The day we dared to go to sea with Poppy
Having a daughter with cerebral palsy made cartoonist Bob Moran wary about risking a family holiday. Then he hit upon the idea of taking a cruise around the Med – and never looked back
Ever since our daughter, Poppy, was born three and a half years ago with brain damage, my wife and I have tried to avoid the kind of scenarios that could potentially end in disaster. Poppy is happy, she’s cheeky, she’s determined.
She also has cerebral palsy and epilepsy.
When your child is diagnosed with a disability, the world suddenly seems like a scarier place, full of alarming hazards and impossible challenges. But we have tried as much as possible to give her a normal life.
Dillon, her brother, was born 20 months later – thankfully, without complications.
Since then, the four of us had settled for the security of not venturing too far from home, except to attend Poppy’s frequent hospital appointments. My wife Sal and I like to think that we cope with most of the challenges life has thrown at us, but we would be lying if we said what we have been through hasn’t changed us. Where once we loved to travel, since having our children, we had convinced ourselves that we would not be able to cope with anything more ambitious than a quick trip down the motorway to stay with the grandparents.
That changed last year, when a colleague suggested that a cruise – where the hotel moves with you – might be particularly well-suited to a child with special needs. Poppy loves to swim because being in the water relaxes her over-tensed muscles. Larger ships come with several pools. At three, she could walk independently, but falls over frequently and can’t always see steps or holes because of her poor eyesight. There would be lifts (26, in fact) between decks, I reminded myself, and long, flat stretches of deck space. And, of course, plenty of crew around to lend a hand.
Still, Poppy has epilepsy and her fits can be severe. What if she had one on the ship? She can’t walk for long periods. With Dillon still so little, we go everywhere with our double buggy. It’s enormous. We were both plagued by – admittedly ridiculous – visions of Poppy falling overboard.
But our greatest fear was: “What if we spend the rest of our lives as parents never venturing away from our safe little Hampshire terrace?”
We decided to give it a try and booked a week-long cruise around the Med. On the morning of the trip I woke in a state of panic, convinced that we would forget some crucial item of luggage.
As we made our way through the busy airport for our flight to Genoa, I started to wonder if we were making a huge mistake. We had done some research and plumped for MSC Cruises, whose ships and facilities promised a relaxed and fun experience for families without compromising on the more luxurious elements of a grown-up cruise. The route we chose began and ended in Genoa in northwest Italy and included stops at Sicily, Spain, Malta and France.
It’s hard not to be awestruck when confronted for the first time, by 139,000 tonnes of cruise ship. When we travelled, our ship, Preziosa, was the newest vessel in the fleet. Costing $550 million (£431 million) it is 1,092 foot long and 17 decks high. Plenty of room, then, for us and the ridiculous amount of luggage we had brought.
While the magnitude of the ship was overwhelming, the size of our cabin was disappointingly small (on reflection we should have booked one of the 45 designed for those with accessibility issues) – which was an added challenge for Poppy, who finds it difficult to move around without a lot of space. She wasn’t the only one who struggled with the crampeded conditions – changing a nappy y in a confined cabin will likely end in disaster. Sal and I began to feel l a bit trapped by life at sea. Dillon was too young for the e kids’ club and Poppy’s complex needs,eds, limited mobility and lack of Italian language skills s (many MSC passengers are Italian) made ade it impossible for r us to leave her on the he ship alone. I hoped that things would improve mprove on the excursionsns ashore. In Malta, we booked a trip to the beach. Poppy and I went swimming in the sea while Sal relaxed in the sun and Dillon stood, transfixed, staring up at the lifeguard in his tower for 20 minutes. Then everybody buried me in the sand. It was bliss. But the rest of the excursions involved two hours on a coach for a one-hour visit; it just wasn’t practical with small children and all of their clobber.
The ship’s Continental approach to mealtimes and bedtimes was difficult to accommodate. Sal and I began to wonder what we had done.
Then, one morning, everything started to change.
An exercise class on the main deck caught Poppy’s attention. Before I knew it, she disappeared into a crowd of passengers. I panicked. A moment later, she appeared on the stage next to the instructor. Borrowing the headset, Poppy introduced herself to the crowd of elderly Italian ladies and proceeded to perform some courses to get through, Poppy and Dillon revelled in the late dinner time. Poppy sat up beautifully and blushed when the waiter ceremoniously placed a cloth napkin on her lap. Dillon smashed only one tumbler. While us grown-ups were busy moaning about the unfamiliar, Poppy and Dillon were embracing all of the new experiences: the different food, foreign cultures and the bizarre floating all-singing, all-dancing European carnival at sea that was our cruise ship. One afternoon, Poppy and I plonked ourselves at the front row of a children’s theatre show. I was unsure how much she would be able to see with her impaired vision. I settled in somewhat reluctantly for a kitsch medley of Disney songs performed by the ship’s actors in full costume. Our total commitment to CBeebies’ Mr Tumble meant that the kids had had limited exposure to Disney films. But Poppy, who sat staring with an open mouth, was captivated. Then she started grabbing my arm and pointing out things on stage. She giggled as the lights caught the tips of her shoes and observed that the Beast, who was pining after Beauty, looked a lot like her uncle Patrick. At the end, she got out of her seat and applauded so enthusiastically that her glasses fell off.