Monday, December 3, 2007

Santa Express and Dickens Christmas Festival Experiences with an Autistic Twist, Part Two

This is the conclusion to a story started on the previous post. To see the first part of story go Part I.

Part II.

I was in a sticky spot. My husband had just left on a necessary trip to get groceries. A storm was looming and we had to fill our refrigerator again. This left me with our four-year-old son and our distraught nine-year-old boy with a mild form of autism. The older boy was still insisting on a satisfying visit with Santa Claus. We had just had an unfullfilling visit with him on a train a few hours earlier.

The good news was that our city's downtown district was hosting its annual Dickens Christmas Festival that weekend. I knew Santa would probably be in his little red house in the town square. My mission was to find out when. After failing to find out that information online, I limped down to the basement with a sore knee and was able to locate the weekly "What's On" Thursday insert in the recycling bin.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I read that Santa would be "home" from 4-9. We had plenty of time. Initially, I hadn't intended on going to the festival. It's always so cold (on a December evening in Michigan) and our boys tend to complain. But this time, the trip seemed necessary. My little boy was disappointed and it hadn't been his fault. It wasn't my fault either, but I could do something to make him happier.

"OK, my boy, we are going to see Santa in the town square," I told him.

"We are?"

"Yes, but we will have to eat dinner and wait until your dad comes home. I'll also have to put away groceries away and then we will be able to go."

I can't remember his response, but my son became his normally happy self again. He told his little brother about the intended visit with Santa. They had their dinner and waited patiently for the hour and a half it took their dad to get home. The boys bombarded my husband with the news the minute he walked in the door. He hardly had the chance to breathe.

"Don't worry," I said. "I know you are tired and I don't expect you to go with us."

The man of the house agreed with my plan, although he was concerned that the roads might get bad soon. I was more worried about the holiday lights parade that started at six. I was worried that I would have trouble finding parking close to Santa's house because I knew certain roads would be temporarily closed.

It was six fifteen by the time I had put groceries away and made sure the boys and I were dressed with hats, coats and gloves. We had been to downtown parades before, but usually my husband drove--and usually we arrived well before the parade began. This time we would arrive towards the middle or end depending on the parade's length.
My husband knew I was a bit stressed out and he gave the boys a stern lecture.

"You boys be good for your mommy," he told them. "I don't want mommy to come home and tell me you were bad."

"We'll be good," they promised, almost in unison.

It was dark when we left, but it wasn't snowing yet. I thought I figured out a better way to go than the route my husband usually took when going downtown. But I discovered I was wrong when I came up to a red-and-white striped road block. I doubled back and went the usual route.

My husband's way worked and we ended up a block and a half from Santa's House. We could see it from where we were parked. I grabbed both boys' hands and led them across the street. The line didn't seem long. There were maybe eight or ten families with at least two children each. I did notice that the line was moving slow. I saw this as a good sign as I figured that Santa was spending the appropriate amount of time with each family.

It was cold enough to see our breath, but the scene we saw was something reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell Picture. The setting was our downtown, which was built at the turn of the twentieth century. Charming businesses such as a children's clothing shop, a drug store, and restaurants (where a lot of cocoa was served that night) fill the buildings.

Christmas lights and people were everywhere. The lights were on the trees and even on a couple of trucks. The parade was over, but we saw three lit-up parade vehicles going back to where they came from. There was an antique fire truck, a float with a little white church lit up with stained "glass" windows and a dump truck covered with lights which was from the local sand and gravel company.

"Walking in a Winter Wonderland" and other holiday songs sounded out from nearby loudspeakers. A warm, sweet smell from a Kettle Corn stand filled the air. Just a few feet away a blond, pretty college student reporter with a microphone stood in front of a camera operated by a man dressed in black. They were from our local university. The camera was pointed toward the Santa Claus line and I think the three of us might of made it into some background shots.

We were at the end of the line when I decided pull out my own camera--a small disposable one (one with a working flash) that only records still shots. I backed up a little bit to try to get both boys with a few Christmas lights in the background. That is when I discovered we were no longer at the end of the line. I bumped into a well-dressed older woman who was with several other family members--a mom holding a baby, two little boys, a dad, and two grandmas made up most of the group.

"Someone is behind you," the woman said gruffly. I uttered an apology, smiled and then sheepishly finished taking my photos and guided the boys back into line.

The family ahead of us included a mom, dad, a boy, a girl and a teenager who had a navy blue letterman's jacket with o9 (he was a junior in high school) on the sleeve. His brother and sister looked to still be in elementary school. They had hats, but he didn't. His mom sent him and his brother to get a camera with a flash. They were back in plenty of time. We didn't talk to them, but I heard a lot of interesting conversation.

The letterman complained about being cold and that the snow was causing his hair (uncovered by a hat) to freeze to his head. Further, he did not seem too pleased when the mom teased the him about giving his girlfriend a picture of him on Santa's lap. I noted that he did pose with Santa, but stood beside him instead.

For the duration, every single on of us in line were cold. For awhile, we had a big fir tree blocking the wind. Even with the wind block, it did not take long for both of my sons' cheeks and noses to get rosy. People in line hopped around some to get warm.

A baby girl in the family behind us started to cry in her mother's arms. I didn't blame her. It was cold and dark and windy. Snow was starting to fall in sheets of small icy flakes. (Big fluffy flakes are the best kind).

"How old is she?" I asked her mother, a woman my age with brown eyes and a dark braid.

"Sixteen months," she responded as the child's grandmother took the baby from her arms.

I don't remember how he came in the conversation, but my nine-year-old started talking to her too.

"What do you want for Christmas?" she asked him.

He looked at her.

"What do you want Santa to bring you?" I prompted.

"Toys with Froggys," my son answered.

My little one whispered that he wanted toys with kittys on them, but no-one but I heard him. I acknowledged my little son and we all waited and froze awhile longer. The baby cried quite a bit, but my boys were as good as gold while in line. They didn't complain about the cold and they stayed with me.

All was well until that woman I had accidentally bumped into spoke. My son heard her and said the most embarrassing thing he has ever uttered in front of me.

"Why does that old lady sound like a man?" He asked. (Well, the woman did have a deeper voice than he was used to).

I looked into the group behind us, but not directly at the woman to whom my son was referring.

"I'm sorry, he has autism," I explained intending to leave it at that.

"No I don't. I don't have Aww-tis-em anymore. I'm not silly anymore," my son explained. This wasn't the first time he had made this claim.

"Well..." I said, thinking that this was an all too silly moment.

That seemed to satisfy the group (although that lady didn't speak anymore.) We continued to speak to the mom on and off and she mentioned that one of the boys (he was five) with her was from Grand Rapids.

"I go to Grand Rapids sometimes, to the kidney doctor," my son said and not all too clearly.

"Yes, we go to the kidney doctor. He has kidney issues. We go to Grand Rapids every couple of months," I clarified.

"To Spectrum Health?" the mom asked.

"Yes, to Devos Children's hospital."

"I had a surgery when I was young," she told my son.

"Well, I'm going to have an operation," he said.

"We thought you were going to, but not anymore thank goodness," I told him. The conversation then came to a close. Although my initial embarrassment was gone, I hoped the gruff-sounding lady heard us and felt a little sympathy for me and my young boy.

The family ahead of us went out the opposite door of the little house, which meant it was our turn. The boys rushed up too close to the door leaving very little room to actually get in once the door was open. I gently pulled my youngest son back and someone in that group behind us helped us out by opening the door a bit wider. Also, the group surprised me by wishing us all well in a chorus of voices. I knew then, that my guy had actually made an OK impression. Despite the inappropriate comment, I was proud of his behavior as well as the behavior of his brother during the hour or so we stood freezing in line.

Santa greeted us warmly when we entered his "house". He had a real beard. It was grayer than normal, but it was real.

"Who is going first?" He asked.

My littlest son scrambled on his lap. I snapped two pictures as the man gave him a small candy cane. I also tried to listen for clues.

"What do you want for Christmas?" Santa asked.

My four-year-old told him that he wanted games and toys. He slid off the big guy's lap when it was his brother's turn. This was the moment my older boy had been waiting for--the moment for which we spent one hour or so freezing. He finally had the chance to sit on Santa's lap. That is what he wanted all along. He didn't get the opportunity to do that on the train where that very reticent Santa stood for his visits with the children.

"What do you want for Christmas?" this much, much better Santa asked him.

"Toys with froggys," my son answered promptly.

Santa looked at me in the eye and smiled. He had understood what my son said. I don't even think he noticed any quirks.

"Yes, I think you will probably get froggys for Christmas," I reassured everyone, including Santa. I snapped two more pictures. My son received his candy cane and we exited out the other door and made our way back to the van. My fingers were numb by then, but the boys were happy and all was well. The roads were a bit slippery upon our return home, but we arrived safely and the boys promptly reported back to their dad that they were good for me. They took their bath, put on their pajamas and went to bed with thoughts of Santa in their heads (well most likely anyway).

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