My son, Eddie, started day camp last week, and the first thing he said the morning of his first day was, “I don’t want to go. I don’t like it.”
“You haven’t even gone yet. How do you know?” I asked.
“I don’t like it,” he said.
“You’re going to love it,” I said. “Camp is great.”
I was lying. I hated camp. I was so filled with self-loathing at that age, I was socially awkward and self-conscious. It didn’t help that I was not very athletic. I remember one particular game of newcomb, a variation of volleyball but instead of hitting the ball back to the other team, you simply caught it. I was standing in the middle of the court, filled with dread that the ball would come near me, when the ball flew over the net and hovered in the air above my head. I made a half-hearted attempt to catch it, but I missed and the ball fell to the ground right in front of me with a thud. “Frosted fleas!” cried one of the more athletic girls on the team, referring to my t-shirt, which had a picture of a box of Frosted Flakes cereal but instead of flakes, the box contained fleas. It was part of the Wacky Packages line of trading cards and t-shirts popular in the 1970s that parodied everyday consumer products. But having just missed the ball so blatantly, I felt like it was I who was covered with fleas. Every day that summer, I prayed for rain so we could do arts and crafts instead of sports.
As we neared my son’s camp, I told him he didn’t have to do anything he didn’t want to, and he didn’t have to talk to anyone if he didn’t want to. It was the same deal we had with intramural soccer, where he was afraid to go out on the field. I saw no reason to force him. The world is a hard place for people who are socially awkward and bad at sports. I figure he’s allowed a few pressure-free years before being subjected to the cruelties of school and gym.
When we arrived at the camp, I got out of car and opened his door. He climbed out and latched on to my leg like a clamp. I couldn’t move. A counselor and one of the owners of the camp had to peel him off. I wanted to cuddle him but knew that once he was pried off, if I reached out for him, he’d latch on again. As the camp owner carried him off, I could see the corner of his face, and it was red, and I knew he was crying. I shouldn’t have looked. Like Sodom and Gomorrah, you leave and don’t look back. Children need to grow, to leave the womb, to separate. It’s painful but necessary, like ripping off a Band-Aid.
I walked back to my car, and a counselor handed me a sign with our last name on it, to display in my windshield when I picked my son up. When I looked up at her, I started to cry.
“You okay?” she asked.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said, knowing I was making it clear from whom my son inherited the character trait, ‘weakness.’
To make matters worse, I realized I forgot to bring his camp bag, which had his towel, sun block, swimming goggles. I had to drive all the way home to get it. I also forgot to put his name on everything. I had tried to do it with masking tape and a sharpie marker, but the masking tape was so old, it no longer stuck. I tried writing my son’s name directly on the tags on his clothes and towel, but the marker bled, and instead of saying, “Holmes,” all the labels said, “Hams.”
When I arrived back at the camp, the owner greeted me at the gate and took the bag from me so that I wouldn’t get out of the car.
“I don’t want him to see you,” he said and walked off.
Interestingly, there’s another child from my son’s pre-school attending the camp. When I got home, I saw the girl’s mother had posted a photo of her on Facebook. In it, she looks like a cadet: hair quaffed, a magenta backpack that matched her magenta sandals, and she’s carrying what looks like a new plastic lunchbox. The caption said that her daughter had woken up at 4:20 a.m. and said, “I’m ready for camp.” At our house, my son woke up at 6:55 a.m., climbed into bed with me and my husband and announced that he did not want to go to camp. I said, “Oh, please, let me sleep five more minutes,” I said and handed him my phone to occupy him. He pressed each button so loudly and deliberately, I rolled over and gave him my back, resenting the three minutes of sleep he had stolen from me. As for his outfit, I was afraid to comb his hair because he’d fallen this past weekend and had a scab on his head. His sneakers fit so poorly, I have to tell him, “Push your foot toward the front,” every time we put his shoes on. And his lunch bag is oversized and a bit tattered because it was the one my late father used to fill with snacks to take to his chemotherapy appointments, and I refuse to throw it out.
When I picked up my son, I asked him how it went. “Good,” he said, halfheartedly. What did he like best? Swimming. And the Popsicle.
“They had strawberry or blueberry,” he said.
“And you picked strawberry?” I asked.
“No, they said ‘You get what you get, and don’t get upset,’” he said.
Later, he talked about a hockey game similar to the tabletop soccer game we have at home, but the one at camp was medical, he said.
“Metal?” I asked.
“No,” he said adamantly. “Medical.”
He may not know a lot yet, but it doesn’t stop him from having conviction.
When I dropped him off the next morning, he latched on to me again but not as hard. By the end of the week, we had a system. I’d pull in and remain in the car while a counselor took him out of his car seat and carried him through the gate, saying, “Your counselor, Mr. Dane, has been asking about you.”
We’re on week two now, and yesterday, when the counselor came to take my son out of car, he launched into his customary whimpering, saying, “I want Mama,” but then the counselor said, “Eddie, do you know what they found yesterday?”
My son’s eyes widened. “What?”
“A baby turtle,” she said. “You wanna see it?”
“Yeah,” my son said, excitedly, and the two of them walked off.
As I pulled out of the parking lot, I could see my son’s car seat in my rear view mirror. Usually, when I angle the mirror toward the back seat, it’s so that I can see him when I’m talking to him. Now, I saw only his seat, and it looked so empty.