Saturday, October 27, 2012

That which doesn't kill me ...

To really do justice to the photo above (taken at Houston’s Bush International Airport baggage claim area earlier this month), you‘ll need to imagine upraised arms and a throbbing soundtrack first . That’s because it marks our triumphant return from Rithvik’s first-ever* Expedition to the Old World. Over nine eventful days, he and I covered 20,000 miles all told (air, train and road), sustained by a large support crew of family members at both ends (US and India). In this globalized era where long-haul air travel has become commonplace, a trip like this might not count as significant, but for the aforesaid travelers, it was a whole ‘nuther level of challenge.

* Sowmya assures me that Rithvik has made not one but two trips to India before the age of 3, but in my mind, that was in a previous life.

Given Rithvik’s diagnosis of autism and associated medical issues, specifically his food allergies and asthma, travel has always been a fraught activity for us. Road trips were limited to destinations where we could stay with relatives; hotels were ruled out after a couple of tries. After a hellish experience on a flight to Florida in 2005, we completely swore off air travel. But as he began to mature and make progress with his medical issues, we began a carefully calibrated program to test his flightworthiness. First was a half-hour flight from Houston to Austin in 2009, one way only. He passed with flying colors; no sign of the sound sensitivity that had plagued him up to that point. Then in 2011, with some trepidation, we undertook the 4-hour nonstop flight to visit his cousins in New Jersey. Passed that test easily too. Then, this past summer, we did that trip again, but this time we tacked on a four-week stay, with about 3,000 miles of road trips to destinations as far afield as Virginia Beach, Boston, Montreal, Gettysburg and Washington DC (one highlight being the stop at Great Barrington to visit Iris and Mark). He loved all of it, and we were thrilled to see how well he adapted to the varied company, locations and situations.

Accompanying his journey of growth has been a corresponding expansion of our own capabilities, as his parents. I remember a key moment in early 2010, when to make up for an earlier blunder, I volunteered to take both my kids (then 10 and 7) to the Houston Rodeo. At the time it seemed foolhardy to even consider singlehandedly managing these two easily-overstimulated lads, at Houston’s sprawling multi-stadium complex, through crowds, livestock and rides. But we pulled it off without incident, and we’ve continued to raise the bar ever since.

Of course, all this bar-raising works only on the back of painstaking arrangements made by my devoted wife Sowmya, who is typically exhausted by the end of each trip. So when she first floated the idea of Rithvik making a trip to India, I was ‘volunteered’ to be his sole chaperone. This time, after I picked myself off the floor, cleared out the wax buildup in my ears, and confirmed what I thought I heard, I didn’t feel energized by this chance to conquer another frontier. For some reason, probably due to assorted family factors surrounding this trip, I was having trouble framing the trip in any kind of positive light. Visions sprang up of all the things that could go wrong. Rithvik could have an anaphylactic reaction or severe asthma attack right on the plane! He might have a meltdown in Security or get lost at Frankfurt... He might be in hospital the whole time in India (it's happened to other family members we know)...  And the full doomsday scenario – me returning with just a body bag, violins playing in the background. But all the heaviness and negativity began to drag, and finally, the day before departure, I’d had enough. I decided that if I was going to take the trip, by golly, we’d make it an adventure! And instantly the clouds lifted, the energy returned and all was well again.

Armed to the teeth with preparations, including backups for backups, we set off. On the outbound journey, in my best Red alert mode, I didn’t have much time to take in, let alone explore, the world’s largest airplane, the ginormous A380 with an upper deck running the full length of the plane. The meal arrangements, though not perfect, worked out fine and I found
 myself breathing easier about halfway through the second of the two ten-hour flights. Rithvik took in all the new experiences with wide-eyed anticipation, and even a long wait for our baggage at Chennai airport couldn’t dampen his enthusiasm. My parents were delighted to see him after 6 years, and basically waited on him hand and foot the whole time we were there. Even though his surroundings were night-and-day different from what he’s used to here in the US, he took them in his stride. After two days in Chennai, we took a quintessentially Indian trip by train to Coimbatore (in interior Tamil Nadu), and a day-trip by car the next day deep into rural Kerala for a consultation with a doctor we know. We took the night train back to Chennai - another unique experience – and before we knew it, it was time to pack our suitcases for the return trip to the States, passing through the mini-city that is Frankfurt airport, culminating in that euphoric touchdown.

Three weeks later, in the cold light of day, when I reflect on this whole experience, a variety of thoughts flood my mind, most of which have been explored on these pages over the years. The expansion of one’s comfort zone is by definition uncomfortable, but we have a choice to make that discomfort either comfortable or uncomfortable. The feeling of being overwhelmed can be all too real and an overpowering disincentive to change, but it can evaporate in the face of even one speck of the conviction that it’s good for us. The more often we give ourselves this experience, the stronger those comfort-zone-stretching muscles get. And regular exposure to comfort-zone breakers can really help transform the experience from holding-on-for-dear-life to how-hard-can-this-be. Happy zone stretching!

1 comment:

  1. Sree,

    What a remarkable and inspiring story (not to mention that it's the first time I've ever seen "aforesaid" and "whole ‘nuther" in the same sentence).

    I'm inspired by how Sowmya and you simply continued to raise the bar and that you didn't get caught up in all the "what-if's" that might occur five increments above, but instead, stayed focused on the current level. It seems so straight-forward in hindsight, but I know that in the moment it can be nearly impossible to do.

    Congratulations on your completion of an epic journey! What's next? I can only begin to imagine the stories you'll be telling in ten years.



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