Thursday, July 11, 2019

Camp, Not War

This week we dropped our kids off at sleep-away camp for the first time. My 11 year old daughter had been asking to go for a couple of years and so we decided to give her the opportunity. If we were giving it to her, why not send her twin brother, too. It could be good for him, we thought. On a perfect summer Tuesday we arrived in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania to start their adventure. After an extensive, mandatory head lice check, we separated ourselves. I brought my daughter to her cabin and my son went with his other mother to his cabin. 

My daughter's cabin was one of the typical ones we saw on the tour back on that cold, rainy day in the spring. It held about 10 beds. The other girls were also arriving for their first day and were trickling in, unpacking, and quietly saying hello. It was what I expected. My daughter and I waited for less than 10 minutes for her large body-sized duffle bag to be dropped off by one of the staff. The driver of the golf cart bag service turned out to be the owner and director of the camp who impressed me by not being above it all to hand deliver kids’ bags to their cabins. I took this level of engagement as a good sign. Once the monstrous bag was on the bed, or rather, on the 5” plastic layer of foam, I put my hand on it at which point, my daughter met my eyes with a not-messing-around look and said sternly, “I've got it mom.” To this I said, “ooookay…I think I’ll go see how your brother is doing.”

I headed the across the lawn to the boys section. B9 was his cabin. I walked in to a large space housing about 18 cots. Boys were already unpacked and settled in. They laid and sat on their beds and stared at my son and my co-parent who were just about done unpacking. It was quiet, except for their stares which were loudly intimidating. How could a room full of middle-school-aged boys feel so awful. It did. My son with his baseball hat on, kept his head down and kept to the task of unpacking diligently, as if he were on assignment, as if he were in the military. When I got home and relayed the story to my husband, he reminded me that we sent him to camp, not to Iraq to fight. I wasn’t sure in that moment, standing in the cabin, awkward and not knowing what to do. Clearly, these boys were not new here and had already been staying at camp. For how long, I did not know. One of them blurted out the “rules.” “We just like to keep to ourselves and not bother each other,” he said. He was looking at me. Really? “Are you looking at me, kid?”…I thought of saying later. One boy, on a top bunk, offered my son a starburst, which he quickly accepted as if it were a lifeline. I felt so desperately grateful for that tiny gesture of welcoming. 

He was all unpacked. There was nothing for me to do, except that I saw he had left the bathmat in his bag. The bathmat was suggested as a nice thing to send along to put next to their cots. I did a quick glance around and didn’t see any next to the other cots, but in that deeply uncomfortable moment, and out of the intense need to make my son feel comfortable, (I know he likes soft things), I quietly asked if he wanted to put it down.  He didn’t think too much about the question, but shrugged quickly and, as fast as he could, put it down. Did I inadvertently put a big “L” on his forehead. It was too late. It was done. Ugh. And yet, I was still glad he had something soft to land on. 

I knew they wanted us to leave quickly and to not prolong the goodbyes. I suggested we step outside so we could get some space from the stares of the boys. We walked onto the porch of the cabin and I could tell he didn’t want to make much eye contact. I knew he would lose it. I was holding myself together, not wanting to leave him there. This felt ALL wrong. We hugged and walked away. We spoke with a lead counselor and asked her to check in on him. I couldn’t help but tell her it was the wrong cabin for him, being so large and with no new kids. She promised there were a couple of new campers still to arrive in that cabin and that she would check in now. It didn’t make me feel any better. I got to the car and cried. 

I’ve been replaying how I would have liked to handle the whole thing. I wish, when I walked in that boys’ cabin, I could have stepped up. I could have asked them what their favorite activity was there so far. I could have asked where they were all from. I could have connected in some way, opening the door for my son to enter or at least have a laugh. I also wished I brought Mike to walk in there with his formidable appearance and let him set the tone. But, I didn’t do either of those things and instead have been left to deal with how gut wrenching it is to see and feel vulnerability. How painful it was to watch my son hold himself together and put on his armor. It is not his nature. All I wanted to do was to protect him. My daughter was born with armor already on. I am not worried about her in the same way (that’s another blog post). “Jean, he’s not going to war.” I hear Mike saying it, again. “Right. It’s camp,” I say to myself. My son has to hold himself together and I hate that he does. But, we all have to learn it...how to stand up, guard ourselves, and take the next step. And yet, I love his openness, his innocence. He was one of two kids who cried in Social Studies this year when they learned about more about the Holocaust. He feels things deeply; he has a compassionate, big heart. Thank goodness. May that never change. It is not their being away that is hard for me. Divorced parents get used to having to let their kids go each week. It is this “toughening up” that I struggle with witnessing. I don’t want him to “toughen up.” And so, it has become clearer to me this week that it is my job to keep teaching him that though he will need to protect himself and hold it together at times and be uncomfortable, he can also stay vulnerable, kind, and open and be brave in that. I am proud of my son because he stayed and had the courage to do so. I do hope he has a great time, but even if he doesn’t, we will all have learned from the experience. 


On the drive home along a country road, we had to stop while a wild turkey family crossed the road. One after another about 12 fluffy chicks walked and fluttered across in a line with the occasional adult in between. Just when you thought they were all across a couple more came out of the grasses trying to keep up. It is an amazing thing we are put up to here on earth. To survive and make the most of this short time we have is worth all our effort and diligence to do well. If we are so lucky, we are led when we are young and then we become the leaders. My sweet boy will be a leader someday and this experience, no matter how it turns out, will help him do his job well. In that, I trust, and it brings me some comfort as I anxiously wait for his return. 

6 comments:

  1. This is a beautiful piece, Jean. When we observe our kids in a vulnerable state it feels like the deepest pain. You expressed this “rite of passage” with great sensitivity. I’ve been in your shoes at the camp drop-off. There was one very teary goodbye, strangely enough, my daughter’s 4th year of camp after years of no sadness at drop-off. She was 13 and not a little kid anymore and somehow the rustic life for weeks seemed daunting. Turns out she had the best of her summers after that teary drop-off, but I worried so much until I received her first letter. Now she’s off in England and we’ll be dropping my son of at survival camp on Sunday. He seems excited and has been to various sleep away camps for years but he’s now almost 13... Thanks for so eloquently expressing your feelings and capturing what so many of us feel!

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  2. It is surely a gift to your son that he has a mother like you, who will tell him with words and show by example that being vulnerable is OK. To me, that is everything. The "toughening up" part is an inevitable part of life, we all learn it. But knowing that you have a parent who is there for you with an open heart and really witnessing you throughout your life, makes the "toughening up" times just a part of our experience, rather than shaping who be become as adults. Thank you for sharing this and may you trust that all is well, though that may not feel easy in this moment.

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    1. Slight edit: "Who we become as adults...."

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