S has an adventurous soul. She craves excitement, noise, and activity. She is social, confident and intrepid. As her personality has developed over the last few years, we’ve always known that sleep-away camp was the place for her. We just didn’t know it would be so soon. However, after a lifetime of hearing her cousins describe the amazing adventures they were having at camp, S knew she wanted to be there the moment they would let her in the front gate. And so, it was never a question in her mind that she would be going to sleep-away camp at age eight.
As Drop-off Day approached, the frequency of camp-related conversation increased. Questions about the daily schedule (what time do you think we’ll wake up?) and practicalities of camp life (what do I do with my dirty clothes?) popped up with more and more regularity. However, the dominant mood was excitement. I did my best to keep my nerves to myself. My mood was equal parts anxiety and happy anticipation.
Driving into camp on Drop-off Day was like an adventurous, social kid’s dream come true. We were greeted at the gate by the camp director and assistant director. They gave us a map of camp, and instructions to get to S’s bunk. All along the driveway, counselors smiled and waved. I felt a little like a celebrity ☺ We kept the windows rolled down, and the sound of Israeli music came pulsing into our car, making even the air feel alive and vibrant.
Arriving at S’s bunk exceeded my expectations once again. Three lively counselors welcomed S into the bunk, showed her where she would be sleeping, and where she could unpack. Within fifteen minutes, she was unpacked and ready to go. We joined the growing group of campers and staff at the Opening Day Carnival. We enjoyed a BBQ lunch and a number of activities.
Then came the hard part.
Me: Hey, S, I think it’s getting to be time to say good-bye. What do you think? Are you ready?
S: Well, I think I’m almost ready. Maybe we could walk back to my bunk and say good-bye there?
And so, we walked back to the cabin. But when we arrived, S thought that maybe just one more walk to the lake would be good. And then back to the carnival. The more we walked, the more I thought about how hard it is to say good-bye– for both her and us. The decision to go to camp was a good one. The desire for fun, and adventure, and independence all came from her. Even amidst the last-minute second thoughts, I wanted her to remember that. As we rounded the last bend in our approach to her cabin, and second attempt at saying good-bye, I stopped her.
Me: S, you have an important job to do right now.
S: I do?
Me: You do. The camp fun can’t start until all the campers send their parents home. It’s your job, as a fun-loving, wacky-headed kid to get rid of us. You don’t want to hold up the fun, do you?
Me: You are a fun-loving, wacky-headed kid, right?
Me: Okay, so you have to do it. In the name of everything that is silly and goofy… you need to send us home.
And with that, S made the “I’m watching you” sign by pointing to her eyes with both fingers, then pointing to my eyes with both fingers. She repeated the sign with her dad. Then, she stood up tall, and pointed toward the parking lot. We did one last giggly group hug, then we were off.
DROP-OFF DAY: PART TWO
We are in the car, on the highway headed home. Just me, David and G. My thoughts race forward to the quiet house that awaits us at the end of this journey. Then, surprisingly, my thoughts travel backwards to another car ride, so many years ago.
There were only three of us in the car on that day as well. But on that day, three people felt like A LOT. It was me, David, and tiny, baby S who had just been born several days earlier. The three of us were in the car together for the first time, and I was terrified. I was responsible for this tiny human being. I was responsible for feeding her, and clothing her and keeping her safe. These tasks seemed so daunting and monumental, they literally made my heart-rate speed up and my hands shake. While I was in the hospital, I had felt supported and nurtured by the kind doctors and nurses who had popped in at all hours to check on us and to give us instructions and advice. We left those gentle strangers behind, when we pulled away from the hospital. I suppose David and I became parents the moment S was born. But to me, I began to feel like a parent on that long ride home from the hospital. Me, David and S… on this journey together. When we reached our house, and crossed the threshold as a family for the first time, I felt the anxiety begin to ease. Knowing that my life was inextricably bound to these two people felt a little bit scary… but it also felt as if it was meant to be. David and I looked at each other in that moment, and we knew we would spend the coming days, months and years figuring out what it meant to be a family, and infusing meaning into that journey.
Eight and a half years later, we are still figuring it out, bit by bit. Eight and a half years ago, S’s presence in our car transformed us from a married couple into a family of three. Today, S’s absence turns us back into a family of three. Her absence is palpable. David, G and I will have to figure out how to be around each other without her energy, her giggles, and her effusive outbursts.
This separation, this letting go, is a small one. She’ll only be gone for two weeks (actually, only 12 days– but who’s counting?). But somehow, it feels symbolic of all the separations, leave-takings, and letting go’s that are in store for us on this journey. It feels like only moments ago that she was a tiny baby, coming home with us from the hospital. Only moments ago that she transformed us into parents. And now, she’s out in the world. Being independent. Choosing to be in a place where she can learn, discover and grow on her own.
Staying close is important. Expressions of love, caring and support are what every child needs to thrive, become confident and take risks. Being able to let go and give them room to spread their wings is part of the process. Giving S permission to separate and kick us out of camp felt important. But it was hard.
I look over to David, my fellow traveler on this ever-changing journey. The tears in his eyes match my own. We’ll miss our S. But we’re proud of her. And we’re proud of us, too.