During President’s Weekend, we did what I have been dreading grief-wise for some time: we took Ryan to Disney, and of course to Cars Land.
In the months leading up to this trip I had massive anxiety. Could I handle being in the “Happiest Place on Earth” as a bereaved parent? Would I need medication? Would I end up in a fetal position on the streets of Radiator Springs? What would it feel like to be in a life-size picture of the movie that meant everything to our sweet three year old? And how could I possibly do it without him?
Back in 2008, when Ben was nearing the end of treatment, we had booked tickets to California. We figured we would spend Thanksgiving in the sun and celebrate his completion of treatment by taking him to Disneyland. Obviously, those tickets were never used. But five plus years later the time and opportunity had come for Ryan.
As we entered Radiator Springs, Ryan skipped gleefully with our nephews down the set. Jeff and I walked slowly down the street, silent amongst the chaos. My eyes burned behind sunglasses. I kept asking Ben to please show up somehow – that more than any other day I told him I needed a shout out. I needed to know that he was there with us in some way.
When we finally got to the actual Cars ride, I thought for sure the shout out would come in the form of riding in a red Lightning McQueen car. So when the random blue car showed up at our waiting station I felt utterly disappointed. I couldn’t even take in the beginning of the ride because I kept pleading in my head, “Ben! I need you. I need a sign that you are here.” Then suddenly, in the midst of my emotional land-mine the ride came to a complete stop. We waited and waited until someone came over the intercom saying they were having technical difficulties and looked forward to getting everything up and running as soon as possible. “That figures”, I thought – the one ride Ben would have most wanted to go on breaks down in the middle. After waiting about ten minutes we finally got going again. As we neared the exit station the ride operator said to us, “Would you like to do it again?” Ryan and my nephews cheered and Jeff looked at me and said, “This time is for Ben.” For whenever we would blow birthday cake candles out – Ben would exclaim, “Let’s do it again!” Never wanting the cake, just wanting to repeat the experience.
So we did it again – with Ryan, Mason and Gabe cheering the whole way. This time, I could actually take it in. I could smile at the characters/friends that had walked with Ben though the most difficult of days. I could appreciate what Disney had created for such adoring fans. I could for a moment start to even feel thankful for being there. Therefore, I wanted to convince myself that Ben had somehow orchestrated the second chance for us. But the doubter in me said it was probably just a coincidence.
Awhile later though, when everyone in our family was in line for a different ride, I walked alone down the streets of Radiator Springs. I turned around to see Lightning McQueen driving towards me. He got closer and closer and then stopped right in front of me – so close that I could touch him. Instead of doubting, I just looked up at the sky and said, “Thank you.” Wishing I could touch my son instead, but grateful that somehow he felt near.
Here is the thing about grief: You can’t go around it. You can’t go over it, or under it. You just have to continue to go through it – again and again. Because despite what Hallmark wants you to believe, the losses continue. This trip was about choosing Ryan (who had a fabulous time). But thankfully I felt Ben’s presence that afternoon as much as I felt his absence.