Tag Archives: flying with autistic children

A Moment of Levity

Yesterday, having successfully arrived in Denver and found our gate for the connecting flight to New York, an announcement told us of a short delay.  Emma, who was looking at her book – The Way I Feel – looked up and said, “Angry!  I am so angry!”  As she was on the page in the book describing anger, this was not surprising, however, the gentleman sitting next to her had no way of knowing the context for her words and so looked over at her and said, with an exasperated air, “Yeah, me too!”  Emma then scowled, to show off her angriest face, the man then scowled back before both of them began to laugh.  As I watched this interaction, I realized the man was with his wife and grown daughter, who were sitting directly across from us, both of whom were laughing so hard they had tears running down their cheeks.

Both our flights were, thankfully, uneventful.  We arrived in New York after 11:00PM where it was zero degrees with the wind chill, having left balmy Aspen, Colorado where it was in the upper forties.  Go figure.

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:   Emma’s Hope Book

Prepping Emma

We are flying back to New York City today.  As with most outings, we prepare her in advance.  Emma has become more aware of time in that she has been counting down the days until we fly home.  “Last day at the indoor pool,” she will say under her breath or “That’s it, no more skiing.  That was the last day of skiing.”

For the past week or so she has increasingly talked about going back to school, mentioning her friends and teacher and made references to things she wants to do in New York and the people she expects or would like to see.  Yesterday she helped clean up and gather her things to pack.  “Time to go back home,” she said at one point.  One year we were fortunate enough to be invited to fly in a friend’s private plane.  For the next few years Emma said, “Take just one plane,” with the hope that we would, once again, be able to fly straight from New York City to Aspen without stopping or going through the long lines of security and dealing with the large airports with their many delays and flight cancellations.

We walk her through the day by saying things like, “We leave on Tuesday, Em.  We’ll drive to the airport and say good bye to Granma.  Then we have to check our bags and go through security.  I will probably be pulled aside, so you’ll need to stay with Joe, Daddy and Nicky at the gate until I can join you.”  Often during this, Emma will join in, “We have to get on the airplane and fly up, up and then land at the other airport.”

We go through as much as we can with her, but there are inevitably issues which arise that we have no way of anticipating such as running into people we know, flights getting cancelled, luggage getting lost, alternative routes needing to be taken because of unforeseeable weather conditions, etc.  We do our best to make contingency plans, but fortunately Emma is a great traveler and most of these things she will take in stride.

I have seats all together today, so unless they change the aircraft on us, we should be able to sit altogether.

“We have to take a taxi,” Emma said, as I was going over our schedule this morning.  “Then we get to go through the tunnel and go home!” Emma said before running downstairs for one last morning of chocolate chip pancakes.

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:   Emma’s Hope Book.com

Flying to Colorado

We flew to Colorado for the holidays last Friday.  When I booked our reservations I tried to get all of our seats close together, but despite my most dogged attempts, getting five seats together just wasn’t possible.  Still I was fairly optimistic as I had managed to have Richard and Nic together in the row in front of Joe and Emma with me just needing to trade my window seat for an aisle seat in the same row but on the other side of the plane.  When the gentleman who had the aisle seat next to Joe and Emma, the seat I was hoping to trade him for, arrived, I explained that we were trying to sit together and would he mind terribly if I traded my lovely window seat just two seats over for his aisle seat.  No, he told me.  He was not willing to do that.  He then told me that he had a grandson with autism and felt for my predicament, but couldn’t trade seats as he didn’t like sitting near the window.  Not discouraged I asked the woman in the other aisle seat of that same row if she would mind terribly moving over just two seats to the window seat, thus letting the gentleman occupy her seat, while I occupied his.  (I know this is beginning to resemble a Shakespearean novel with a vast cast of characters.  I should have tried to download a seating map for this post.)  The woman, barely looked up, avoided any eye contact and said flatly, “No.” She then proceeded to read her book about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.  By this point, all the passengers within three rows of us, were aware of what was going on.  Undeterred, I asked a few more people seated in an aisle seat if any would mind trading with me.  I was rebuffed each and every time.  At this point with my options becoming fewer, I decided to try and solicit the help of a flight attendant, though in the past this has never proven helpful.  Never-the-less off I went in search of a flight attendant while the gentleman took his seat next to Joe and Emma.  As I headed up the aisle another man, sitting several rows behind us, said he would trade his aisle seat for my window seat.  As the trade took place he leaned over to the first man and said, “You know, you could have helped her out.”

I thanked the man profusely and asked if we could buy his lunch.  He declined, said he flies at least once a week and it was no big deal.  I thanked him again and sat down.  Joe and I have been reading some material about speech and literacy, so we began to discuss how we might best apply what we were reading to our work with Emma.

About an hour into the flight, the man whose seat I was now occupying leaned over to me on his way back to his seat and said, “Forgive me.”

“Please,” I said, “don’t worry about it.”

“No.  I should have given you the seat.  It was wrong of me.  That man who volunteered, I’m proud of him.”

“Thank you for coming over,” I said.  And he sat back down.

A couple of things I keep coming back to, are not so much how people are not willing to move their seats, I understand it’s a pain.  Traveling has become hellish, everyone has just been through security lines, removal of shoes, waiting, standing in line and finally they get to their seat, the last thing anyone wants is to be asked to move.  I hadn’t realized the window/aisle conflict was such an issue.  I had thought as long as it wasn’t a middle seat it wouldn’t be hard to trade, but clearly this was incorrect.  But it made me think about the airlines themselves.  Is there not something the airlines could do for families traveling with children with disabilities?  I don’t know the answer to this question.  I don’t know how they could help, but it does seem that the airlines would do well to at least have an awareness that this is a growing problem.  We go through some sort of problem almost every time we travel.  I have gotten better at choosing seats that, while often not together, are at least seats people might be willing to trade.  But every now and again my best laid plans run amok.

The Rockies

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:   Emma’s Hope Book

Em’s Airplane

Yesterday Eddie (UPS man) delivered a package.  Emma took the box and began decorating the inside with stickers.  She then drew circles around each sticker.

With a different colored marker she drew a larger circle in the middle of one end, just underneath the circled stickers.

When I got home last night Richard said, “Did you see what Emma did?”

“Yes,” I said, walking past the box without really looking at it.

“Do you know what it is?”  he asked.

I bent down to view the box more carefully.  “She’s made a pattern with the different colored stickers?”

“It’s her airplane.”

“Really?”  My mind began to tick off the greater implications – imaginative play, creative thinking, fine motor dexterity, perhaps an attempt at patterning…

“The stickers are the windows,” Richard told me.  “You should have seen her.  She got inside of it, put on her seat belt and flew.”

“Wow!  How great is that?” I said.

This morning when I went out to help Emma make her breakfast, I pointed to the box.  “Hey Em.  What’s that?”

“Emma’s airplane.”

Then she proceeded to sit inside of it, buckled her seat belt and pushed the purple colored “button” which evidently “starts” her airplane and began to fly.  “Push the button.  Go up, up, up and fly!”  Emma said.  She held onto the box and began shaking it.  “Uh-uh-uh!  It’s bumpy.  You have to be careful.  You have to hold on!”

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“Up in the sky,” she said, with a tone that seemed to hold a hint of sarcasm, as in – Duh, where do you think? or maybe she was just tired of having to state the obvious.

“Yes, but where will you land?”  I pressed.

“No.  Up in the sky,” she said.

Because clearly I was missing the point.  The destination wasn’t the goal.

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:   www.Emma’s Hope Book.com

Do We Have An Obligation to People With Autism?

The scene in the airplane last week involving the man with autism, has stuck with me.  I keep wondering what the airlines would need to help them cope with situations such as the one we witnessed.  Of course I am approaching this question with the assumption that they are interested in mitigating the damage and distress such a scene may cause, not only for the man with autism, but for the other passengers seated nearby, as well as the flight crew.  At the very least – the airlines and all such companies who may come into contact with persons with autism should be educated enough to know how best to deal with most situations that might arise.  Given the current rise in autism, it seems scenarios such as the one I described last week will occur with increasing frequency.  At the very least, it does seem obvious that when a person with autism has requested a window seat they should be accommodated, just as someone who requires a wheelchair is given an aisle seat.

Why is it that neurological differences are treated any differently than physical?  The answer is –  for the most part neurological issues go unseen.  We cannot see inside the person’s brain and so we make assumptions.  Assumptions that the person has a psychological “problem” or are simply behaving badly because they are – poorly brought up or have emotional problems.  We have words for people like this, most of them cannot be written without using a lot of keyboard symbols.  We have little tolerance for those who seem to indulge their worst desires and allow themselves to act out on those selfish interests.  But what of the people who, like the man we encountered last week, have autism?  Do we not, as a society, have an obligation to these people?

For more on autism and my daughter, Emma’s journey through a childhood of it, go to:   www.EmmasHopeBook.com

Autism and Traveling

Yesterday we flew back to New York city.  Emma is a terrific traveler, content to stare out the window, look at her books and sing songs.  As long as she is able to sit in a window seat, she is happy.

On the flight from Denver to New York, which was already delayed by about a half an hour, we noticed a man speaking in a loud voice to one of the flight personnel.  He was a large man, well over six feet tall, with close cropped greying hair.  I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but it was clear he was unhappy about something, not unusual given the rigors of traveling nowadays.  But as he went on, I noticed a cadence to his speech that was familiar to me.

“Mom, what’s wrong with that guy?” Nic asked me as I watched the scene unfold.

“Don’t know, Nic.”

“Is he autistic?”  Nic asked.

“Maybe.  I’m not sure.”

It was at this moment that we were called to board.  The man, visibly upset and walking with a cane, boarded first.  When we finally settled into our seats, I noticed that same man was seated directly in front of me – in an aisle seat.   The usual parade of harried travelers filed along, as exhausted flight attendants urged everyone into their seats so that we could take off without further delays.  By the time the plane was airborne, we all began to relax.  At a certain point the man in front of me yelled out, “I can’t see out the window!  I can’t see out the window!   Excuse me miss, I can’t see out the window!”

It wasn’t clear who he was speaking to, but it seemed that the woman seated near the window in the row in front of him had pulled the shade down.  Someone then said, “It’s her seat, she can do what she wants.”

To which the man shouted, “I can’t see out the window.  I hate these aisle seats.”

For another hour or so all seemed to calm down until about an hour from our landing when the pilot announced we were in a holding pattern over Pennsylvania and would be for an indefinite period of time.  The pilot then went on to assure us that we had enough fuel for several hours so everyone should relax and he would keep us updated.  But the gentleman in front of me began to get agitated, asking the flight attendant what was happening, what time would we actually land etc.  She explained that we were in a holding pattern and couldn’t predict what time we would actually land.

After she left the man began to shout, “I can’t see out the window.”  People were muttering and saying things under their breath, while the poor man became increasingly upset.  At this point I leaned forward to the woman in his row seated next to the window and asked her if she would mind changing her window seat for his aisle seat.  I explained to her that I thought he probably had autism and was becoming increasingly upset by all the delays and needed to be by the window.  I told her my daughter (happily gazing out the window directly behind her, also had autism and needed to sit in the window seat too.)  The young woman complied and I asked her if she minded if I intervened by telling the flight attendant.  She said that would be fine.  I went to find the flight attendant who was discussing the situation with another flight attendant in first class.  I explained that I thought the man had autism and that my guess was he would feel much calmer if he could sit in a window seat and that the woman to his right had agreed to change her seat with him.

The flight attendant then returned saying to the man, “This nice woman has agreed to change seats with you.”

“I hate these aisle seats.  I told them at the gate I hate these aisle seats.  I was suppose to have a window seat.  I told them I was suppose to have a window seat,” the man said, now standing in the aisle of the plane.

Once he had reseated himself by the window, all was quiet with no further mishaps despite our over an hour delay in landing.

What I find most upsetting about this, is how it all could have been avoided.  The airlines, like so many, do not have any understanding of autism.  How hard would it have been to give this man a window seat as he requested at the gate?  When I went to the flight attendant and suggested he might have autism, she said, “Oh, yes.  He does.”  So it’s clear the airline had been made aware of this and yet, chose to do nothing to help this man.

Sometimes I feel as though I am yelling from the top of a very large building.  WHAT IS IT GOING TO TAKE ?   The lack of understanding around a condition that affects hundreds of thousands of people is mind boggling.   The scene we witnessed could have been avoided had the airlines and it’s personnel had even a vague understanding of autism.

For more on autism and traveling with Emma, go to:  www.EmmasHopeBook.com

Travel Plans Gone Awry

To pick up from where I left off, Emma did extremely well on the airplane and on the long car trip up to Napa, California.  She was ecstatic, if not more than a little tired when we finally reached the Bed and Breakfast that night.  There were others of us who did not fare as well.

The airlines arbitrarily changed all of our reserved seats, so that each of us now occupied a middle seat and no two of us were seated together.  When Richard called to complain and have our former seats restored, they professed confusion and ultimately said we would have to figure it out, despite the fact that we told them we were traveling with two children, one of whom was AUTISTIC!   Richard spent a good three hours on the phone Thursday afternoon, instead of packing, not an ideal way to spend the day.  I had a moment, during the second or third phone call to the airlines, when I wondered how it was even legal, let alone ethical for them to split up a family and not have even the children seated next to their parent.

But we got through it, though not because the airline did anything to help us.  I sat in the back of the airplane with Nic and my cousin, Alexandra.  Richard, Joe and Emma were able to snag seats together closer to the front.  A number of kind people were willing to change their seats to allow this to happen.  At one point we narrowly avoided a full melt down when Emma lost a piece of her blanket, now a three inch square of green fabric, which had inadvertently fallen on top of an elderly woman’s neatly coiffed hair who had fallen asleep in front of Emma.  Joe managed to deftly pluck the missing shred from the top of the woman’s head without waking her and returned it to a whimpering Emma.  Disaster averted.

The B&B was lovely.  Cedar Gables, whose wonderful owners prepared delicious breakfasts of homemade apple fritters, muffins and scones accompanied by eggs, bacon, sausages and fresh fruit each morning.  Because the entire place was overrun with my family members, Emma was able to run around in her nightdress, slide on the wooden bannister and blow up her balloons, then release them so they made a screeching noise as they whipped over the heads of unsuspecting relatives before resting on various ledges and window sills.

My brother’s wedding was lovely and Monday we headed back to the airport where I had to leave my family to return to Aspen, where I am reopening my store for the summer, while Richard returned home to New York with the children.

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:  www.EmmasHopeBook.com

Traveling with Emma

We are going to Northern California tomorrow for my brother’s wedding.  Emma is very excited to see her Uncle Andy and because we rarely travel anywhere new, this is a particularly appealing trip.  Other than visiting her Granma in Colorado, we have only traveled to places that required us to travel because of medical treatments for Emma.  Panama and Costa Rica for Emma’s three stem cell treatments and Boston to meet with Dr. Timothy Buie, a specialist in autism and GI tract issues.  When we flew to Boston a year later for one of my cousin’s wedding, Emma was convinced we were returning to the hospital where they’d performed a colonoscopy and endoscopy on her.  It wasn’t until we actually got to the wedding and she saw the guests did she relax.  We use to go to Cape Cod every August for a couple of weeks, but haven’t been, since we got Emma’s diagnosis.  In fact it was on that last trip almost seven years ago that we came to the conclusion we needed to get her evaluated.  Even if it were easier to travel with Em, Cape Cod sadly, holds painful memories for me and so I’ve not been eager to return.

However this trip is one Emma is anticipating with great excitement.

“Sleep, wake up, get on airplane, go see Uncle Andy!” Emma said this morning, while bouncing up and down.

“Yeah, Em.  We’re going to have fun!”

“No.  Not going to go on the school bus.  Going to see Uncle Victor, Grandma, Uncle Nic, Gaby, Lili, Liesl …”  she went through the list of all the people we would undoubtedly see at my brother’s wedding.

“Are you excited?” I asked.

“Yes!  So excited!”  Emma shouted and then ran out of the room.

There’s a certain degree of anxiety that comes with traveling with Emma.  Though she rarely has melt downs any more on the airplane, in fact she’s become a wonderful traveler, we always brace ourselves for the unexpected.  Because we aren’t allowed to pack any liquids or her yogurt (she’ll only drink Mott’s apple juice or Apple & Eve Apple juice and only if it comes from a plastic bottle, not a can) we have limited options when it comes to what she’ll drink and eat.  Usually she doesn’t eat anything other than her Pirate’s Booty, though last time we flew back from Colorado I did manage to get her to drink a small amount of the apple juice they served on the airplane.  It felt like a victory.  She use to eat fruit leathers and as they also helped her ears during landing and take off, we used to pack about ten of them.  She has recently been refusing to eat them, but I’ll bring some anyway on the off chance she’ll eat one.

We will be staying in an inn and thankfully the entire place has been taken over by my extended family.  Even if Emma does lose it, at least the people effected by her screams know of her situation and will hopefully be patient and kind.  Even so, it’s tough not to worry.  Richard scoped out the different day trips we can take while there this weekend and there seem to be a great many of them.  He found a pool she can swim in and an amusement park.

“Well we’ve got Saturday and most of Sunday until the wedding covered,” Richard announced earlier.

We’re sitting in the back of the plane, which is a good news/bad news situation.  The good news is, we’re next to the bathrooms, the bad news is we’ll be the last to get off and Emma has a difficult time sitting still after the plane is at the gate.  She wants to get off the plane NOW and can’t understand why we have to wait to let everyone in front of us off first. But who knows, maybe she’ll be able to tolerate the wait this time.

So while Emma is ecstatic and without any anxiety about traveling to see her Uncle Andy, Richard and I are anxiously making sure we’re well prepared and haven’t forgotten anything.  I use to be a very casual traveler, often late to the gate, the last one on board before they shut the doors and pulled away from the gate, winging it when it came to where I might stay the night.  In my twenties and thirties I often traveled alone, to all sorts of places all over the world.  But since I had children, I am a nervous wreck when traveling.

I’ll try to take a page from Emma’s book.  Relax, look out the window, chew on a fruit leather and enjoy the journey.

For more on Emma’s travel adventures through a childhood of autism, go to:  www.EmmasHopeBook.com


“Go on airplane?” Emma said yesterday morning.

“Yes, but first we’ll have breakfast, then study room, then brush teeth and then go on the airplane,” I told her.

After listening to me, Emma nodded her head and said, “Go on airplane.”

All that other stuff was filler, it was the airplane part Emma cared about.  “Right,” I said.

At the Aspen airport there was the usual congestion, lines, children running around, harried people, stern looking airport security.  When flying with Emma I used to bring along a letter from her school saying she was autistic etc.  But it never seemed to make a difference, so I stopped.  Despite the fact Emma is the world’s greatest traveler there are problems which inevitably arise when flying with her.  Little misunderstandings, which I’ve described in previous posts, not important enough to spend time going into again.

Emma, as I’ve written before, will not eat anything served on the airplane.  She will not drink any of the liquids they serve, the apple juice on the Denver to New York flight is out of the question as it is served from a can, something she won’t tolerate, she will only drink water from a water fountain, impossible when in Aspen, difficult even in New York City during the winter months and unavailable on airplanes.  So we brought two of her last, appropriately packaged vanilla milks and pirate booty, some grapes – they must be seedless red grapes, a banana and some fruit leathers.  All of which is fine, except the vanilla milks cause us problems every single time.  Curiously in New York I will tell security she’s autistic and we are almost always cheerfully waved through, but never in Aspen.  The Aspen airport is a stickler for going through the correct protocol, no matter how tedious.  I know to take the vanilla milk out, show it to airport security and wait for the predictable grumblings from the people behind us as the entire line is put to a stand still.  I hate the “pat downs” where you are taken aside and searched, so this time Joe volunteered to be the one to endure it, while I watched Emma.

Traveling alone with Emma is particularly daunting as she might run off and no one appears to have the slightest understanding of autism and the difficulties this presents to the lone parent who is being pulled aside, frisked, trying to keep an eye on the carry on as well as calling to Emma who often disappears into the crowds.  To say this is a tense and upsetting time would be putting it mildly.  It is nerve wracking and often frightening as one never knows if Emma will run off – to the bathroom, try to exit the area, run outside to an awaiting aircraft headed to – who knows where – suffice it to say, it’s not fun.

But yesterday morning Joe, being the trooper that he is, volunteered and so they went through his and Emma’s carry on, with all their various swabs and strange looking equipment, it took about ten minutes all told, and I kept reminding myself, as we waited, that this was, though annoying, nothing more than an inconvenience in this post 9/11 age, which we all find ourselves in.

Once we made it through security all went fairly well, the weather was perfect, the passengers were all boarded when I became aware of two little girls sitting in the row behind, their parents, directly behind me and Emma.  The little girls couldn’t have been older then 3, their voices still had that high pitched squeaky sound only heard in a toddler.  The father helped get them settled, made sure they each had their stuffed animal, there was some fighting between the girls about who’s special toy was whose, but other than that it was what any parent of two toddlers would expect. (Not that I would know, but I’m guessing here.)  Some bickering, lots of talk from the parents about the importance of sharing, requests from the girls for candy, cheerios, something to drink.  It became comical when the father, having spent at least 10 minutes procuring various sweets and snacks, muttered to his wife, “Can I just sit for two seconds without feeding someone?”

Meanwhile there Emma was, content to stare silently out the window, happy to be on an airplane and going home.

Inspired by the family behind me, I asked, “Hey Em.  Do you want a snack?”

“No,” she said and continued to stare out the window.

Flying with Emma

Emma is a joy to travel with.  Unlike most children, she sits quietly in her seat and is content to listen to music, look out the window, watch a video or look at books.  But there are certain misunderstandings, which inevitably arise when traveling with Emma as well.

Yesterday as we boarded the airplane leaving New York City to Denver, a nice woman behind us asked if Emma was 9.  I told her she was and she replied that her daughter was 9 too and she understood how hard it could be to travel with a nine-year old.  I said, “Oh, is your daughter autistic?”

The woman looked at me in surprise and said, “No.  She’s nine.”

It was one of those peculiar conversations where you realize you’ve misunderstood the intent of the other person.  I immediately thought, because Emma kept getting out of the line leading to the aircraft, that she knew Emma was autistic.  But it turns out she had no idea and was simply commiserating with someone who also had a nine-year old child and was flying with her.  My first impulse was to say, “Oh no.  Emma is great to travel with.  She’s not like that at all!”  But I decided it was best to keep walking and find our seats.

Later during the flight when Emma needed to go to the bathroom, the flight attendant said, “Poor thing, she’s still asleep,”  as Emma kept trying to push open the door to the bathroom which was occupied, despite my repeated attempts to stop her.  Again I just smiled.

Later on the flight from Denver to Aspen, (we were one of the lucky few who actually made it into Aspen yesterday!) the flight attendant leaned over to Emma and said, “Do you have your seat belt on?”

“Umhmm,” Emma said, curled up on the seat by the window.

“Really?” he said.  Where?  Do you have it around your chest, your knees?  I don’t see a seat belt.”

Emma just smiled at him and nodded her head.

“Emmy, put your seat belt on,” I interjected as I could hear the growing irritation in the harried flight attendant’s voice.  She immediately did so.

“Oh!  So you weren’t telling me the truth, were you?” the flight attendant said.

I put my hand gently on his elbow and said, “She’s autistic and didn’t understand you.”

“Oh dear.  I’m so sorry,” he replied before quickly moving along the aisle.

And so it goes.  This sort of thing happens constantly with Emma.  People assume she’s fine, she looks fine after all, and respond accordingly.  There’s always a moment when either I say something or they begin to realize they are dealing with someone who is a bit different than what they thought.  It’s a surreal moment, when the other person is caught off guard, before they’ve had time to make an adjustment.  Usually people are incredibly kind, very occasionally we meet someone who isn’t.   I don’t have any one method of responding.  Often I say nothing.  I mean what’s the point really?

The Next 32 Hours

To say I am counting the hours until my family’s arrival would not be an exaggeration,  32 hours, weather permitting.  And during those 32 hours I will have opened my store, launched my e-commerce web site: www.arianezurcher.com, worked an eight hour shift and gone to see my friend and inspiration to all of us, Amanda Boxtel demonstrate Berkeley Bionics eLegs at the Aspen Club this evening.

Richard will be equally busy, going to Emma’s school for her parent/teacher conference, working, packing, going to Nic’s school Winter Concert where he will play “Lean on Me” on his clarinet (!) making sure Merlin is cared for while we are away, before getting to the airport and onto the airplane.  Flying with Nic and Emma is always stressful and anxiety producing even though Emma is one of the world’s best travelers.  It is more the mental gymnastics one inevitably goes through before the fact which causes the most worry – What if she has to pee and the plane is stuck on the runway in some endless and unforeseen delay?  What if she freaks out for some unspecified reason?  What if her favorite DVD doesn’t play properly?  What if, once in Denver, the plane to Aspen is delayed or worse, cancelled?  What if…

I have flown with both children a number of times on my own and it’s always nerve wracking.  The good news is, even with some substantial delays and mishaps, both Nic and Emma are terrific travelers.  Emma loves when the plane begins zooming along the runway and in the past would race her legs up and down as though she were running, propelling the plane forward as she laughed and made buzzing noises.  I haven’t seen her do that in over a year now, but it was hilarious when she use to.  Now, more likely, she will simply gaze out the window with a little content smile and occasionally hum.  She knows she will have her Cokie or as her head teacher at school writes – Coqui – which I rather like, giving the tattered blanket a certain, je ne ce quoi.  Emma has been talking about the fact she will have full access to Cokie on the airplane for over a month now.  “Take Cokie on the airplane,” she has said more than a few times.

“Yes, Em.  You’ll have Cokie with you.”

“Have Cokie on the airplane,” Emma will repeat as if confirming an important appointment.

“Yes,” we respond.

“Good!  Take Cokie on the airplane.”  Then she will nod her head and grin.

Both Emma and Nic have been looking forward to coming out to Aspen for a while now.  Nic cannot wait to see his beloved Granma and her dogs and Emma can’t wait to see her Granma, go skiing with her Uncle Victor and Aunt Susan and go swimming at the ARC (Aspen Recreation Center) after skiing.  I cannot wait to see both children and my husband tomorrow afternoon and have not thought much beyond catching sight of them and just hugging all of them.

My Emma

A mother with her little girl, about Emma’s age stand patiently in line for the bathroom on our flight to Denver.  Methodically her mother braids her daughter’s long, blonde hair, then places her arms around the child’s upper body.  Her daughter puts her own hands on top of her mother’s, tilts her head up and smiles at her mother.

I marvel at how such a simple gesture, probably gone unnoticed by either of them, is utterly foreign to me.  I long for such a simple exchange with Emma.  I get them, but they are rare.  When they do come, seemingly out of nowhere, I am usually caught off guard and brought to tears, tears of relief and joy and something else, something closer to grief.

I think of Emma, standing in a similar line, on this same airplane route flying from New York’s La Guardia to Denver several years ago.

“Potty?” Emma says, anxiety rising in her voice.

“Yes, we have to wait in line,” I say.

“Potty?!” Emma says again, her voice slightly louder, the anxiety has crept up a notch.

I count the number of people in front of us, there are four, but one’s a couple so maybe they don’t both have to go, perhaps they’re just keeping each other company I reason.  Five minutes, tops, I think.

“We have to wait,” I say again, grim determination steeling into my tone.  I take a breath when another person vacates the only bathroom, reducing our line to three.  I look behind me at the two bathrooms at the back of the plane, the line snakes up the aisle, at least half a dozen are waiting.

“Have to use the potty,” Emma says now close to tears.

The woman in front of us turns to look at the whining child, my child.  “She can go ahead of us,” she says kindly.

“No she can’t,” her husband, counters.

“Scott!  Of course she can.  Go on, go ahead of us,” she glares at her husband who is shaking his head in annoyance.

Grateful, I thank them, ignore the husband’s irritated glare and go to the head of the line, pulling Emma ahead of me.   Anxiety, stress – will she wet her pants?  Did I bring enough pairs of underwear and a full change of clothing if she does  Embarrassment, humiliation… it’s all there.

I return my thoughts to the little girl with her mother behind me, looking for any sign that she might be uncomfortable.  There are none – mother and daughter, utterly relaxed standing close to one another, as though this were the most natural thing in the world.

“Compare and despair,” a friend of mine once said to me.  And it is true, though I cannot always help myself.  Whenever we are with friends with small children, whenever we are at a playground, any time I see a child I find myself asking – did Emma do that when she was that age?  Did Emma ever to do that? And then the inevitable follow up question, which serves to slam the door shut on all further questions – will she ever do that?

Who knows?

I am away for the next four days, yet my children and husband are here with me, everywhere I go.  I find there’s great solace in that.

This Morning’s “Conversation”

(Showing Emma this photograph)

Emma splashing

A:  Hey Emma!  What do you see?

Em:  He putting on the sprinkler.

A:  Who’s “he”?

Em:  He putting on his feet in the sprinkler.

A:  Who is that?

Em:  Emma.  Emma putting he feet in the sprinkler.

A:  Her.  Her feet in the sprinkler.

Em:  Her.

A:  You’re putting your feet in the sprinkler.

Em:  Yeah.

A:  Was that fun?

Em:  Yeah.

(I show her this photograph)

Me:  What about this?  What’s going on in this photograph?

Em:  Dr. Halper.

Me:  What’s he doing?

Em:  Just Toni Karlsrud.

Me:  Is that Dr. Karlsrud?

Em:  Nooooo!  (Laughing) Dr. Halper.

A:  What’s happenig to you?

Em:  (Touching photograph.)  Goes beep, beep, beep, beep.

A:  You’re having a QEEG done.  It measures your brain waves.

(Emma gets up and walks away.)

A:  Emmy!  Come back!

Em:  Where are you going?

A:  Emmy!  Come back!

(I follow her into the other room where Richard is.)

A:  Hey Em, do you know why you’re having a QEEG done?

Em:  Now goes beep, beep, beep…  (while she says this she is touching various points on her head where the electrodes are placed.)  beep, beep, beep, beep… (she touches her arm) beep.

A:  They don’t put one on your arm!

Em:  (Laughs) Beep!

A:  Do you know why this is being done to you?

Em:  Beep, beep, beep, beep.

A:  It’s looking at your brain.  It measures your brain waves.

Em:  Beep, beep.

A:  Do you like going to see Dr. Halper and having a QEEG?

Em:  Yeah!

A:  Should we go pick out what you’re going to wear today?

Em:  Yeah, sit for one more minute.

A:  Okay.

Go Away, Big Green Monster!

This photo was taken a few years ago at the local bookstore near where we live.   Emma has never shown much interest in books.  When she was a baby she would squirm and wimper when I tried to read to her.  As she grew older, she allowed me to read to her as long as she was able to hold the book and turn the pages.  Often she didn’t wait for me to finish reading before turning the page.  Much the way she flips through photographs, so quickly it’s hard to believe she is really able to see what and who are in the photo, she does the same with books.  I often wonder if Emma sees in patterns.  In other words, her brain picks up the entire scene and creates an instant pattern, allowing her to “see” the image instantly, any variation is immediately recognized.  I don’t know that she sees in this way, but I wonder.

Years before this photo was taken, I took Emma to the bookstore.  She couldn’t have been older than three.  She wriggled out of the stroller and ran to the back of the store.  We hadn’t been inside this particular bookstore for at least six months.  I followed Emma, calling out to her, “Emmy, where are you going?”  As was typical, she ignored me and kept running.  To her left was a floor to ceiling bookcase, filled with large picture books.  Emma attempted to scale the bookcase.

“No! No!  Emma!”  I cried.  “You can’t climb that.  What do you want?”

Emma jumped up and down, making noises.

“Is there a book you want to see?” I asked, looking at the shelves for a familiar book, which she might like.  Emma doesn’t like new books.  Whenever we are in a bookstore and I offer a new book, one that she hasn’t seen before, she shakes her head no.  Then goes over to a book she knows and pulls it from the shelf and hands it to me.  A few of her favorites:  “Chicka, Chicka Boom Boom”,  “Gossie”, “Gossie and Gertie”, “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” etc.  On this particular day she wasn’t interested in any of those books.  She was determined to climb the book shelf.  I picked her up, bringing her close to the books so they were in her reach.  “Do you want any of these?”  I asked.  Emma reached above my head, so I lifted her higher.

On the second to highest shelf, at about seven feet tall, Emma pulled a single book by it’s spine down from the shelf.  “Is that what you wanted?” I asked.  I set Emma down on the floor with her new book.  The book was “Go Away, Big Green Monster!”  I had never seen the book before.  As I stood watching Emma flip through the pages, reciting each and every word, I felt a chill.  It was eerie.  Where had she seen this book?  Who had read it to her?  She knew every word of that book by heart and spent the next hour “reading” it over and over again.

When we returned home (with the book) I related to Richard what had happened.  “It was bizarre, ” I said.  “I mean have you ever seen this book?”

“No, really weird,” he said.  “Maybe one of her therapists has it.”

“But she never lets them read to her.  And how did she know where it was in the bookstore?  She ran straight to it.  The therapists don’t take her outside.”

“I don’t know.  It’s really strange,” Richard said, looking at me.

“It was the only copy, Richard.  She knew it from it’s spine.  It wasn’t like it was out on display.  And I haven’t taken her to that bookstore in months.  She immediately knew where to find it.”

During the following weeks I asked everyone who came in contact with Emma, but no one had read her or lent her the book.

After a few months I stopped trying to figure it out.  To this day, I have no idea how she found that book, or even knew of it’s existence.  It remains one of the many unsolved mysteries of Emma’s mind.