“Tommy, listen to me,” I said very seriously as we sat on the plane down to Florida, “you are going to have to walk a lot on this trip. Mama can’t carry you all the time, and you’ll have to stay with our family. There will be a lot of people and I don’t want you getting lost.”
Tommy looked at me and earnestly nodded his head. I knew he was really excited. Claire and Austin squealed behind us. Just a few hours prior, I’d announced that instead of a few days at a local indoor waterpark, we were headed to DisneyWorld for a week! I couldn’t believe I’d managed to pull off the surprise, and now here we were, headed to the happiest place on earth.
I’d been planning the trip for months, though really, I’d been planning the trip since Claire was just a few weeks old. It was then that Shawn started talking about a Disney trip. We both knew taking an infant to DisneyWorld would be pointless, and we decided that we’d wait until our youngest child was four or five. “But we can’t do it when Claire is too old!” he insisted. Later, when Tommy was born, we decided we’d take them when they were 5, 8 and 10.
So when they turned 5, 8 and 10, I started making plans. And somehow, last week, it all came together.
The first day, as we waited for the Magic Kingdom to open, I knew it was going to be even more challenging than I’d expected. Shawn was everywhere, it seemed. I imagined him sporting Mickey ears when I’d see a man wearing them and I thought of him putting Tommy up on his shoulders when I’d watch a father do the same with his child. Just before the park opened, we watched Mickey and Minnie do a little performance. I held Tommy up and as I looked at his face – so innocent and full of wonder – I couldn’t stop myself from crying. How was Shawn missing this?
But I couldn’t dwell on it too much because I had to deal with three young kids at DisneyWorld (and let me tell you, three kids and one parent is not a good ratio in general, but especially at an amusement park.) Claire and Austin were excited for the rides and Tommy wanted to meet all the characters. Thankfully, my cousin Amy and her two kids had arrived to be with us, so she took the big kids and I took Tommy on some smaller rides for a while. My biggest extrovert, he chattered with everyone in line.
By mid-morning, when we went to meet the big kids, it was hot. Tommy was whining and asking constantly to be picked up. Eventually, I gave in. I mean, I knew if Shawn was there, he would have carried him the entire time, so what was a few hours? Tommy was still small, I figured.
But after a while, he got heavy, and I was exhausted. The big kids noticed and tried to convince Tommy to get down, and he did for a while, but then he wanted “uppy!” again. At one point, I groaned a bit as he went on my back, and Tommy said to me, “do you even want to carry me?”
“Well, no,” I said, honestly. “You’ll have to walk at some point. But right now, I feel strong enough to carry you, and I want to do it because I love you. Sometimes we do things we don’t like because it makes someone we love happy.”
“So you can carry me all day!” he said, smiling, “because you love me all day!”
Hmm. That wasn’t exactly what I’d meant.
And yet – I was talking about more than just the piggy-back-ride. I was talking about the whole trip, really. I didn’t want to be there – or, at least, I didn’t want to be there without Shawn. But I wanted the kids to be there. I wanted to see their faces. And I wanted to do it for Shawn. We didn’t have enough time to discuss the specifics of how I’d raise the kids alone, but if we had, I’m pretty sure that one of the first things we would have discussed was how I was going to get to DisneyWorld.
That evening, Tommy and I went on Peter Pan’s Flight. The line was long, and we started talking to the people next to us. When I mentioned that we were from DC, the little boy in the group asked if we had met the president. “Yes,” I said, “though not the current president. I got to meet President Obama with my two older children because my husband worked at the White House then.”
Before the little boy could respond, Tommy loudly announced, “but we don’t have a dad anymore because he died!”
The family (to their credit) was very graceful about Tommy’s (somewhat shocking) announcement, and we kept talking. Tommy interrupted again. “My mom is a widow because her husband died!”
“Sorry,” I said, “the thing is, we talk about everything in our house. I write this blog about being a widow, which is probably where this is coming from.”
The mom in the group got this look in her eyes and then said, “Wait – I think I know you!”
Turns out, she knew a friend of mine and had heard of my blog. “Small world!” we both said.
Afterwards, we went to watch the fireworks. I carried Tommy while Austin and Claire surrounded me. It was beautiful. About halfway through, Claire turned around and said, “Dad would have loved this.”
She had that look in her eyes – the mix of happy and sad I sometimes see from her – and I pulled her close. “He would have loved this,” I said.
I was so tired in that moment. Tired of carrying Tommy, tired of having three kids hang on me, tired of meeting everyone’s needs. But I knew that was the moment when I had to push through, pull them all closer and try and feel more happy than sad.
And that’s basically how the week went. Some moments when Tommy over-shared. Many moments when I was exhausted. Lots of moments where I thought, “oh, if only Shawn were here to ride the rollercoasters/carry Tommy/pose with Mickey. If only. If only. If only.”
One day, near the end, we were hanging out with our cousins, and Tommy announced that we weren’t going to have any new babies in our family because we didn’t have a dad. “Our family only has four people in it,” Tommy said, and then he looked at me quizzically. “Four people is not very many.”
“It’s our family,” I said, “and I feel glad to have you and your brother and your sister.”
But I felt the sentiment.
The last night we were there, with all the cousins gone, I cuddled up on the couch in our hotel to watch a movie with my kids. We’d just gone on an Avatar-themed ride, and the kids wanted to watch the movie. I hadn’t seen it in years, but they were instantly captivated, and all three of them draped their bodies over mine.
My little family, all here in my lap. Who would have guessed it would turn out like this? Who would have guessed it would be just the four of us?
DisneyWorld was big and magical and even a week later it feels like a dream. But in so many other ways, it was the smallness of it that I remember. Meeting people from across the country who knew about my blog. Carrying Tommy even when my arms almost gave out. Seeing Austin’s face after his first upside-down roller-coaster. Holding hands with Claire as we left Magic Kingdom after the fireworks.
And holding all three of them on the last day as we watched a movie.
Four people is not very many, Tommy. But it’s our family now – at DisneyWorld or wherever life takes us.
The trip wasn’t an easy one for me, but that’s not why I did it.
I did it for them.
And I did it for him.