The Alarm going off at eleven PM felt incredibly rude and distinctly impossible and I flailed at its unfamiliar controls as I tried to get my brain wrapped around where we were and what was next.
We had been in bed for possibly three and a half hours and though Short Stack had been out cold for the majority of that, it had taken me a little while to mentally wind down and then a little longer to find peace with the bundle of knees and elbows that curled up against me in the strange bed. Little kids are notorious in their lack of bed sharing etiquette and my son, as it turns out, is no different. The mental image of sleeping with your child in your arms is just about guaranteed to turn the heart of any parent immediately into sentimental goo, but the reality of the experience is that, even in sleep, your average child possesses ten thousand times the energy of an espresso fueled chipmunk and it will need to be released in wild explosions of sleep gymnastics throughout the entire time.
They will sleep. You shall not.
Oddly enough, the next night, the same sleep deprived and lightly bruised parent will almost immediately sign up for the exact same punishment once they look down at the beautiful form of their own child curled up and alone in bed. Apparently, it’s not just our hearts that our kids can turn into goo. Our brains are fair game as well. The effect is something like Stockholm Syndrome and we willingly crawl right in, ready for another night’s micro-beating.
I fumbled about in the half light looking for pants, shirt and shoes, and eventually had myself dressed and fuzzily awake enough to consider the next step. We needed to get to the car. What I SHOULD have done was to get the car mostly packed up the night before so that, naturally, had not happened. I had realized this when the moment had arrived but it had been the exact moment that Short Stack was finally getting sleepy and we were on the downhill run to bedtime. Normally, I would have left him with my wife at that point and scooted off with the larger bags and been back to the room in five minutes. With a little kiddo in tow however, and no back up, I was tied to spot. Since he was too tired to go with me and there was no chance of me leaving him alone, even for the sprint to the vehicle, I found myself unable to “run out” and do anything. It was a slightly frustrating realization but one that would be a part of every moment of this trip. While we were here, I wasn’t letting Rocket Boy out of my sight, even for a moment. This is when I remembered the stroller.
It had seemed goofy to lug it in with us when we checked in and I had almost left it at the car. Actually, I had almost left it at home all together. My reasoning had been that Short Stack is a pretty good walker and we would be doing something that he loved. I had little fear that once we were surrounded by the objects of his adoration, he would, as my Grandfather liked to put it, turn into a Cream Puff.
Being labeled “Cream Puff” had been an epithet of my childhood to be avoided and it was the one he liked to use when you, as a young child, would wimp out on a long walk and ask to be put on his shoulders. As a kid, I had taken many a long stroll with him at the beach and to this day, I can remember the exchanges that took place after I started to whine about tired legs.
“Your not going to turn into a cream puff on me, are you?”
“No.” Plod, plod, plod. “Grumble grumble grumble”
“I’m just getting tired.”
…and I’d trudge on down the beach with renewed determination my little chin leading the way, at least for a little while longer. Some would see this as being too tough on a little kid, and I do remember complaining to my folks when I’d come home, more often than not sitting on his shoulders anyway, but I did get pretty darn good at keeping up for more of the walk than I expected. Looking back as an adult, I have a sneaking suspicion that his encouragement had more to do with saving his back and neck muscles than building any character and stamina on my part, but the effect was much the same. I’ve tried the same treatment on Short Stack but he tends to fight back with logic.
“My legs are shorter than yours, though.”
To which I’ve replied, “Yes but you weigh less.”
This argument worked well until at one point he realized that, yes, that was true, “But my feet are smaller”
This kid is way too good at logic arguments.
“Are you being a Cream Puff?”
“No. Just carry me”
Ah, the best of both worlds. And I go on with my Cream Puff on my shoulders. Who needs to go to a gym to work out? My gym finds me!
Through all this, I have developed a packhorse mentality and will take just about any load on my back and trudge for miles. This was indeed my plan for Florida too. When his little feet gave out, I could simply plunk him on my shoulders and he’d be fine. I could do that for three days… I foolishly though. During the initial packing phase for our adventure, I had seen of the stroller as being an unnecessary torture instrument that I could leave behind. Strollers are not made for men, (or woman for that matter) of any height. Though I am only six foot tall and thus, well within the average for a male of mixed European heritage, strollers make me hunch painfully with the rear wheels so close that I inevitably wind up kicking them as I stride along. Couple that with the evil, free castoring front wheels that will inevitably go off on their own unexpected expeditions, often into the inevitable trash can or unnoticed door frame, and you can see why this can quickly degrade into a litany of mumbled swears. Right now though, it was a lifesaver and awkward as it was, I was grateful that my wife had convinced me to bring the thing along. Though I was pretty sure that I could have done without it during the day, there was one flaw I hadn’t considered. For Short Stack to stay on my shoulders, he needed to be awake.
With as delicate a touch as possible, I lifted my sleeping boy from his bed, set him down in the red canvas of the seat and wrapped him up in the travel blanket his mother had thoughtfully provided in her dutiful packing the night before. He stirred briefly and then was back to dreamland in seconds. Tossing a flannel shirt over the sun shade like a bullet proof mosquito net, I hoped to keep him sheltered from the blinding hall lights just out side our room’s door.
I glanced at the clock next to our still warm bed as I gathered up the last of our belongings.
“Crap. We’ve gotta go!”
Wheeling him out before me and pulling the suitcase along after turned out to be a challenge as usual and our room’s pneumatic door tried its best to chew on us as I shoved us though and out into the hall and escaped to the elevators. Catching wheels and snagging shoulder straps, we managed to make the lobby. With all the jostling, he was starting to come around.
“What are we doing, Daddy? Is it time to go?”
“Yup! But it’s a long drive. Just go back to sleep, buddy”
I was really hoping that the dark car ride would do the trick for him and that he’d get the sleep he should, but that it wouldn’t have that same effect on me. Realizing how groggy I still was, this became more of a concern than it had been before. It’s a simple thing to say, “I’ll just drive though the night” It’s another thing entirely to do it. What I needed was coffee.
The same multi-talented young woman was still working behind the front desk when I wheeled our ungainly caravan through the lobby and she smiled brightly as I appeared in all my encumbered glory, cloaked, half sleeping child pushed before me. “Don’t worry,” she said in a whisper and waived a dismissive hand. “I’ll check you out myself. Enjoy the launch! It should be a good one.”
“Thanks! Um…” I paused and whispered back. “Coffee?”
In the end, they had no coffee and the nearest all night dad refueling depot would take us a good bit off our intended course. With time weighing me down more than the bags, I decided to opt for the syrupy gloop that passes for bottled ice tea that was available from our helpful host. I didn’t have time to fill out a comment card and I regretted that. She had been great and deserved, if not a promotion, then at least an assistant or four. I also might have mentioned to the hotel chain their need for coffee in the lobby.
By now, the transfer from the bed to the stroller had woken my boy up a bit and the lights in the hall and lobby hadn’t helped, though I had done my best to muffle both. My brief search for caffeine hadn’t helped either and by the time I was clicking him into the car seat, he was rubbing his eyes and yawing. He was up and he knew where we were going. It was rocket time! As I made ready to pull out and leave, there was none of his usual chatting coming from the back seat as he grappled with his sleep drunk body and attempted to take control. He’d start a sentence with a groggy, “Um… Daddy. Um…” and get no further than possibly, “Did we… um.” And leave it at that. Mentally, he was struggling to the surface but trying to get the machinery of his little brain going was rough. It was still clogged with the cotton batting of deep sleep and though it became quickly evident to me that there was no chance of him nodding off again, I stayed quiet too in the hopes that he’d nod off again. I punched our destination into the GPS that I had oh-so very thankfully borrowed from a friend before we flew out and pulled the car onto the highway.
At NASA, an hour away, the countdown was running…
It was actually running!
Both they and we were on schedule.
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