Trapped in the darkest depths
We drive through Baltimore, heading in the general direction of the harbor. The kids are awake again (did they even nap?) and the youngest is loudly pretending to sneeze in his car seat while the oldest yells excitedly at every city bus we pass. I'm glad they are relatively happy but the noise in the backseat in combination with the heavy city traffic is making me want to jump out of the car and run away. That building looks familiar. I feel like we are going in circles. Fortunately, the GPS knows where the hell we are going.
I've been lost for years.
I catch a glimpse of the famous jagged architecture of the National Aquarium, its enormous glass pyramid silhouetted against the hazy summer sky. It feels menacing.
If all goes according to plan, this is the closest I'll have to get to it.
A few minor traffic heart attacks later, the car pulls into the hotel garage and we start to unpack onto one of those annoying carts that you can't push with one hand while holding onto your kids with the other. I'm already feeling stressed out about the hotel situation. There was supposed to be valet parking, they PROMISED me that there was valet parking when I called last week to confirm, just like they did when I'd called to confirm the same thing two weeks before that.
"Oh yeah, sorry! The valet guys all quit a few days ago. There is a garage though, right down the street," she says in a chipper, customer service voice.
"Yes, thank you, Jennifer. I would not have booked this hotel if there wasn't valet parking because unloading my car and my kids at the same time is not safe. That is why I've been calling to confirm the details of this for weeks now."
That's what I wanted to say. Instead, I took a calming breath and went with, "Oh, bummer. Ok, no problem! Thanks!"
Not a great start. Four nights in Baltimore. I wish I felt excited for this "vacation." I should feel excited. Its the first trip we've taken in almost four years to somewhere that wasn't grandma's house.
All I feel is anxiety.
Anxiety over all of the usual things that people worry about when they are packing for a fun-filled family trip...What if I didn't pack enough diapers? What if this trip is a bust and no one has any fun? What if the kids get sick? What if I forgot to bring a toothbrush? What if the Whole Foods down the street from the hotel is out of stock of his particular brand of strawberry banana yogurt tubes and he won't eat for the whole trip? What if he pulls away from grandma and falls in the harbor and drowns? What if he runs away again here in Baltimore and we never find him? What if the beautiful floor to ceiling windows that we'll have in our ninth floor hotel room with a panoramic view of the harbor weren't installed properly and he leans against one too hard and plummets to his death on the concrete sidewalk far below?
Okay, so maybe those last few things aren't typical worries but they are for me. Between the crushing weight of PTSD acquired when my son and I nearly died during his birth and then his autism diagnosis a couple years later, there isn't much that I don't worry about these days. Yeah, my diagnosis got me into therapy and gave me some cutesy coping skills and his diagnosis helped us understand him better, but neither of us have much fun when we go anywhere.
That's what families do though, right? Spend a bunch of money to fabricate an answer to the dreaded "and what did you do over the summer?" question? Go on vacations together? Head to Disney to buy a bunch of crap and stand in lines and panic over...everything? Um, I mean, head to Disney and make lots of fun memories?
So, anyway, not Disney.
Baltimore. Why Baltimore, you ask?
It's fine, everyone asks.
Other than the fact that it's a doable trip for both of the grandmas, who are meeting us here soon, there are two reasons.
The B&O Railway Museum and the Baltimore Water Taxis.
Let me explain this in very clear terms...There is zero chance that the railway museum isn't a home run for my oldest kid. He is obsessed with all things train. He is going to absolutely lose it (in a good way) when we walk in there and, yeah, it will be chaos chasing him around when we get him out of the stroller but there are tons of model trains to watch, antique locomotives to touch, and there is an actual, honest to god, TRAIN RIDE that he'll get to go on. He'll get to hold a ticket and hear the choo choo and everything. Obviously, I've got his headphones packed for him to wear on the train ride so that the choo chooing isn't too loud for him.
Wait, I have them packed, right? Shut up, brain, OF COURSE, we do. They are right by his car seat, ready to go for train museum day.
The water taxis are also going to be a mega hit. He's been asking to go for a boat ride fifty times a day since our home was invaded by the Blippi Boat song a few months back (don't look it up, your brain will melt). I've been showing him pictures of the different water taxis that might pick us up and videos that people have posted from the taxis on Instagram for weeks now to prepare him for the experience. Our hotel is on the waterfront and there is a commuter water taxi stop less than a two minute walk from the door. You can ride that one for free as much as you want but you have to stow your stroller when you board and you can't ride the water taxi round trip, you have to wait for the next one to come by before you can head back.
No, I've never been to the railway museum or ridden the Baltimore Water Taxis... I just know all of these critical (semi-mundane) details because I've researched everything about the railway museum and the water taxis to death.
I do that with everything now. My therapist says its not an uncommon trait in PTSD since being surprised or, god forbid, unprepared, is terror inducing. But it's exhausting, knowing everything. My brain never shuts up anymore. Not even at night.
Especially not at night.
So anyway, yeah, the railway museum will take up one day and I've got all my eggs in one basket for the rest of the trip. Well, my eggs are all in a water taxi.
I'm banking on the idea that the water taxis will be such a hit that we just ride them all morning, come back for naptime, and then head back out to ride them back and forth across the harbor again until dinner. I'm counting on the water taxis taking up three whole days because the last thing I want to do is go to the National Aquarium.
Why does the National Aquarium have to be in Baltimore too? I don't want to be the one to say no to something so iconic. I mean, that's the big reason families come here when their kids aren't old enough to enjoy baseball games. The grandmas are so excited about the idea of going to such an amazing aquarium and my husband thinks that the kids will love it. Basically, everyone is excited about this potential outing except for me.
I think that it will be a disaster.
I've researched it but not as extensively as usual because I really don't want us to go.
It sounds like sensory hell. It's crowded, it's loud, it's extremely dark except for weird blue lighting everywhere and there are moving walkways that you have to take to get from one exhibit to another. My son went through a solid month of being deathly afraid of elevators. It took some serious desensitization and lots of ice cream to get through that.
He's never seen a moving walkway before and I don't have a month to prepare now and I forgot to pack gallons of ice cream.
And, you can't use strollers in the aquarium. My heart rate spikes every time I think about that part. The only reason we can take the kids to the zoo at home is the double stroller...well, and low expectations.
The National Aquarium? No strollers and sky-high expectations.
Fingers crossed that we just don't "find" time to go.
CRAP. The train museum went according to plan but the water taxis weren't enough of a hit to justify avoiding the aquarium.
CRAP CRAP CRAP.
We are strolling there now.
Was it supposed to be this hot today?
Holy crap, these are expensive.
Checking the strollers at the entryway, he doesn't qualify for a "wheelchair tag" so we can't keep the stroller with us.
What if someone takes our strollers and we have to carry the kids all the way back to the hotel in 95 degree weather?
He is freaking out now. So am I. Gotta fix me first, the whole airplane oxygen mask thing.
Deep breaths, in and out...
Five things I can see... only five? There are so many things around me. Too many people.
Four I can touch... um, the floor, his sweaty hand... that was four, right?
Three I can hear... too loud, so loud, we should have brought his headphones.
Two I can smell... sweat and...fear? That's a smell, right?
One I can taste... blood? Why am I tasting blood? I've bitten my lip again.
Okay, forget that.
I pick him up and press our bodies together, he used to be so small, I remember. Now, comforting him like this is physically hard. I'm holding the side of his face against my chest, my hand over his little ear, blocking out the loudness of this crushing, echoing atrium.
Our breathing steadies. We can do this. He's okay. I'm okay. We're okay.
I put him down and we move through the atrium into the main level of the aquarium. Oh great, here is the website's much touted sensory break area....the "guest relations room." Right near the entrance. What are we supposed to do once we are deeper into this hellhole of a labyrinth and he's losing it?
We make our way deeper into the aquarium. Holy crap, it's dark in here. Should we have brought flashlights? Head lamps? Torches? What were they thinking designing a place like this? I suppose the ocean does get pretty deep and dark and lots of fish probably spend most of their time down there. This aquarium environment probably feels more natural to them. I get it. I spend most of my time in deep darkness too. Maybe I'm a fish.
We just need to make it through the dark, tight, creepy levels and find the dolphin area, wide open and splashed with daylight. I think he'll like the dolphins...they don't do dolphin shows here anymore but you can watch the dolphins swimming and playing for as long as you like. We can make it there... I look at my map. Only a few moving walkways and unexpected escalators are between us and that sanctuary.
I allow myself to smile and take some pictures as the grandmas show my younger son the tanks, gotta get some proof of these memories. He is absolutely loving this place...he's stumbling back and forth cackling at the creatures in every tank we pass. He presses his lips against a fish tank and my inner germaphobe has a stroke.
"Blub Blub Blub!" he giggles.
He is so happy.
My oldest is running. Running past every exhibit with his head down, dragging my husband by the hand. Then, unexpectedly, he finally finds an exhibit that he likes! He drags his dad up and down the winding ramps by the incredible multi-story aquarium tanks. They are works of art, complete with reef replicas teeming with colorful fish. The path winds further into a shark alley exhibit showcasing Sand Tiger Sharks and enormous Largetooth Sawfish, silently gliding through the murky depths. He hasn't looked at the tanks once. He is not a boy right now, he is a train. He is choo chooing up and down these tracks.
He is so happy, too.
We eventually make our way to the small puffin exhibit. It is about ten feet long and maybe seven feet high. It is filled with water halfway up and the puffins are paddling back and forth against the glass with their ridiculous little webbed, orange feet. There is a volunteer standing here holding a large stuffed animal representation of a puffin, for children to touch. My oldest is so excited and runs over to the exhibit.
"PUFFINS!" he shrieks and climbs up onto the ledge by the exhibit.
"I'm so impressed that you knew these are puffins, not penguins!" says the volunteer.
He ignores her.
She comes closer and asks him, "Do you want to touch the stuffed puffin?"
He doesn't respond, just shrinks away from her, sliding across the glass with his head turned sideways to track the paddling orange puffin feet.
I smile at her and she understands, moving on to the next family.
One of the puffins is fascinated by him though. He slides, it paddles, they move as a mirror image back and forth across the length of the tank, separated only by a thin pane of glass. He isn't looking where he is going and slides all the way into the hard edge of the exhibit.
"Oh, puffin! I hitted my head, puffin! Are you sorry that happeneded to me, puffin?"
The puffin flaps its wings, raising itself halfway out of the water and knocks its tiny orange beak against the glass.
"I'm okay, puffin! Thank you, puffin!"
He has made a friend today.
Half an hour later we are sitting in the sunny dolphin amphitheater, having escaped the darkness and tunnels of the main aquarium building. A passing custodian tells us about the dolphins and their upcoming move to an outdoor tropical sanctuary with far more space and freedom. They've been planning this change for years now as understanding of dolphin intelligence and sentience has grown. The public view of dolphins as entertainment has shifted. I like that. I think the dolphins will like that too.
There is no one else here right now. We sit alone in the front row of the bleachers where they used to host large audiences for the frequent performances. The trainers would send the dolphins leaping and flipping through the air as everyone clapped and cheered. Now the dolphins just swim and play. It's fascinating to see them, but the custodian was right. They don't belong here.
My youngest gets bored quickly so the grandmas take him to go climb up and down the bleacher stairs. My husband and I stay sitting there by the dolphin tanks with our oldest son for a long time. This might be the most sitting we've ever seen him do. One of the dolphins swims over. It pops its head out of the water and rests its flippers on the edge of the tank, looking right at us.
Our son watches the dolphin, we watch him, and the dolphin watches us. It’s weirdly beautiful.
Eventually, we leave the bleachers and move down the stairs to the underwater viewing area. A solitary dolphin crosses in front of the glass. It moves in a cartwheeling motion, going head over tail sideways through the water. My youngest thinks that this is hysterical and points and laughs. My oldest though just stands silently, with his hands and face pressed to the glass, mesmerized. The dolphin disappears from view and I start to move away, but it returns. It's holding something large, floppy, and blue in its mouth now, some kind of enrichment toy, I think? It's dragging it through the water to the bottom of the tank.
The dolphin brings this object right up against the glass, showing it to my oldest.
"Oh, I like your blanket, dolphin!" he says, sincerely. I swear the dolphin smiles at him.
It is growing late and we have to get going. Time to head back to the aquarium entry, collect the strollers, and begin the return trek to the hotel. I don’t feel as stressed about the whole "stolen stroller" thing now for some reason.
Even though we are all tired, we decide to take a slightly less direct route back because it stays beside the harbor the whole way. It’s very peaceful watching the waves lap against the piers and hearing the sounds of the seabirds calling as we go.
I'm glad we didn't "not have time" to do this, after all.
He had fun today.
I had fun today.
We had fun today.
About the Creator
Hi! Thanks for reading! My hobbies include making coffee, drinking coffee, and starting to write a story and then rage-deleting it when I get the slightest bit frustrated.
Wow, that's a great and engaging story! I particularly liked, "don't look it up, your brain will melt", haha. I was raised by wolves, so I don't know about family vacations, but Pernoste said it was just like his wife when they went on trips with their kids when they were young. You can really tell a story, so captivating and real and full of heart and neuroses.... wonderful. I felt like I was there💙Anneliese
Okay, I think you know me well enough now to understand why I'm tearing up at the moment. I'm so, so happy that this day worked out, especially for your eldest (and you of course). I hope this day sticks with both of you for the rest of your lives. Have you ever seen a puffin come in for a landing? It's hilarious!
I can relate to so much of this, though now my kids are grown. Seems like you handled it well since you made it thtough.
I love how this story tackles tough topics in such a heartfelt, yet humorous way. Thanks for sharing!