The Happiest Place on Earth

When I turned eleven, my parents surprised me with a trip to Magic Kingdom at Disney World for my birthday. This was super exciting. We had gone when I was little, but I too young to remember much of the trip. My brother, Mo, had recently graduated high school so it was just mom, dad and me. We loaded up our white Lincoln Town Car and headed to O-town for the day.

Dad drove us on the 2.5 hour trip from Orange Park to Orlando. Along the way, mom had been moody and my parents argued for a time. The arguments about her mood and behavior were so common between them I learned to become invisible and tune them out. I focused instead on the colorful billboards whizzing by along the I-4 corridor.

Mom’s mood seemed to improve once we were close to Orlando. Dad followed the signs that led us to Disney. We parked and took the tram to the ferry which would sail us directly to the Magic Kingdom entrance. I was filled with excitement as I leaned over the railing and watched Cinderella's Castle getting closer and closer.

We arrived at the entrance and set about our journey to explore this magical world. It was sunny and warm, but not too hot–a great day to be outside. We stopped, smiled and took pictures just like all the other families. We revelled at the sites and walked through shops. Everything there was exciting and bigger than life--from the characters, the rides and the shows. It was like a dream.

However, a few hours into our journey something changed.

We were walking along having a great time when mom’s mood flipped like a light switch. She stopped in the middle of the path with a grimace on her face. In a mad voice, she declared people around us were trying to hurt her. I inwardly groaned and wanted to cry. No, not here, mom. Not at Disney. I thought. Dad told her to stop and not do this at the park. They went back and forth bickering--dad told her she was crazy--mom declared the evil people were turning him against her. I didn’t know what to do. All I wanted was a a fun, uneventful trip with my family. I slumped my shoulders and stood there waiting for them to stop arguing, but it just continued. After a few minutes of continued fighting, mom made one last unexpected declaration to my father, “I'll just go by myself.”

My eyes widened and my jaw dropped. Surely, she won’t leave us?

Holding her big black purse on her shoulder, she turned and stormed off in a fury.

My heart sank as I watched her disappear into the crowd. I looked at my dad and said, “What do we do?”

He said, “C'mon, we go enjoy the park without her.”

With that, he and I continued on in another direction. But my heart was racing. So many thoughts flooded my mind. This was a BIG park. Why didn’t dad chase after her? Where will she go? What if we don’t find her? Will she be lost? Will we ever see her again?

I tried my best to push these questions out of my mind, but they were the underlying current as rode the rides and traveled from land to land. I felt torn, like I had made the wrong decision to stay with my dad. But in reality I hadn’t made any decisions to pull us apart, mom left us. Dad tried not to show it, but he was worried as well.

Hours went by. Everything at Disney really was amazing to see--I just wished I could have enjoyed it more. I appreciated my dad trying to do his best to entertain me and have a good time. But I was so worried about my mom. I wanted to know if she was OK. I wondered if she was having a good time by herself. I worried we might not find her. Sigh. This trip had not turned out as expected. Everywhere we turned, I hoped to see a cheerful version of my mom emerge and join us. In this fantasy, we'd be just like every other family and have the best day of our lives. After all, this was supposed to be the happiest place on Earth.

It was late afternoon and time for us to get back to our car to head home. I was sick to my stomach wondering where mom went. We started making our way to the park exit. As we walked down Main Street and approached the gift shops, my heart soared. There she was coming out of a store. Mom, she’s OK! We found her! I ran up to her and she seemed in a better mood. “Mom, what have you been doing?” I asked. She reached into her purse and pulled out photos. She handed them to me and said, “I’ve been shopping and taking these.” The photos were of her. She had gone into one of those places where you change clothes and have a photo taken that is staged from another era. I flipped though those sepia prints with such mixed emotion. I was glad she was able to something fun. But why couldn’t we have enjoyed Magic Kingdom together as a family? Why did you leave, mom? Why didn’t you want to be with me? I never asked the questions aloud. If my eyes could speak, she would have known I was looking at her with such longing and desperation. But I only wished these things to myself.

My parents didn’t say much to each other. We left the park and headed home mostly in silence.

Worlds Apart

That day at Disney was similar to my home life. My mom and I were in the same place physically, but we were also worlds apart. Yes, there were moments of connection and love. But then there was this overwhelming confusion and sadness–this underlying darkness ready to rear its ugly head and consume me. Even though I was in the midst of thousands of people that day in a wonderful place and I had my dad, I still felt very alone.