Smiling so much, you need a new toothbrush

Smile for the camera!

Smile for the camera!

When I arrived at Hank’s apartment in Ohio, ready for our vacation together, he gave me a present. “Here,” he said, handing me a toothbrush. “I got one from my dentist last week, and he said to give you one, too!”

I’ve never met Hank’s dentist, so why would he send me a toothbrush?

The answer is my brother’s infectious enthusiasm. He’d been living in anticipation of our road trip for months, talking about it with everyone he met. It’s no surprise that his dentist would send me a bon voyage present.

Or maybe he just knew that traveling with Hank, people would see my teeth, because I’d be smiling a lot.

Hank in the Tracker

Hank in the Tracker

In the meantime, I’d been feeling apprehensive about the trip. I’d just spent three weeks not having to answer to anybody, even my husband. Now I was taking responsibility for someone who seems healthy and strong, but is actually a little fragile. Hank told me he’d recently had an epileptic seizure at night and woken on the bathroom floor in the morning. That terrified me.

Then there was the pressure from people who looked at me like I was some kind of saint. When I explained to my new friends in Summit that I couldn’t stay for the Fog Festival because I’d promised a road trip to my disabled brother, Mike said, “It takes a special person to do something like that.”

The truth is, I’m not a saint or a special person. I’m a hedonist, and I expected this trip to be fun. Some fun just takes more effort than other fun.

Finally, after all of Hank’s anticipation and my apprehension, we set out on the road.

At Canadian Customs, the traffic director in the orange vest leaned on the window for a chat.

From the passenger seat, Hank told him, “My sister is taking me to Canada because I’ve never been there.” That’s when the man realized that Hank was special, and he looked at me like I’d suddenly sprouted a halo.

“I have a special needs daughter,” he said. “I hope someday her brother and sister will take her on vacation…”

I smiled and said, “You know, it just depends on the example their parents set.”

He nodded thoughtfully. “God only gives you what you can handle.”

Two days into the trip, I realized that this sister had taken on more than she could handle. It was the most exhausting travel I’ve ever done. How could someone so slow make me run so fast?

I found myself crawling on my hands and knees, looking for a tiny dropped pill. I listened through the bathroom door for 10 minutes as he argued — out loud — with the shower curtain, trying to get it to stay inside the tub, then, exasperated, his voice now several octaves higher, he called me in to help. I unloaded our luggage, carried it to our room, and in the morning, carried it out again. Back on my hands and knees, I checked for lost items under the beds. “Is this your toothpaste?” I asked, finding it there.

As we drove across Canada and the midwest, I gave Hank a running description of the scenery he couldn’t see. To my surprise, he didn’t respond to many of the things I pointed out. I’d be describing a cute Halloween display or reading a funny sign, and he’d interrupt me and start talking about a frozen dinner he’d eaten last week.

Our worlds were out of synch — why was he always talking about the past or the future? Why couldn’t he live in the present moment with me? He was happy, but would he have been just as happy at home?

It wasn’t until after the trip was over that I understood. Hank’s brain works differently — he gathers life’s experiences, stores them up, then processes them at his own speed. He simply can’t process them on the fly.

He actually told me at one point, “I think better when I’m sleeping.”

Hank with his Odouls at Hooters

Hank with his "beer" at Hooters

A day or two after each event, he’d begin to relive it with greater and greater relish. One example of this was in Detroit. I asked him, “Hey, Hank, have you ever been to a Hooters?”

“No, but I’ll buy you dinner!” Obviously, he knew something about Hooters.

Once inside — neither of us had ever been in a Hooter’s — Hank was a lot more interested in the baseball game on the big-screen TV than in the waitresses. He ate his chicken and drank his non-alcoholic beer, and when we were done, I got a picture of him with six sexy smiling waitresses.

He did notice that their shorts were kinda short. “What do you call those again?” he asked me. “Hot pants,” I told him.

A couple of days later, he was on the phone with his friend, Juanita. “The waitresses were wearing these, um, orange, um, hot pants,” he told her. “And I got a picture with all of them!”

Hank with six new friends

Hank with six new friends

Watching him interact with people, I could see why we had to do this. Taking Hank on a road trip was like giving the gift of a smile to many people. He’s so bubbly, he makes people happy. That sort of happiness needs to go on a road trip and be spread around. Even if it wears out his driver.

When we got back to his home, Hank had finished his processing. The trip was a huge success, and he couldn’t wait to call his friends. I heard him telling them about the big storm on Lake Huron, the Ford plant, the museum, the restaurants, and the nursing home where we’d visited our aunts. He couldn’t wait to get his pictures developed, and he couldn’t decided which of his new t-shirts to wear first. He had presents to deliver, too.

A couple of days later, we got together with Steve and Carol to eat pizza and catch up on news. Carol and I went upstairs for girl talk, and Steve and Hank sat outside making guy jokes and drinking non-alcoholic beer. Eventually, the guys came bounding up the stairs with some big news.

“We’re planning a trip to Niagara Falls next year!” they told us. “We’re going to rent a minivan, so we can all go together!”

I was flabbergasted. I looked closely at Steve, who was rattling off the details of the trip they had planned. Was that a faint halo over his head?

Before I left Columbus, Hank asked me, “Am I still fun to take on vacation?”

“Absolutely!” I said, with enthusiasm. I’d caught up on my sleep (while he was at work), and now I was anticipating the future eagerly. Steve and Carol and Barry and I may all need new toothbrushes — we’ll be smiling a lot, at Niagara Falls next year.

Hank and Margaret with Sisters Mary Pat and Mary Julia

Hank and Margaret with Sisters Mary Pat and Mary Julia

Watch out! The blind guy is driving!

Watch out! The blind guy is driving!

A big bowl of strawberry ice cream - yum!

A big bowl of strawberry ice cream - yum!

Another smiling waitress

Another smiling waitress

A special trip with my Special brother – video link

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then what is a 12-minute video worth?

This one is priceless. It documents the road trip I took with my special needs brother, Hank, and his thoughts on the experience. His happiness and joy are infectious — you are guaranteed to laugh!

A special trip with my Special brother from Margaret Meps Schulte on Vimeo.

Canada is like a box of chocolates

Our first evening in Canada

Our first evening in Canada

Once upon a time, there were two children, a brother and a sister, who lived together in a big house. They swam in the backyard pool, watched “The Waltons” and “All in the Family,” and played games like “Sorry” and “Uno.”

The girl was small, and the boy was big. For as long as she could remember, he was over six feet tall, a gentle giant.

The little girl grew up fast, and she was astonished when her big brother did not. He was a child when she was a child, and he was a child when she was an adult.

He’s still a big kid, and he’s here with me. I’m talking about my special brother, Hank, who is traveling with me for a week. He’s now 59-going-on-10.

Sometimes, I think I must be crazy to do this. It’s like taking Forrest Gump on the cross-country trip from Rain Man. I am on call 24/7, making sure that his needs are taken care of. I want his vacation to be perfect, but I’m finding that’s at the expense of my own wishes.

For months, I looked forward to Hank’s reaction to Canada, because he’d never been to a foreign country overnight. I wondered how he would handle my impetuous way of traveling without making plans, going where the wind takes me. I wanted to give him the chance to make decisions, but how would I handle his choices?

Meanwhile, he was savoring the anticipation of the trip. Every time I talked to him on the phone, he brought it up. Where would we go? What would he pack? The day before we left, he said, “The closer it gets, the exciteder I get!”

I started him out with two choices: An eastward loop to Canada and Niagara Falls (which he’d never seen); or a drive straight north to Canada, and then south and west to Indiana to see our two aging aunts. He chose the aunts,  “Because I don’t know whether I’ll get to see them again.” Niagara Falls can wait “until the next time.” He’s already excited about “the next time.”

I realized this trip was going to be challenging when I got lost just leaving his house. The worst kind of passenger is one who can’t help you navigate but who goes “uh-oh” every time you make a u-turn. We’d only been on the road five minutes when he was going “uh-oh” and I was searching my vocabulary for words like “sheesh” and “dang,” instead of my usual choices.

He can’t fault me for my lack of direction. I suggested one morning that he go to the motel lobby for coffee. He went about 10 feet to the left. Then he came back and said, “Which way is it again?” The next time I made a u-turn, he laughed and said, “That’s OK. I get lost trying to get a cup of coffee.”

At some point, I realized that the subtleties I relish while traveling would be lost on my companion.

My first inkling was his exclamation on I-75 — in order to make the most of Hank’s vacation, I was driving on interstates instead of my favorite 2-lane roads. “Look at that!” he exclaimed. “A Wal-Mart truck!” Waving his hand at the semi I was passing, he said, proudly, “I know a Wal-Mart truck. I know a Fed Ex truck. And I know a Kroger truck.”

He may not be subtle. But he’s doing the same thing I do while traveling: Looking for similarities and differences from his own home and routine. We’re always searching for patterns.

“I’ve never seen a beach in Canada before!” he said, when we walk over the sand dunes to Lake Huron. He was comparing it to the beaches he knows in Florida. “Wait ’til I tell Joy I saw a green golf cart!” he said. Joy is the one person he knows who owns a golf cart.

He started tracking our motel room numbers. The first night, we had room 5. The second night, we had room 105. On our third night, the streak was broken with 119. So on the fourth night, as we went into the lobby, he said, “I wonder what our room number will be tonight — 5, 105 — that was so funny! Maybe we’ll get 119!”

Hank shows off some Canadian bills

Hank shows off some Canadian bills

When we bought our first meal in Canada and broke a $20, I asked him to carry the Canadian money. I handed him the change, which included several loonies and a toonie. “Where are the ones?” he asked. I pointed to the loonie. “That’s it; they don’t have dollar bills.” “That’s weird,” he said, frowning.

Later, out of the blue, he said, “You know what would be weird? It would be weird if I lived in Canada.”

I asked what his favorite thing was about Canada. “When I couldn’t get the car door open!” We’d gone to the marina in Grand Bend, but there was a storm, and the wind was blowing over 60 kph. Hank tried to get out, but he couldn’t fight his car door open against the wind. So he handed his camera to me, and I took it out to the beach for pictures. Meanwhile, as the wind buffeted the tiny Tracker, he sat inside the car, warm and toasty.

Watching the storm from the car

Watching the storm from the car

Finally, after three days in Canada, we drove back across the soaring bridge at Sarnia to Michigan. That’s when I discovered that border crossings are amazingly easy with Hank in the car. He’s so genuine, he makes the Homeland Security guys laugh out loud.

“What did you buy in Canada?” the uniformed man asked, holding our passports and peering in the driver’s window. From the passenger’s seat, Hank said, “I bought a t-shirt!” I laughed out loud and admitted that we’d also bought 10 bags of potato chips. I thought that would surely cause suspicion and a car search. But no, the man laughed. “Any alcohol or tobacco?” he asked. I chuckled at that, too. Traveling with Hank, there’s no need for alcohol or tobacco. He’s always happy.

Then we were back in Michigan, and Hank turned to me and said, “Well, I had two nights in Canada. I guess I’ve seen all that’s different about Canada.”

I can’t wait to hear his comments on Michigan and Indiana.

Meps and Hank in the indoor pool

Meps and Hank in the indoor pool

Canadian indoor pools are just like the ones in the US

Hank says Canadian indoor pools are just like the ones in the US

The big storm at Grand Bend

The big storm at Grand Bend

Seriously, we bought 10 bags of these chips!

We really did buy 10 bags of these!