by Kristine Mietzner
The movie "Rain Man" often came to mind when I vacationed in San Diego with my cousin Bob. He's a 60-year-old man with an intellectual disability, much like the character Ray in the Oscar-winning 1988 film. Dustin Hoffman played Raymond, a man with autism nicknamed Ray and Rain Man. My cousin's manner of speaking, his personality, and the way he walked compared closely with Rain Man's voice, persona, and gait.
Luckily for Bob, his mother left him a small special needs trust for outings and other extras. And this year, his cousins were informed that Bob had some Social Security Disability funds that could only be spent on select activities that included travel, but not room and board.
In "Rain Man" Tom Cruise played Charlie, the brother who hustled for the chance to manage Ray's inheritance by moving him out of the facility where he lived. While Bob's other cousins and I periodically take him on vacations, we return afterward to our respective homes, without illusions that he could thrive outside of the group home where he lives.
Bob's mother, my late Aunt Alice, once remarked that she never had to explain to others that he was disabled. I experienced the truth of her comment on the trip.
At the Fresno airport, Bob's caretaker Alice (who coincidentally has the same name as Bob's mother) handed me his California I.D. and his medical card. In case of an emergency, he'd have access to medical care. I noticed that Bob's name was marked with a black felt pen on his red canvas rolling bag the way a child's baggage might be marked for a trip to summer camp.
We said goodbye to Alice and headed to the security area. Bob followed the TSA agent's directions to empty his pockets and remove his belt. So far so good. I felt confident that I could handle a trip with a disabled adult cousin.
But then, as I walked through the metal scanner, Bob followed behind too closely, not understanding the idea that he had to wait for his turn to go through the machine. The TSA agents sent us back and patiently instructed Bob to wait until they called him for his turn. For the entire trip, Bob stayed close to me. I never imagined that he would intentionally wander off but, like a mother with a young child, I was always concerned about Bob's safety.
When he entered the men's restroom near the gate, I paced outside the door. I remembered the first time I allowed my son Ben, who was young at the time, to use a men's public restroom on his own. Bob emerged unscathed, just as Ben had many years before.
In "Rain Man," Charlie was impatient and exasperated when Ray absolutely had to watch Mr. Ed on television at a particular time and had to have lime Jell-O with his dinner. After considerable shouting, Charlie gave in to Ray's steady insistence on following his habitual behaviors.
When traveling with Bob, I, too, discovered life was more comfortable when Bob's wishes were fulfilled. His dinner had to be at 6 p.m. He preferred hamburgers over anything else. His face, often expressionless, brightened with a broad smile whenever I asked him if he wanted a burger. You'd think he'd won the lottery. We dined a lot at Carl's, Jr.
Bob and his housemates spend their weekdays at the Regional Center in Porterville, California. Back home, he had a scheduled program of activities that he considered his job, something he liked talking about. "You know, Kristine," he said, "you go to work for the people. It's not just the work or the job that you have. You go work because of the people." Perhaps he heard those sentiments from Regional Center staff members, but it warmed my heart when he said them, just the same.
There were other moments of grace. After I couldn't produce the motel key from my purse, Bob said, "These things happen." We trekked back to the front desk to get another key. Later I found the key safely tucked away in one of my bag's zippered compartments.
At Safari Park, Bob listened to the guides who shared fascinating facts about the gorillas, rhinoceros, giraffe, elephants, and antelopes. As we walked between exhibits, Bob repeatedly talked about how a maid would clean our room while we were away. He mentioned several times that we might have trouble finding our rental car in the parking lot at the end of the day. I, too, thought about those things, but only briefly. I could file away and pull up concerns as needed, but Bob replayed issues over and over like a continuous film loop.
I listened to more than a few monologues; Bob sometimes spoke in a stream of consciousness to no one in particular.
In "Rain Man," Charlie eventually comes to see that it's in Ray's best interest to return to the institution where he lives. The closing scene showed Ray stepping on the train with his doctor. His brother Charlie, who had promised to visit soon, waved from the platform. Ray looked straight ahead, seemingly unaware of Charlie.
At the end of our trip, Bob's caretaker Alice met us at the airport. I helped Bob get seated in the car, and I promised to visit soon. I stepped back and waved from the sidewalk. Bob looked straight ahead, seemingly unaware of me.
Kristine Mietzner lives in northern California with her golden retriever Max.