It started off all right, this trip to McDonald’s with three kids in tow, and one husband in a leg brace because of knee surgery. Only two out of five people were crying. That’s way better than our average.
It was a rainy Sunday night in September. When we pulled into the parking lot and snagged the last handicapped spot, I was feeling optimistic. My 4-year-old twins could play in the indoor playground. My oldest child, Charlie, who has cerebral palsy, could sit next to me in his wheelchair and watch a video of trains/plains/Elmo, whatever, and everyone would be fed and tired and ready for bed by the time we left.
Then I watched someone walk in with a birthday cake. It was a giant Transformers cake, and thousands of kids followed in its wake. Or maybe it was 20. Either way, it was enough to make me sit one second longer in the van, trying to decide if we should just hit the drive-through window and call it a day. But the soldiering-on voice in my head said, “Just do it. It’ll be worth it not to have to listen to the fallout of a visit rescinded.”
So I unloaded the twins. Unloaded the wheelchair. Unloaded Charlie. And then my husband slipped on the wet tile floor right inside the door. I caught him, but not the iPad, which was supposed to be Charlie’s entertainment. It slid across the floor. One of the birthday moms retrieved it. I thanked her, crossed my fingers it still worked, and followed the cake and kids into the play area.
It smelled like wet dog and fries and toilet water. Also, the noise level was approximately 100,000 decibels. It was as if all the screams on a plunging roller coaster had been bottled up and unleashed in this tiny suburban McDonald’s. It was because of the party. And the rain. And the fact that it was Sunday evening. The world and all its children had descended onto this one space.
We found a table, though, and got the food. Everything seemed to be evening out. The food was distributed. The toys in the kids’ meals were new ones that had not yet littered the floor of our van. The iPad was working. I let myself sit down. But 10 minutes in, while we were still eating, someone opened the bathroom door while using the hand-dryer. That’s all it took. Charlie burst into big, weepy, snotty tears that nothing, not even a new video or a hug or my hands over his ears would stop. It was all too much. That dryer sound is one of his sensory triggers. And the screams and the heat and funky smell of the place didn’t help.
I packed our food, left my husband to deal with the twins as best as he could on his crutches, and made a break for it with Charlie. We rolled through the restaurant and into the parking lot. After a minute of breathing in the clean air and quiet, I loaded him in the van. I wiped his tears with my sleeve and pressed my forehead to his until he pushed me away. This is how I know he is okay, when he gets sick of me fussing over him. I handed him his fries, put on an Elmo DVD, and got in the front seat. I could see my husband through the window, sitting in a booth with his leg propped up, yelling at one of the twins, who was blocking the slide so no one else could go down. I pushed the button on my seat, leaned back as far as I could go, and stuck my feet on the dash while resting my own french fries in my lap.
This isn’t the first time we’ve had to abandon ship midway through an outing because Charlie got overstimulated. I’ve sat in the parking lot at Chuck-E-Cheese, church, the trampoline park, Great Clips and fast-food places across the country. I used to get upset that we couldn’t hold our own in all these places that everyone else seems to gravitate toward. But I have come to see the good in these moments: time with just Charlie and me, where we stop whatever we’re doing and scurry to the van like it’s a game of musical chairs.
In a way, it’s self-care at its best. The poet Rumi said, “Life is a balance of holding on and letting go.” I’ve spent too much time “sticking it out” for no other reason than to say I did. But Charlie has taught me the value of choosing the exit, and knowing when to let go. Who doesn’t need, every now and then, a calm, cool and quiet place away from it all?