by DORIT SASSON
My tears started just as the bus driver turned on the engine. Was I just sad or about to bawl? Would I be able to hold it together? I took the advice from the camp director. Put on your sunglasses if you’re gonna cry. The tears started and up went the sunglasses on my salty, sweaty nose. I didn’t want to be the parent who couldn’t keep it together. If anything, I wanted to be the cheerleader for my 9-year-old son who was going to a six day sleep away camp for the first time.
“Ivry!” I hollered. I pulled out my camera from over the head of my soon to be 1-year-old. She had already fallen asleep in the carrier. I fumbled with the on-off button. Just a few minutes more and Ivry would be on his way to making long awaited camp memories. By the end, he’d be joining the tribe of new friends who had already completed their first week of camp. He will have canoed, hiked and zip-lined.
One of my son’s friends came to the bus window. “Can you get Ivry for me?” I shouted. “I need to tell him something. Please!”
My redheaded son finally appeared. “Picture. Picture. I need a picture. Open the window … please?” I felt like a whiney child. I snapped whatever I could.
My son was leaving for six whole days. Six whole days until Saturday. How on earth would I manage?
Hours later, I sat in the corner of the library pushing the stroller with my sleeping daughter. I tried to figure out this letting go part. My son and I did everything together. He even helped me take care of his little sister. His jokes and high-spirited nature were a blessing. In the later afternoon, I wrote yet another three pages of Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages” (an exercise where each day you write three pages of whatever comes to your mind):
“It was so hard to let Ivry go on that bus to sleep away camp. In retrospect, it wasn’t so much he was going, but that I was giving up my control—that I knew what was best for him.”
So that’s what was really going on. As much as I would miss the little guy, my grief was really about letting him go and hoping he’d be okay without mama bear.
He was now in a different emotional territory where he’d have to cope, no matter what. He has a tendency to get scared at night and he always falls asleep with me. He needs cuddles—lots of them. He needs me to listen to his worries and concerns. Immediately I thought back to the online article, “7 Reasons Why I Love Sending my Son to Sleepaway Camp” a parent had shared on her Facebook wall. “Reason #1 – It Builds Resilience.” Whose resilience was going to be built: mine or his?
I was struggling to accept the fact I wouldn’t be there to help him through his darkest moments. Would the counselors know what to do or say when they’d see those first tears emerging? At night, if he’d cry or whimper silently to himself, who would rub his back and squeeze his shoulders when he felt homesick or sad? He’d hold his feelings in until his stomach hurt.
The night before he left, he mentioned he was starting to feel homesick and immediately my worry feelers shot up.
“Don’t worry Ma, I’ll be okay,” he added.
He’ll be all right. He’s resilient. He’s always been. The question was … would I be?
Surprisingly, the “nothing-will-happen-to-him-and-he’ll-be-okay” feeling carried me until Friday, right before lighting the Sabbath candles. The house was empty of his high-spirited presence all week long. Suddenly the phone rang. I grabbed it. It was the camp’s health and wellness director. My son had been at the infirmary a few times for an upset stomach. She added, “He’s also been homesick. During the day he’s having a blast. When there’s downtime, he gets teary. We’ve been helping him through it. This is perfectly normal. Many kids go through this. But he’s having a great time.”
I was struggling to accept the fact I wouldn’t be there to help him through his darkest moments.
The mama bear in me growled. How long had he been “suffering” like this? Immediately I wanted to jump into the car, drive 100 miles and comfort him.
“Every time he gets teary, I ask if he’s going to be all right and he says, ‘yes.’ He’s determined to go through it,” the camp director added. “Other kids would have struggled. You should be proud.”
“That’s my resilient boy,” I heard myself say.
The night before he left, he said, “Mommy, I know you’re gonna miss me, so here’s my advice: Have fun and do things that make you laugh. Get distracted by doing things you enjoy.”
How did my son suddenly become so wise, funny and smart? There’s nothing like getting good advice from your son who unintentionally, has just given you the secret to a happier life. Listen to this kid. He’s YOUR kid and he’s gonna be allright. Why are you still so nervous?
“Emma Kaufmann Camp please watch over my boy,” I had posted on my Facebook wall earlier that day. Under the caption was a group of happy pre-campers caught up in their own special moment of adventure.
The camp was fine. It was me. I was getting in my way. Big time.
That first night without my son, I waited for the first batch of pictures to be posted online. When I first saw him on the computer screen, I wanted to reach out and hug him. There he was sailing on a boat on Cheat Lake in West Virginia next to his buddy, a peaceful expression on his face. Another picture showed him running across the field during a soccer game.
“Your son’s having the time of his life. You wouldn’t have known this was his first time at sleep away camp,” the director said emphatically on the phone. One counselor described my son as “a great dribbler” and “a wonderful hockey player” in an email that would end with the catch phrase, “We are family.” During those first few days, the word “family” was just what I needed to hear. Family. They’re looking over my son like he’s family.
Another counselor said he was the coolest kid in the cabin.
The coolest kid. My kid.
By Friday, two letters arrived. I pulled them wildly from the mailbox. He had asked for a fan. He said the lunches were “yum” and the bunks were “awesome.” He wished his little sister who was turning one year old the next day, a happy birthday. And he signed the first letter with “love.” I could sense tiredness in those letters and that there was a force larger than life hovering over him, but he could handle it.
I kept hugging the letters as if I was already hugging my son. “Mommy, you can stop squeezing me,” I imagined him saying.
Finally it was Sunday. He got off the bus anxiously looking for me in a sea of faces. I waved wildly just like my late mother once did for me many years ago when I came back from sleep away camp for the first time.
“I’m here!” I screamed.
Immediately my son’s face relaxed.
“Mommy, how’s the house? Is everything okay? Did you cope alright with Voovy?” (His nickname for his little sister.)
“I’m fine. The house is fine. Your sister is fine.”
He smiled widely.
I would soon learn my son loved camp food and didn’t worry about getting to swimming on time and whether he’d be cold if he didn’t take his sweatshirt. These were never actual worries. If anything, I learned resilience is learning to go with the flow and trusting all will be well even during our darkest hours. Even when my son’s counselors and camp director reassured me, I still needed to continue to let go and trust. The good news is that each time, it gets a little bit easier.
DORIT SASSON is a freelance writer from Pennsylvania. She and her husband have two children.