats, and all of his belongings to a beach in Mexico. He would have the safety net and comfort of feeling ‘at home’ while exploring his new surroundings. With his expectations in mind – if it wasn’t for Chad reminding me how fun vacation is once we arrive – I might never want to travel with Ian. The reality is that parenting Ian is challenging whether we are at home, or away, so we may as well be in paradise while the circus unfolds.
The first few years of attempting the Witt Family Vacation meant making sure Ian had some of his essentials such as: ingredients for the big nasty, the same cup he uses at home for vitamin powder drinks, and of course, WiFi, so he is able to use every electronic device that he can fit into his backpack. This may all sound quite accommodating, but a ‘happy Ian’ makes a ‘happy vacation’ for all of us.
Many families spend time planning for and researching their vacation – from deciding on the destination to selecting which airline to fly. However, with Ian along, there are many more layers to consider. Packing our house, as Ian might prefer, is not an option, so the accommodations are of utmost concern, and we often spend more money for the ideal set-up. Ian is an early riser and a rowdy sleeper, so the best case is we have three bedrooms. If not, Chad and I take one for the team and happily bunk with Ian to allow Grace to have her space. Even if we need to endure Ian’s snoring and early rising, it is worth it for family peace.
We also need to take into account all aspects of the property where we are staying – for safety reasons. We try to avoid elevators: they are prime for Ian to push buttons, wander off on floors that aren’t ours, and get lost. We have re-learned the elevator lesson the hard way…several times. It is not unlike him to bolt from the room and hop in an elevator before we can reach him. This is Ian’s ultimate hide and seek, and it is my ultimate nightmare. With no way to lock any door to safely secure him inside of a bedroom, like at home, we need to consider the layout, his proximity to us, and any potential Ian escape routes that could be unsafe — such as ways he can get to the pool or lake without us knowing. With all of this in mind, there are no remote islands or cabins deep in the forest in our immediate future. No Wifi, what? Are you crazy?
Planning the trip is just the beginning. 99% of the time, Ian refuses to even get in the car, but at least he’s predictable. We plan, we pack, and we talk extensively with Ian about the upcoming trip. While he is always very excited for the weeks leading up to departure, the moment we need to leave, he firmly plants his feet and refuses to walk out the door. When he was younger and his communication skills were not developed, we had no way of understanding this reaction. We often ended up angry and stressed, not realizing Ian was simply nervous about leaving and not knowing what to expect when he arrived wherever we were going.
Thankfully, Grace often became the creative one and, with supplies in the car, would make a fake ‘travel ticket’ for Ian to play with, all in hopes of him hopping into the car on his own. This worked many times, but once in the car, the next issue awaited – the dreaded seatbelt. We are thankful for the invention of a plastic contraption that hooked on the seat belt to stop Ian from breaking free, however, he was too clever, and that didn’t last long. One time, we had to duct tape the seat belt to the buckle to keep him safe. However, I recall thinking that if we had an accident, we may have some explaining to do, at best, and a true emergency getting him out, at worst. On many road trips, we actually allowed him to move around without a seat belt. This caused another set of issues, including Ian rummaging through Grace’s stuff, crawling into the back seat, or trying to watch a show Grace was happily watching on her own. Grace hated the idea of Ian being able to break the rules, but often, there was no other option unless someone was willing to sit on him.
In those moments, I wanted to duct tape his entire body to the car seat. I would calm myself by thinking back to the 70’s when we grew up. We all laid in the rear of station wagons, sans seatbelts, the entire distance to Florida, and we survived. Quickly, I am brought back to modern times, when – despite my extensive organization – we discover that the headphones are broken. This means we will be subjected to listening to Power Rangers on high volume. And worse, there are no shows available because I failed to double check the Netflix downloads. This is going to be a long car ride. And there is no wine.
After everyone has time to relax and breathe, while Ian uses up all of my cellular data to watch some crazy reality TV show, we are potentially on our way to bliss. However, if our destination involves being around other vacationers, bliss is not the word I would use. For most families, knowing that new playmates will be around, either planned or spontaneous, is ideal. The kids go off for hours on end, and the parents enjoy adult time. Unfortunately, we learned early on that being around other people causes undue stress, not only for us, but also for the other families we meet on vacation.
Ian is a social guy, so right away he jumps into the activities others are enjoying, as if he is part of their family. I admire his confident, outgoing nature, but he is often unable to sense any social cues, such as when a family may want their alone time, or when they are done participating in the two-hour ping-pong tournament, with Ian as the ringleader. This presents uncomfortable situations for everyone. Chad often tells me to just let it be and that Ian will be fine, but I hate the thought of another family trying to relax and thinking, ‘what the heck, these people need to watch their kid.’ They can clearly tell that Ian has Down syndrome, but we never know how much experience they have and what, or if, we should explain. After all, they are on their own vacation and certainly had not planned on entertaining another kid, especially one who is somewhat demanding of their time and attention. I have learned to let go a little in hopes that they will inform us when they have had enough. Other times, Ian clearly overstays his welcome. I immediately feel the need to apologize, explain Ian’s idiosyncrasies, and attempt to coerce him to come back to be with us – which is close to impossible without some bribery.
Ian may not like spontaneity, but he sure provides it for us. On most every trip, the unpredictable nature of Ian’s moods can put a damper on things. He may be putting his shoes on excitedly, and then all of a sudden he refuses to leave for an excursion. Or we could be having an enjoyable time at the beach, and out of the blue, he stands up and walks away. We can’t force him to stay, and we have very little leverage, with no way to enforce a time out or take away items as we would at home. Often this results in needing to give in, pack up, and go – ultimately, leaving us frustrated and surrounded by tension.
We have had many incidents that pushed us to the brink and introduced the term ‘shit-cations’ to our vocabulary, or maybe it was this trip, when Ian was six, that coined the term.
On the majestic shores of Lake Superior, Ian decided to drop a massive load in his pants – when in theory, he was potty trained. We had to change him right there, as he immediately, without hesitation, pulled his pants down and refused to budge until he was clean. This was the same trip when he chucked a wet diaper out the window on our drive to the North Shore and decided to take some pictures with my $1000 camera in his undies.
Speaking of pictures, when Ian was 13, we ventured on an out-of-country road trip to Canada. Grace’s good friend, who happens to be a talented photographer, accompanied us, so I was excited to have her capture the perfect family photo. However, Ian refused to uncover his face with his hands, so the family snapshot looked like this. Once I was able to let go of what I envisioned, I realized that I actually love this image even more than if he had cooperated. It captures the essence of our life at times with Ian. It is raw and real and true!
In addition to the Canadian stamp in his passport, Ian has been to Mexico four times. Each trip has been nothing short of magical, with the exception of a few train wrecks. Like the time I returned from a beautiful, long jog on the beach. Exhausted and hot, I recall being glad to be back to eat and stretch. However, Ian (age 13) had another idea. He figured it was time to get in his workout, too. My attempts to convince him to wait until Chad returned were fruitless. He promptly put on his shoes and headed out the door. There was literally no stopping him. So there I am, sore, tired and admittedly crying, as I followed him through the streets of downtown Sayulita. Looking back now, that event is hilarious. I would trade a busy work day anytime for a walk, even following aimless Ian, down the streets in a small town in Mexico.
What blissful adventures have you had with your loved ones? I’d love to hear about your memories, turning lemon into lemonade, and any tips/tricks you’ve discovered through the years of traveling.