I’ve thought long and hard about writing this article. Unlike anything else I’ve written, this reflective, yet hopefully helpful piece, will be based solely on my own personal experience, privilege, and emotion. I hope that, in its entirety, it can help someone like me. Someone with a sick loved one, make a lasting memory that will be treasured and stored for late nights when you’re alone, deep in thought, or for long car rides when no one else is around and your mind wonders while you just need a good cry. Or maybe, hopefully, to look back on in victory over a relentless and thieving disease we call cancer.
Like most kids born in the 80s and 90s, I grew up with Disney. In a time where beautifully crafted stories and soundtracks were the voice of childhood, films like Pocahontas (1995), Hercules (1997), The Lion King (1994), and The Little Mermaid (1989) held a peculiar, yet incredible sense of wonder and magic.
One of two children, my sister and I, not the wealthiest of families, were raised in relatively difficult circumstances. However, Disney and my mother’s obsession with watching movies as a pastime and coping mechanism to escape to a less harsh reality, offered us a normative experience, much like any other child exposed to the beautiful world of animated bliss that Disney produced what feels like ages ago.
Just in writing those words, I’m reminded of listening to the soundtrack for Pocahontas with my sister in her room. The nostalgia of the sun shining through that second-story window offering a faint warmth in its rays, and the smell of mashed Play-Doh in the carpet are streaming back as I type.
My mother was a tough woman. She had to be. My father, if you could call him that, was never around. So, my mother worked physically demanding jobs at low wages to keep food on our tables and clothes on our backs. She ruled with an iron fist, which was much needed, as I often found myself in big trouble over a weird, childlike curiosity with things like fire.
However, Disney offered up an escape from the long shift hours, worrying about bills, and neighborhood bullies. It was where I was first introduced to Peter Pan and his neverending effort not to grow up, and where I first learned of my love for mythology. Although I didn’t know it then, it’s where many of my positive and formative childhood experiences would originate.
My Disney Journey
As with most adults my age, Disney has always been a staple in our lives. Honestly, it’s almost unavoidable, as Mickey Mouse, stories of princesses and attention-seeking fairies, hero hunchbacks, and beautiful beasts were everywhere.
Adventures of swashbuckling pirates, wicked witches with poisoned apples, or wonderfully crafted nightmares about Christmas played themselves out in our bedrooms all year long. When Halloween arrived, it was without question that we’d find ourselves dressed as Gaston, Woody, Aladdin, or Goofy.
I specifically remember Mighty Joe Young (1998) had a profound impact on me on an emotional level. Maybe it was the gorgeous musical narrative or an adolescent crush on Charlize Theron. However, something about that movie left a mark on my soul and sent my enjoyment and insatiable appetite for Disney and magic over the top.
Then came my senior year of high school. I had already joined the Army, and as 9/11 had happened the year before, I knew where I was headed once I had finished basic training. So, to give me one tremendous gift, my mother, employed as a janitor at an elementary school, worked her fingers to the bone, scrounged and saved, sending me on my way to Orlando on a senior trip to Walt Disney World, along with several others from my class.
Walt Disney World Becomes a Refuse
Although I was familiar with the parks, this trip was significant in that I was preparing to exit those vast and unforgettable memories of being a stupid kid and preparing to entering into a complex, mean world. In my case, that world was Iraq, and this was my last chance to stop growing up from coming.
One of my greatest fears as I grew older was turning into Mr. Banks. I never wanted to lose sight of the wonder and enjoyment that the world has to offer, and as I knew that a combat tour in Iraq would indeed infiltrate my ability as a young man to look at humankind through a soft and compassionate lens, Walt Disney World was my last real escape to Neverland.
My mother ensured that I had that opportunity, and it was a magical one. For whatever reason, during this particular vacation, I fell deeply in love with Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Unlike any other experience, I shed tears for the first time watching fireworks over Cinderella Castle after the sun had set on Central Florida and Magic Kingdom.
I decided, then and there, that Disney World, whether a healthy coping mechanism or not, would become my safe place. It would be where I would go when I returned home from war to be reminded of the childlike sense of magical adoration that I was indeed leaving behind, and I did just that.
I returned home from my first combat deployment to Iraq in 2005. Although my mother couldn’t be there at the airport with me at Fort Benning, I remember her aging smile when we saw each other for the first time after those long and challenging months. Shortly after, I would marry. I kept my promise to myself and to celebrate our upcoming nuptials, I returned to the most magical place on Earth. An Annual Pass and move to Florida years later, and the rest is history.
Taking My Mom to Disney for the First Time
Growing up in small town, Alabama meant moving to Florida was a big deal. Leaving my mom behind to pursue a career was a difficult decision but necessary for my immediate family. Of course, being close to Walt Disney World was a bonus.
For us Disney adults, there’s something magical about being able to visit the parks at Disney World often. Watching them change and grow in real time is fascinating, and sharing that magic with friends and family when they visit is even better.
In October of 2022, I got that exact chance as my mother came to visit for the first time. Although the trip was to be filled with memorable moments, including her calling Kylo Ren by the wrong name the entire time, little did we know that our lives were about to change forever.
Although it has only been a little over a year since she was able to visit, I still remember her walking onto Main Street, U.S.A., like it was yesterday. Upon entering Magic Kingdom, my oldest son and I insisted that we remain to the left of the entrance so as not to spoil her first look at Cinderella Castle.
As we walked up to the gate-faced entrance of the Emporium near the Fire Station and turned the corner onto Main Street, I heard my mother gasp out loud. She stood there for a moment at the end of the street, centered with the castle in a Minnie Mouse polka dot ball cap and full of tears.
Just momentarily, amidst her tired eyes and white hair, you could see her childhood play out on her face. Although we had visited Hollywood Studios earlier that morning, in that one moment, right there at the end of Main Street, U.S.A., in Magic Kingdom, she was a kid again.
A Beautiful Trip Leads to Terrible News
My mother had recently retired from her career in Alabama, and we were celebrating during our Walt Disney World trip. However, if we’d known why she retired early, we wouldn’t have been as ecstatic.
Although eligible for retirement, Mom loved working at her school. She actually didn’t want to retire yet but was forced to after a series of fainting spells and seizures put the hard day-to-day work out of reach for her. However, despite what was going on with her medically, she walked circles around me during that specific trip to Disney World.
I specifically remember asking to take a break as an old war injury was flaring up, and I needed to sit. Instead of resting with me, she jumped from store to store, buying up Christmas decor and pins. We laughed as she bragged about a set of Christmas washcloths she got on sale at Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe, only to find out they were Hannukah decorations.
She rode everything, from Pirates of the Caribbean to Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, except Space Mountain. You see, at the time, her doctors thought that her fainting spells had something to do with her heart, so she felt that Space Mountain was a little too untamed for her safety. One to ensure she got her money’s worth, Mom spent some time with John and the family at Carousel of Progress while we rode.
Our vacation and precious time together ended with more tears and “Happily Ever After” before heading back to the boats to carry us to the Ticket and Transportation Center.
Mom stayed in Florida with us for a couple more days but had to return to Alabama for more doctor appointments and testing. A few weeks later, we finally received definitive news regarding what was going on with her and how special that Disney World trip would actually become.
Right after Christmas, we received news that Mom, for the second time in her life, had cancer. However, unlike her breast cancer from years before, this time, it was terminal.
A Magical Moment When We Didn’t Even Know It
As I mentioned her white hair earlier, it needs to be said that my mother is a tough lady. Her hair wasn’t white from aging. In fact, up until a couple of years ago, it remained a thick, brown mess upon her head. However, after undergoing weeks of treatment for breast cancer and losing each and every strand, it grew back as white as snow.
She fought off that nasty disease once, but this time, the diagnosis was much worse. Mom had been diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer that had spread to her liver and other organs. Her doctor solemnly apologized and offered up a treatment plan that would require extreme chemotherapy that would only limit cancer growth for a certain amount of time. Simply put, there was no cure, and her time with us was now very limited.
Of course, any day spent at Walt Disney World with loved ones is special. However, we didn’t realize how memorable this specific trip, my mother’s first, would be. As I sit here and recall that vacation, vivid images of her, in full excitement, oblivious to the evil growing inside her body, buying popcorn buckets and taking pictures with Stormtroopers, vividly sing upon my heart. We didn’t know how sick she actually was and how likely it would be that it was the one and only time we’d be able to visit Walt Disney World together. We just didn’t know.
Where’s the Lesson in All of This?
So, what does this all mean? Why are you telling us this? To be honest, to share the memories with you, and maybe as a journaling device. Outside of that one point, I’m not entirely sure, to be honest, except to express the need to slow down and enjoy the opportunities to make memories with your loved ones each and every day. Although my mother made the most of that trip, I still can’t help but have an “I wish I knew then what I know now” attitude and fit in more for her to see and do.
That’s probably selfish of me, as I’m sure she’d say that she’s pleased and satisfied with our Disney World experience and what it meant in the coming months. However, I can’t help but worry as I didn’t take enough pictures or slow down and share unique details and experiences with her because I was too busy booking Lightning Lanes and make dining reservations. Maybe that’s the lesson in all of this: slow down. Don’t stress over all the planning; just enjoy the time at Disney with your loved ones because you truly are unaware of what tomorrow will hold.
Currently, my mother is undergoing her twelfth month of chemotherapy. Although there has been some positive progress with her cancer, we all are aware of her fragile state of health. According to her doctors, we are buying time, and as her body breaks down, thoughts of revisiting and capturing those missed moments have all but gone away. Although all of those years of hard work have prepped her body and made her strong enough to fight this disease, a disease which carries a very high mortality rate, successfully for this long, we know that one day she won’t be with us. Although there is little I could have done to improve her Disney vacation, I wish I’d have slowed down and spent more of it admiring her enthusiasm and happiness. Sadly, I can’t get that time back now.