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I’m a “Catastrophizer” But I’m Trying Not to Let it Ruin the Holidays

Jamie Sumner
Special needs mom, author and blogger
12/27/18  3:37 PM PST
Ruin the Holidays

The inside of the van smells of burned rubber, like the time I melted a plastic lid in the microwave. The engine is ticking erratically and when it shudders, I do too. The sky is grim and the trees bare, which is our typical late-fall scenery for the three-hour drive across Tennessee to my in-laws. But so far, this trip has been anything but typical.

I often tell my children to stop “catastrophizing.” When they’ve reached the last animal cracker, when the dusting of snow doesn’t close down school, when the favorite blanket/jacket/book is missing, I say, “none of these are tragedies.” None of these are irreparable or forever. But when it comes to them and their well-being, I am the biggest catastrophizer of all, especially around the holidays. I’ve spent weeks packing and repacking bags in fear of forgetting one vital thing. I’ve cried in airports in front of my children over cancelled flights. And now, as we sit under the increasing cloud cover and time rolls on without us reaching our destination, I can see all the ways in which this could be the perfect disaster.

I check the kids in the mirror. There is Charlie, my six-year-old, buckled in with his wheelchair strapped down next to him. That chair takes up a lot of space. And because of Charlie’s cerebral palsy, he can’t just sit in any car seat. It’s why we don’t need just any van. We need our van and it’s particular arrangement of seats and belongings and people. It is a game of Tetris we can only win once. Behind Charlie are the twins at that particular season in year four of life where they can either be still, or in constant movement, for hours.

None of the three kids have asked yet why we are pulled over on the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere. They are busy watching “The Grinch.” My husband pops the hood and checks the oil. I peer at him from under the visor. We both know he’s just going through the motions. It’s never something as simple as oil.

I turn on the hazard lights and pass out snacks. We are already half an hour late for the big holiday meal. A turkey has been deep-fried. Grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins are waiting. A fudge pie and pecan shortbread sit at my feet, because am in charge of desserts. Meanwhile, the burnt smell is getting worse.

When my husband I were newly married, we went camping in the Smoky Mountains. It was one of those trips that’s only possible without children. We threw some clothes and a tent in the back seat and drove until the trees thickened and the stars grew brighter. We tossed foil packets of potatoes and sausages over the coals and told the kind of stories you are still telling in that first year of marriage. “Hey, my cousin once melted his shoe in a bonfire” and “Did I mention I’m deathly afraid of snakes?”

On the way back from that trip, we got a flat. It was a doozy—the kind that shreds the tire into ribbon-like curls. It was cold and gray that day too, but what I remember most is leaning against the car, playing Wilco at top volume on my phone, and laughing as the spare rolled out of my husband’s grasp and down into the ditch on the side of the road. Calamity was funny back then.

But now, I face forward so no one can see the worry lines while he calls his parents to work out a game plan—to tow or not to tow? The movie has ended and the kids are beginning to shift in their seats. The tide of their energy is turning and it’s not in our favor. They know turkey is waiting.

This, I tell myself, is a predictable misfortune—one of those things you know will happen on a holiday, when mechanics are off duty and everyone else in their right mind has already reached their destination. I picture Steve Martin in “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.” I’m searching for some humor, a laugh track that should go along with our spot at mile marker 320 so this breakdown doesn’t actually break me down. I flip the radio dial until I hit all things Christmas. The kids perk up. They’re suckers for anything with bells.

I don’t know how all of this will play out, if we will be towed or how we will find a van to rent that is equipped for my child’s special needs. I hope the van will be salvageable. I picture the repair bill for something like this on a holiday weekend and breath in through my nose and out through my mouth to stave off the panic. This is not unfixable, I tell myself as I would tell my children. This is a blip on the screen disguising itself as a catastrophe, because that’s how it works during the holidays. Everything is bigger and better or bigger and worse. But this time I’m trying to see it as it is: a situation that is, hopefully, more comedy than tragedy. I breathe out again, long and slow, and turn up the radio.

(Note from Shield HealthCare editor: We couldn’t let this story go, so we checked in with Jamie to see how it ends. “We made it, eventually. We kept have to pull over to let the engine cool. We were an hour late to dinner. And then my husband got up at six the next morning and took it to a dealer. One large bill later, it was fixed.”) 

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