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Road Trip — Part Four

Niagara Falls August 1999

Niagara Falls
August 1999

As I prepared maps and sleeping arrangements for our 1999 road trip to upstate New York and Niagara Falls, everybody told me how brave I was to take my three kids for an entire week and across an international border – without Ellen. “What a dad!” they proclaimed. “You’re sooo much braver than I am!”

I wondered at all the fuss. I should have recognized the warnings.

In the years since The Trip, I’ve dubbed Niagara Falls: “Beauty and the Beast.” Why? Because regardless of which side you visit, the falls are exquisite but they’re also a trap. There is an abundance of gimmicky museums and thrill-rides for the family to see. And pretty much every one of them exits into a souvenir store. The trap within the trap. As I watched my young children running through a funhouse, screaming as a wax alligator jumped out to surprise them, or laughing at some crazy exhibit in the Ripley’s Museum, I’d nearly forget each time what awaited us at the exit.

The trip was so much fun for all three kids, and I reveled in the luxuriant delight of getting to be with them for a solid week, that I happily acquiesced to their pleas to get a little something from each and every souvenir shop.

Then it happened.

In one of the stores, picking up a bottle of Tylenol (wonder why I needed that?) I told Aiden, who was five at the time, that we were leaving. He about-faced to return to the shelf a toy he’d been eyeing. Now I’ve never been a parent who uses the phrase “We’re leaving” to hurry my children along by threatening them with the prospect of leaving them behind. So Aiden had no way of knowing that “We’re leaving” meant I would be paying for my Tylenol at the cash register and only then would we exit the store. He thought we were walking out at that very moment. And so, after placing his toy back on its shelf, he returned to the front of the store. He didn’t notice that I was standing at the cash register and although I must have told him hundreds of times that “I will never leave you behind … anywhere,” he thought I’d left him behind and went out to find me.

Unaware of any of this, I finished paying the cashier and walked around the store to collect my kids. Since Aiden enjoyed hiding, I was only mildly surprised not to immediately find him. I calmly searched the t-shirt racks and called out his name, letting him know it was time to go. Katie and Jonah playfully joined in the search, but after four or five minutes it wasn’t fun anymore. We stepped outside the store to see if he was standing in front, but no such luck. We went back inside the store for one more search (I simply couldn’t believe he would have actually left the premises). I held it together but could feel the panic building inside me. Katie, Jonah and I left the store again. This was Clifton Hill, one main pedestrian drag, so I sent Katie up and Jonah down the hill to see if they could spot him.

After two or three more minutes, it was definitely time to panic. I walked over to the store manager to ask her to call the police. But as my mouth began to form the request, I heard Katie call my name. She had Aiden by the hand, two young men following closely behind. One was security staff for Clifton Hill, the other had spotted Aiden crying and frantically searching for his family. After the security person was satisfied I was indeed Aiden’s (inept and irresponsible) father, the other man said to me, “I lost my kid once in a crowd like this. I just couldn’t let your little boy run around without offering some help.”

Needless to say, I thanked the two gentlemen profusely. And then resolved to never let my children out of my sight ever again, a resolution which was of course completely unrealistic but altogether understandable. I sought out a handcuffs store, but settled for tightly gripping three small sets of hands the remainder of the evening.

It has been my good fortune and great privilege to parent Katie, Jonah and Aiden. I’ve never expected to get it right every time, and losing Aiden on Clifton Hill certainly confirmed that perfect parenting is rarely if ever available to any of us. Jonah’s death ten years later was another reminder that life is rarely in our control. So we grasp our loved ones’ hands a little bit tighter. And when the time arrives (as it must), we bite our lips, tell ourselves over and over that it’s the right thing to do,  loosen our grip, and we let our children go. What choice do we have? Their lives are not ours. We must eventually hand over the reins.

2013.06.RoadTrip.BlogPostI suppose each of us is on a “Road Trip,” making the best plans we can, setting out on adventures whose outcomes we hope will contain few surprises and, then, only ones that uplift. At one time or another, of course, we must set about the more difficult work of managing those unexpected itinerary changes, the ones that are not much fun, hoping we’ll have the wisdom and the strength to meet those changes with patience, grace and a sense of humor.

When the trip is complete, we learn whether our most fervent prayer has come true: that everybody is home, safe and sound.

Billy

P.S. “Road Trip” is The Jonah Maccabee Foundation’s summer fundraiser for 2013. Remembering some of the fun Jonah had on these vacations, we’d like to help other kids to enjoy and to grow during their own childhood years. Please consider making your tax-deductible gift at jonahmac.org by Sunday, July 31. Okay, or any other time. Thank you.

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