My dog and I took three road trips this fall, first to Salida and then another two in quick succession to Ridgway, with a swing through Durango. Anticipation of the first trip got me thinking about Scout’s carsickness and what more I could do to mitigate the anxiety and heavy drooling that inevitably lead to barfing. Just last week the heated-seat indicator light came on in the car for the first time in six months. On the ride home from a friend’s last spring, Scout let loose with a fistful of partially-digested kibble on top of the dials, in the cup holder and in between the driver’s seat and center console. That was special. Apparently the wiring is finally dry.
I remembered friends talking about the hammock bed they’d bought for their poodle. Straps loop over the front and back headrests to hold the bed in place. Washable fabric protects the leather seats from dog vomit, dog hair, and whatever else the pooch might hurl, shed or otherwise get rid of. So I did what we do these days. I googled hammock dog beds and settled on the offering from Bed, Bath, and Beyond. At checkout I learned that if I spent another $9.01, shipping would be free. I added a ten-dollar dinosaur that squeaks. Maybe gnawing on Dino will keep Scout from getting carsick, I reasoned, although stare at that shade of apple green long enough and anybody would feel nauseous.
I love a road trip, particularly in the fall headed through South Park on Hwy 285 into the heart of Colorado. Sand blows off the peaks of the Rockies and across the wide, long valley to form the Great Sand Dunes, one of our state’s truly magnificent places. Ali’s class took an overnight field trip to the Dunes when she was in high school. She didn’t much care for the camping but enjoyed riding the dunes in an oversize sand buggy, pushed by two classmates who looked in the photo to be having as much fun as Ali. Mosquito bites along with wind and sand in the eyes made for a less than pleasant outing but hey, she went. As the mother of a kid who required special gear and extra hands on deck, I was ecstatic that she had the experience.
The experiences Ali has a 32-year-old are mostly out of my hands. There are the family birthdays and Mother’s Day, the holidays and the overnights at Christmas, but day-in, day-out, I’m out of the loop. Communication is spotty. I won’t hear from her for days and then she’ll call and talk for an hour. Like the other night. She’d taken two buses to Trader Joe’s that afternoon to stock up on food before the snow hit. On her way out of the store, she’d run into a woman who knew her in elementary school. Ali called to tell me the story. I heard about the encounter for an hour and nine minutes, long enough for me to make dinner, eat, and clean the kitchen. I reckon her going dark now and then is karma. I was the same at her age. It drove my mother crazy, and then I became a mother and overnight she became the wisest person I knew. We talked regularly; the last years of her life, we talked every day.
A few weeks ago my sister-in-law sent a photo of the two of us with Ali at Lake Vermillion the summer of 1988. That June, I had taken Ali to Evanston Hospital for a follow-up with the neonatal specialist who had examined her a few days after she arrived from Seoul. Seven months had passed. We’d just celebrated Ali’s first birthday.
The specialist did the exam, asking the same questions the pediatrician asked at every visit. She left the room and returned five minutes later with a second doctor. I don’t recall her name or specialty, only that she had long dark hair and a beautiful face that looked like it might break when she told me the news. She said “cerebral palsy” a couple of times and something about me continuing to do what we were doing, we’d just have to wait and see. I reached for a tissue to wipe the drool from Ali’s chin, then dabbed my wet cheeks. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. The doctor kept talking and Ali kept batting my teardrop earring with her fisted left hand, laughing as the earring bobbed back and forth, and then it was over. I buckled Ali into the stroller and headed to the parking garage. “Next year,” I remember telling her, “when we come back, those doctors won’t believe you’re the same child.”
Armed with a will of steel, I went to work fixing my child, as if anyone can fix a brain that didn’t fully develop at conception. My ego would hear none of the talk about limitations. Ali was so obviously aware of everything around her, so readily engaging, surely something could be done to remedy the faulty brain-to-muscle connection. If a solution existed, I was determined to find it.
What I didn’t know that summer but would learn in the months and years ahead was that neither western practices nor a boatload of alternative therapies would turn my daughter into a walking, talking toddler. Not the Feldenkreis intensives in San Francisco or the weekly sessions in Milwaukee, not the Louise Hay tapes or the cranial sacral therapy from, no joke, Dr. Feely.
That summer I had no idea I’d go through a divorce (ok, I had a hunch) but didn’t foresee walking away from the safety net of Conde Nast in Chicago to eventually follow my heart into a writing job in Denver. I couldn’t know that I would sell my sapphire and diamond engagement ring to buy Ali’s first wheelchair the year she started kindergarten, or incur the penalty and withdraw funds prematurely from an IRA account to build a ramp at our Wash Park bungalow or, five years later, sell that house and design and build a home with an accessible main floor.
Ali’s pediatrician remarked early on that one good hand can be incredibly useful. He was hinting at independence. Fast forward thirty years and Ali’s one good hand texts, operates a touchy joystick, and accesses an icon-based system of language on a 128-key augmentative communication device she calls Annie. She shops for groceries, navigates RTD like a pro, and lives in an apartment by herself with the help of a devoted team of attendants. The summer of her first birthday, I had no idea she’d ever be capable of such a bold and courageous move, let alone act on it. And then there was me. Who knew I would one day find the courage to let her go, trusting that because she said she was ready, she was.
The day before Scout and I leave for Salida, Ali sends a text: I’m managing my own life and I’m happy. We’d been back and forth about me wanting to see her and she being too busy. I miss her, and I like laying eyes on her once a week. Doesn’t happen, not any more. And that’s ok, except that the memory of her needing something from me for what felt like every waking moment of the first twenty-odd years of her life lives on. It’s like hazel eyes and quirky cowlicks and right handedness. Her needing me settled in my DNA, down there with purpose and responsibility and all the juicy, complicated stuff that goes into being an imperfect parent who loves without condition. That this same child now goes for days without requesting one thing from me is nothing short of remarkable. She’s managing her own life and yes, she’s happy.
Scout’s happy too, provided she gets to come along, although she’s still reluctant to jump into the backseat. Those memories of carsickness don’t die easy. She barfed exactly once on the trip to Salida. Our friend, who’s prone to carsickness herself, suggested I visualize a bowl of water sitting on the dashboard when I round a curve or approach a stop sign. I drove through the foothills like an old lady on our way home, one eye on the road and the other on the guy riding my bumper. He looked ready to blow a gasket. Scout was oblivious, snoozing with Dino in the backseat. The hammock bed may be helping her feel calmer and more relaxed, but honestly, I think she’s doing better because she’s older. Some time has passed, for all of us.