In the fall of 2013, my family took what can easily be described as the worst vacation of all time. I’m sure there are worse stories, but this one is mine.
I’m not talking about the typical “worst vacation” stories that usually include terrible weather, lost luggage and less-than-ideal hotel accommodations. I’m talking about everything that can go wrong, going wrong on a larger scale. The life-and-death kind of scale.
My older son was 3 years old at the time — what I think is the perfect age for a first Walt Disney World visit. Magic and reality aren’t that far apart when you’re 3. The mouse on your television screen is the same one with a castle and a zoo and his own roller coasters. Sure, Liam probably wouldn’t remember much, but we would take pictures and video and make memories that his father and I would cherish for decades to come.
We explained to him where we were going and even started a countdown. My dad told Liam that Mickey didn’t allow diapers in his park, so with all of the sincerity a 3-year-old could muster, Liam took it upon himself to get fully potty trained in time for the trip.
By the time we left, the anticipation was in full swing in fever pitch of expectation that made me ignore a literal fever that was developing in my own body. I had chills, a high temperature, a tickle in my throat and an all-encompassing desire to pack every last element that couldn’t be forgotten. I even had my husband Blake buy a homeopathic remedy meant to help stave off the flu. I told myself I was feeling better. I made it a mantra. I’M NOT SICK. I’M NOT SICK. I’M NOT SICK.
In the meantime, a separate type of drama was unfolding for my parents. They had anticipated this trip as much as we had. It was a chance for them to relive some of my childhood while creating new memories with their grandchild. My grandmother, who had been in a nursing facility for some time, had taken a turn for the worse. The details elude me now, but all of the signs that she was actively dying had started to come into focus. She wouldn’t eat. She was on a ventilator. Things were bad.
But as they say, those airplanes don’t wait, and with my aunt at home by my grandmother’s side, we pressed on, ready for takeoff, like it or not. The morning before the trip, Blake developed a high fever and chills. I’M NOT SICK. I’M NOT SICK.
We boarded that plane in a haze, both Blake and I coughing and hacking and likely making passengers around us wonder if one of us was Patient Zero for some new strain of deadly pandemic. We both told ourselves that, whatever it was, would pass within a few days, and then we could move on and enjoy our vacation.
Once we got to the hotel, we were like two objects running on half-empty batteries. Two people trying to convince themselves they felt better than they actually did. By the third day, we’d made a trip to an urgent care facility where we were looked at, together, for about 30 seconds before the doctor declared that we both had the flu and sent us on our way. I stuck with my mantra and took the Tamiflu.
By day four, Blake was throwing up and could barely move. He dragged his poor bones out of bed to humor me for a pre-arranged trip to The Pirates League for Liam. In a photo I took, Blake has himself propped against a counter while a makeup artist turns Liam into a pirate for an afternoon.
When we left there, we went to find lunch, and my dad got the phone call of a lifetime. His mother had passed away without him there. Powerless to stop it, armed with nothing more than a phone and sorry words for my aunt, there we were, in the sun, with happy families all around us. Liam’s makeup started to peel and itch. Blake looked like he wanted to pass out. We went back to the hotel in tears.
The rest of the day was a blur. Should we go home? Could we go home with Blake as sick as he was? After he initially refused to go, my dad dragged Blake to the hospital, where he ended up in the intensive care unit. Both of Blake’s lungs were full of pneumonia, and he was more dehydrated than his body could recover from on its own. Despite having felt slightly better that morning, I chugged down more cough syrup and put on a brave face for Liam as we accepted that staying in Florida the rest of the week was all we could do. I’M NOT SICK.
There is something especially tragic about insisting on still having a good time when everything is falling apart around you, like a bride who still wants everyone to enjoy her wedding cake even though her groom left her at the altar. I entered the parks every day feeling guilty and selfish for eking out what little fun I could have with our son while my husband lay in a hospital bed. My dad pushed through tears and thoughts of how my aunt was holding up. My mom held us all together, exhausted in her own right from trying to reassure and calm each of us in equal measure. Liam asked where Daddy was, and if he ever noticed that the rest of us weren’t fully there, he didn’t show it. We smiled. We forced out laughs until real ones threatened to take over. We went back to our rooms and slept uneasily, like we’d stolen something.
I wavered between wanting to punch everyone around me and feeling extremely jealous of them all at the same time. Didn’t the whiny teenager embarrassed to be at Disney with her family understand how precious her time with them was? Didn’t the drunk college guys obnoxiously slurping their way through EPCOT understand that we’d lost someone? Could the mom complaining about the heat just shut the hell up for a minute and realize how lucky she is just to be in Florida, where heat is a given?
It all came to a head for me as we were standing in line to meet Mickey for the fourth or fifth time on the trip. Rather than having Mickey stroll around the park for random visits like he did when I was child, Mickey and his pals now wait at designated areas for you to come to them. Celebrities, right?
So, there we stood at Animal Kingdom, waiting to meet a safari version of Mickey and Minnie, resplendent in their pith helmets and khaki. The weather was sweltering, so Mom and I were happy to wait in the air-conditioned building with Liam while my dad went to call his sister again. It was then that the commercial aspect of the experience started to jar me. The willing suspension of disbelief had failed, and I was suddenly feeling cynical and trite and, most of all, impatient.
When we finally rounded the corner to “meet” Mickey and Minnie, something changed. They both posed with outstretched arms that Liam immediately ran into. Both characters began to give Liam little kisses with their big plastic noses and broke into an impromptu game of peek-a-boo. It was more than a quick hug and a pose for a picture. They were legitimately interacting with him like an individual. Like old friends. This went on for several minutes as Liam squealed and shrieked with the pure, unfiltered joy that only a 3-year-old is capable of producing.
I kept expecting someone to say something. Some cast member to move it all along. For the “get off the stage” music to start playing — but it didn’t. All else was forgotten.
So, when Mickey looked at me and stretched out his arms, I looked around for a minute and did the classic, “who, me?” pose. The Mouse wanted a hug, and my heart leapt. I dashed into his waiting arms with all of the speed and enthusiasm that my toddler had managed a moment before, and I was 5 again. The tears finally broke free from the dam of self-control, and I let them out in a loud, choked-off sob that I prayed sounded like a cackle of laughter. In spite of myself, I let that big mouse hug me, and I felt small, like a child who really and truly just needed a hug. (Bonus points that it came from everyone’s favorite cartoon mouse.) I have no way of knowing if the man or woman inside of that Mickey Mouse suit saw the gamut of emotions playing on my face, but I got something then and there that gave me enough to get through the next few moments.
I am sick, but I’m OK. Even if it’s just for the next five minutes.
A few days later, we went home. We buried my grandmother next to the man she’d loved for more than 60 years. I was treated for a case of bronchitis. Blake slowly recovered. Life moved on.
The reality is, bad things happen in life, and they never have the best timing. Death doesn’t care if it ruins your perfectly planned vacation. Blake’s illness would have happened had we been there or not. You just have to get through this moment and then the next and the one after that. If it takes a cartoon mouse to make that happen, rest assured you’re not the first.
Fast forward to 2019. Liam is now 9, and my younger son Declan, who was only a wish and a prayer during our last trip to Disney, is about to turn 3. In late May, after countless jokes from Blake about never returning to Orlando for the sake of his health, our whole family went back to Disney World for a total Disney do-over. This time, the worst thing that happened was that I briefly lost my wallet (and got it back thanks to the good people at Universal Studios). I kept recalling the trip you just read about and did my best not to spend even a minute complaining.
This time when we found ourselves back at Animal Kingdom, taking Declan to see that same Mickey and Minnie seemed like a must-do. The wait was still long, and the air conditioning not as strong as I’d remembered, but my husband finally got to see one of his babies greet Mickey. Our smiles that time for the camera were genuine as we basked in a moment of the joy that we all truly deserved.
• Cassie Bendel was born in Wheeling and raised in Bellaire. A graduate of St. Vincent College, she began her writing career as a reporter with The Times Leader and the Steubenville Herald-Star before writing content for SiriusXM Satellite Radio and a national faith-based consulting company. After more than a decade in Pennsylvania, she has moved back to the Ohio Valley with her husband and two sons.