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Laura's French fry odyssey

  • 15 March 2011

Two days after the redeye from the West Coast, we'd settled into Vacation Standard Time: beach, pool, TV, sleep, repeat. But my younger daughter's sleep patterns were atomised, destroyed.

We were in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to spend a couple of weeks with my wife's family: her mum, her sisters and their families, and her brother.

Laura loved the commotion, fearless in the waves, bobbing happily in the pool with her styrofoam-filled swimsuit, putting away far more than a two-year-old's share at the deeply unhealthy Southern buffets. But sleep, on our schedule at least, was not in her plans.

She inhabited the time zones of several continents, none of them ours. She napped from five in the afternoon until seven in the evening, stayed up till one, fell asleep, woke up in the middle of the night for an hour, went back to sleep, slept in till 11.

I should mention, I suppose, that Laura has Down syndrome.

How much this mattered was hard to know. Between the genetic factors (like an extra chromosome, or a tendency to insomnia, inherited from me) and the environmental factors (the redeye, the shift in routine), we had an abundance of explanations, none of them particularly helpful.

But the practical result was obvious: Laura wanted Mum.

Theresa works, and I'm the one at home, so Mum-in-the-daytime was a comfort and novelty. Laura mainlined Mum for hours on end: Mum all day, nothing but Mum, Mum in the morning, Mum at night, Mum to herself while I surf-fished and her older sister Ellie screamed in the waves with her cousins.

One night, at 11, when Laura was clearly just getting revved up for another two and a half hours of play, I said, here, I'll take her.

We drove to the Wal-Mart Supercenter. The parking lot was disorientingly huge. Football fields. Proving grounds. I drove the rented Suzuki across the lane lines, parked near the entrance. Inside, I let Laura rifle through sweatpants and T-shirts on their hangers, fingering the colors, inspecting the sleeve of a blouse. We played peekaboo. I picked out a shirt for three dollars, another for four.

This way, Laura, I said, this way, the distance like elastic between us. I backed away, beckoning, keeping her in sight. I could see her deciding whether to follow, then smiling, rushing towards me, hands already up.

We could have been 5000 feet underground, after the end of