It was our final day of Disneyland, and I was feeling like a world champion. I had planned and paid for this trip, arranged for pet care with my standard multiple pages of instructions, packed for every possible mother-son contingency, spent a full day traveling in which I served as human snack vending machine and then, for three endless days, schlepped through every crawling line and ridden every dizzying ride that appealed to my small son. In blinding crowds and sweltering heat, I never let go of my child’s hand, never took my eyes off of his little curly head in one of the most elaborate human inventions of happiness on earth.
We were seated at IHOP anticipating our final breakfast as we strategized about which of our four syrup choices we’d use when the pancakes arrived. With several groups of 20+ people seated around us at enormous tables, service was slowed to a crawl. As Teddy practiced varying strengths of high-fives on my outstretched hand, I studied the table closest to us. Two sets of parents, a swarm of siblings, maybe cousins, and three grandparents. Such a different kind of experience than my little family of two was having. Their happy clamor brought me back to the multi-generational celebrations of my own childhood.
Our pancakes arrived, and we settled into the serious work of dividing Teddy’s into quadrants so that he could execute his four-syrup strategy. When the waiter checked in on us, I asked for the bill.
“There is no bill today,” was his reply.
“What do you mean there is no bill?”
“It’s already been paid.” As the waiter beamed at me, he pointed over his shoulder to the large man at the head of the large family’s table.
Tears welled up in my eyes.
“Happy tears,” I reassured my son.
We crossed the aisle to thank the family. I was trying so hard not to bawl, I don’t know what I said, exactly.
“You look like you’re having such a good time together,” said the man. “We wanted to make sure you have a really special day.”
Traveling alone with my son, despite the fact that he is absolutely delightful, underscores for me a deep parental loneliness. The pleasures and labors of parenting unshared can be a kind of echo chamber.
Being held for a moment in our joy, something in me let down. Teddy and I went to the bathroom together and while he peed, I cried and cried.
That kind and generous family gave me a far more powerful gift than pancakes. They reminded me that we are never as alone as we think we are. Our joy and our loneliness are a part of the great chorus of pancakes and strangers. Everywhere we go, people are waiting to welcome us. The trick is to learn how to let them.