How Pip Dealt with Costa Rica

Karen B. Golightly

Last summer I took my three kids to Costa Rica to meet with two other families. For most parents, this would be a pretty big feat. For me, it was a bit more than that. I’m a single mother of three children, aged 14, 11, and 5. Pip, the five year old, has autism, mostly manifested in transitions and lack of much verbal communication. So, let’s drag the crew to a tropical country, where I’ve never been before and don’t speak the language, during the rainy season. I figured, we’d done Disney the year before, Costa Rica would be a breeze. 

There were a few problems. I didn’t figure in the fact that the rental agency wouldn’t have an automatic car, or that I’d have to drive four hours, over a treacherous mountain range, in a huge pick-up truck with a camper on the back, with my 14-year-old daughter navigating. I didn’t even consider the fact that we’d be cooking all of our own meals in an outdoor kitchen with no hot water, that there would be hours and hours of no electricity, and certainly sketchy internet (I teach online), and that the local mosquitoes hadn’t fed in years. I also didn’t realize that it was a new moon, hence, huge tides, which washed out the only road onto the tiny island where we were staying. 

But I also didn’t realize what a brave little boy I’m raising. I had no idea that he could handle a five-hour flight, complete with a layover in Atlanta, then a four-hour drive across the country, and then the next day, a hike through a rainforest, over a series of slippery, rickety suspension bridges in the rain. And that at the end, he’d love the icy cold waterfall and swimming hole as much as the rest of us did. I didn’t think he’d find such joy in the black sands, liquid like quicksand, sprinkled with orange and green rocks and sand dollars as big as your palm. I didn’t think that he’d look at the waves and, all of a sudden, be at peace, washed of the anxiety that grips him at times. I couldn’t fathom that he’d jump with excitement at the sight of his sister riding a horse down the beach. And I had no idea that he’d love napping in a hammock, but he did.

Before we left home, Pip slept in the top of a wheelbarrow bucket on the floor in my room. It was his own creation, from a wheelbarrow that I hadn’t had a chance to assemble. He piled in pillows and his blankets, and snuggled down every night for a year, despite my efforts to move him to a bed or out of my room.

But after Costa Rica, I hung a hammock in his room, and he moved right into it, cherishing the comfort and pressure of the fabric against his little body. He made that corner his room, decorating it with his drawings, his name, posters, his puppet theater, toys, and books. It was the first time he’d made his own space, and he led the way, the hammock as the center of attention. 

While in Costa Rica, my friend’s four year old son constantly called to her, “Momma, I need a drink.” “Momma, I want more cereal.” “Momma, I need you to read me a book.” “Momma, I need help. Now!” At one point, I looked at her and joked, “Sometimes it’s okay that I have a nonverbal child.”

But two weeks ago, we were going for a walk, and Pip saw all of the Halloween decorations out. “Momma,” he said, “look at that pumpkin.” “Momma, look, a witch.” “Momma, there’s a ghost!” It’s continued, this Momma-ism, constantly it seems, to all aspects of his life. And then one day, he said, “Momma, I had a dream.” “What was it about?” “A tree,” he said, obviously pleased with himself. “A tree” it’s been every day since, except one, when it was a circus and a tree. Still, he’s telling me his dreams, and for that I am thankful. I’ll take the “Momma’s” all day long, as long as he’s talking.

When we left Costa Rica, we were all exhausted. We had ziplined, learned to surf, ridden horses, tromped through national parks and rain forests, and swam in the most beautiful ocean I’d ever seen. We’d ridden over a mountain range, filled up the rental truck at a gas station that was patrolled by armed guards, negotiated the capital city of San Jose long enough to turn in the truck at the rental agency, and took a shuttle with our two fifty-pound suitcases and four backpacks, to the airport — all in the span of six hours. We stood in line to pay the exit taxes (surprise!) and filled out a lengthy form for each person in our party. We stood in yet another line to get our boarding passes and check in our luggage.

Needless to say, lines are difficult for Pip. But he was a trooper until they loaded our two giant blue suitcases onto the conveyor belt. It was as if the last vestige of the familiar was taken away. He was inconsolable. I tried everything from saltines and gummy bears to Coca-Cola and a Ring Pop (my back up to my back up plan). Nothing worked. He screamed and cried, reaching for the luggage, which was clearly gone into the hinterlands of the San Jose airport, screaming, “My suitcase! My suitcase!” 

I practically dragged him through security, where he freaked out even more when he had to remove his shoes, then the restaurant area, then the rest of the airport, through construction, to get to our terminal. I was sweating by the time we arrived. There, a Costa Rican man was playing local music quite loudly. But the music was the thing that calmed Pip down. He sidled up to a window for the best view of the airplanes and soaked in that music like a dream. His brave farewell to Costa Rica.