Road Trip!

I wish I’d been able to post this on Monday, but WordPress and I were not getting along.

Way back on Monday, you know, twenty-four whole hours ago, I was busy writing a post about the wonderful weekend I’d spent with Ryan road-tripping to Washington for a Capitals playoff game.

My heart was heavy then, but only because I was sad to see such a glorious weekend come to an end.

Fast-forward a day and my heart is heavy for a different reason. I watched my beloved Caps give up a game-tying goal to the Rangers with six seconds left in regulation time Monday night, then lose in the first two minutes of overtime to trail in the series, 3-2. Both goals were on the power play. This is the dictionary definition of a brutal loss.

So I need my weekend memories more than ever. And just as I will always treasure a bad Michigan loss to Purdue in 2009 because I was able to share it with Ryan, I will always treasure Game 4 even if this series goes down in the books as an all-time collapse by my Capitals.

Verizon Center
Verizon Center in Washington is a sea of red before the puck drop in Game 4.

But first, we need to back up. Why were Ryan and I on the road by ourselves? After all, we are a hockey family. But not this weekend. The occasion was Riley’s girls-only slumber birthday party. Ryan wanted no part of being in the house, and Riley didn’t want him there.

When she decided to have a slumber party last year for her birthday, I quickly scanned the playoff schedule for a game Ryan and I could attend. It’s not like he has a lot of other interests. We were set to travel to Washington for a Game 5 of the Caps’ second-round series. There was just one problem: Washington got swept and there was no Game 5. That’s how I found myself, on the eve of my daughter’s birthday, listening to a minor-league hockey game on the radio hoping a playoff series would be extended so we’d have a game to attend. The hockey Gods were smiling on our family that night — Ryan and I ended up spending Riley’s party night in Wilkes Barre, Pa., at an AHL playoff game.

It was fun, but not as fun as if we’d had a real rooting interest. So when her party coincided with a guaranteed-to-be-played Game 4 in Washington this year, reservations were quickly secured.

Ryan and I left the house at 6:30 a.m. Saturday morning to make sure we’d be in Washington in time for the 12:30 p.m. puck drop. It was an easy trip down. Ryan assisted me in DJ-ing his favorite songs from his iPod through the car’s speakers. I never had to find him another activity. We talked about the playoffs, and about the standings, and about various goalies’ save percentages. I’m quite sure I learned a few things. I answered questions about rules nuances. With no need to change the subject from hockey, the time passed quickly for both of us. I made sure to remind Ryan how glad I was that we could take this trip together. I told him how my dad used to take me on sports trips and asked him if maybe he’d take me to games when we were both older.

Pregame
In our seats at Verizon, ready for the game to begin.

We’ve made hockey trips to Washington before. And except for one ill-fated visit to the Smithsonian, the sights we see are limited to the Verizon Center arena and the hotel pool. And you know what? That’s OK with me. It’s the time spent that matters.

As we settled into our seats Saturday, I thought back to those past trips. The first one, there was that Smithsonian incident. The second time, Ryan’s anxiety about the time we’d get home got in the way of his enjoyment. The third trip was a glorious success, but on the fourth, our pre-game dinner plans got messed up and Ryan was wracked with anxiety for the rest of the evening.

This time? There was nothing. No worries. Not about food. Not about timing. Not about who would win. It was just the two of us enjoying a game, screaming our heads off and cheering the Caps on to a 3-2 victory. Because we were staying over in Washington, there was no need to rush out of the arena the way there is when we attend weekday-night games back home. I reassured Ryan that we had the rest of the day to do whatever we wanted. He broke into a big grin.

Postgame
Caps win, 3-2. Smiles all around.

And that’s exactly what we did. We got to our hotel. Ryan got some computer time to type hockey standings. We swam in the pool. We watched the Kentucky Derby. When it came time for dinner, I decided to forgo the easy choice of ordering a pizza and take Ryan to the restaurant in the hotel. As we ate our dinner of pizza and burgers, it occurred to me that this was the first time I’d ever been alone with Ryan in a real restaurant. We took our time eating. We talked about our day. We talked about our plans for Sunday. It couldn’t have been more normal.

When you parent kids on the autism spectrum, normal becomes ideal. Normal becomes wonderful.

After dinner, we took a walk around the block. We were both still wearing Capitals t-shirts, and a family passing by congratulated us on the win and offered high-fives. I tried to explain to Ryan that sports is one of the few things that can induce total strangers to congratulate one another like that. He thought it was pretty cool.

We still faced the question of what to do Sunday. I was determined that we wouldn’t set out straight for home first thing in the morning. There was no reason we had to be home early and I did not want to give in to Ryan’s anxiety if I didn’t have to. I proposed we go to the Capitals practice instead. Ryan waffled a few times but agreed in the morning to go.

We had breakfast, went for a swim, and then headed to Arlington and the Capitals’ practice rink. Ryan had actually been there a few weeks before when Veronica had both kids in Virginia visiting her sister. The practices are open, and you can stand right at the glass and observe the players up close. There are autograph opportunities.

On that occasion, Ryan had a minor meltdown after getting one player’s autograph about having to wait for others, and so the visit was cut short. Not this time. He declared we would watch the entire practice, which we did, standing right at the glass. Ryan kept up a conversation with the woman next to us, at one point asking her if she was “a girlish girl.” She was wearing a hockey jersey and insisted she was not.

When the players started coming off and signing autographs for fans, Ryan waited patiently to get a couple.

Braden Holtby
How close did we get to the players? This close. Caps goalie Braden Holtby.

He has a bunch of autographs, but they’ve never really meant much to him. I don’t think he relates to being close to a “famous” person the way most kids do. To him, it’s just some writing on a piece of paper. But this was different. He was genuinely excited to be standing so close to the players. He was eager to hand them his jersey to be signed.

Veronica kept texting me to ask how it was going. She was pleasantly shocked to hear he was willing to stay through the entire practice and wait for autographs. When the practice was finally over, we got back in the car for the drive back home. We resumed our DJ routine, and made plans to listen to another playoff game when it came on at 3.

autographs
My attempt to show Ryan and Holtby in the same shot. I’m not quitting my day job.

I kept sneaking peeks of him in the mirror and it seemed he was most always smiling. I know I was. By the time we got home, we had spent nearly 36 consecutive hours in each other’s company and there wasn’t a cross word exchanged between us. There wasn’t a moment I had felt the need to intervene or adjust a challenging behavior. I know we are guilty of over-correcting Ryan sometimes. We see it in his face, in that look he gives us after be redirected one too many times. It’s the look that says “I can’t do anything right so I’m not going to try any more.”

It’s a look that fills me with guilt and promises to do better.

I did not see that look this weekend. I did not feel that guilt. I wanted it to go on forever.

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