Archive for July, 2015

July 11, 2015 Camp

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.

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Life is like a minefield, where we are forced to make decisions again and again with every step we take. Do I go left at this junction or right? Do I use my coveted free time away from my son to go food shopping, or do I wait until he gets home from camp and suffer the consequences of shopping with a tired, petulant four-year-old who wants something in every aisle and doesn’t mind having a tantrum in order to get it? And if I take him shopping, will he like his father better than me because with daddy, he plays basketball and goes rollerblading while with mommy, all he ever does is run errands and go food shopping? Which is how we ended up in the bird store in the first place. I thought if my son is going to accompany me food shopping, I should give him something in return.birds in cages

When we walked in, there were bird cages everywhere. There were big bright red and blue parrots, parakeets, and finches, blue jays and canaries, big birds with big beaks and little birds that moved so fast, you couldn’t even see their beaks. Some birds were in cages while others were in one of the rows and rows of plastic compartments that lined the store like condominium complexes.

I was struck by all the signs listing what you could not do in the shop. Do not feed the birds from crumbs on the floor. Do not touch the big parrots. Do not take photos or use camcorders. There was so much negativity, I was surprised to see a gumball machine filled with bird food that one could buy for a quarter, like you might see at a petting zoo.

I bought my son a fistful and turned to the man behind the counter.

“So what do we do? Put some food into our hands, and the birds will just eat out of them?”

“Put a piece between your fingers and put it toward his beak. He’ll take it from you.”

I naturally assumed that if the storeowner allowed people to do this, the birds were friendly. I imagined the bird would gently remove the piece of food from between your fingers without even touching you, like someone playing the board game “Operation” might pluck out a bone or a heart with a pair of tweezers.

Which is why I put a piece of food in between my four-year old son’s small fingers and pushed him toward one of the bird condominiums and said, “Go on. Put it toward his beak. He’ll take it out of your hand.”

The bird leaned out toward my son’s hand and grabbed on to his finger with his beak and bit. My son howled and dropped the food, and tears started streaming down his face.

“He bit me!” my son wailed.birds in cages bib beak

I began rubbing his finger and feeling like a heel. Why did I not try it first, before thrusting my son in front of a cage with a wild animal.

“Oh, buddy. I’m so sorry,” I said.

The storeowner didn’t even look up from his book, as my son wept in front of the counter.

“Does this happen a lot?” I asked.

“You’re not supposed to put your finger too close to his beak,” the man said, matter-of-factly.

You’re supposed to put your hand close enough for the bird to pluck the food out, and yet you’re not supposed to put your hand that close? It would take a protractor and a fancy algorithm to figure out precisely how far one’s hand needed to be to avoid being bitten.

My son was still crying when a woman emerged from the back of the store and attended to some business behind the counter up front. She looked up but didn’t say anything. They must be used to this, I thought. I also thought if my son had a choice between rollerblading with his dad and getting his finger bit with me, he’d most assuredly choose the former.

I still had a fistful of food in my hand. I was beginning to understand why there was food on the floor of the store. People probably drop it after they’ve been bitten. Perhaps it was penance or an attempt to teach my son to get back on the horse from which he’s fallen, but after having thrust his small hand into a vulture’s cage, I felt obliged to feed one of the birds myself. I put a small piece of food in my hand and looked for a bird with a smaller beak than the one that had just bitten my son. I held my fingers out, close enough for the bird to reach me but not too close. As the bird approached, I let go of the food, and it dropped to the floor. I tried again with a longer piece, and as the bird came toward me, my heart started pounding. The bird grabbed the food out of my hand, barely touching my fingers. Salvation accomplished. I threw the rest of the food on the floor and took my son’s hand.

As we walked out of the store, I looked at the sign that said, “No photos,” and I was about to pull my camera out of my bag out of spite, but I remembered I’d left it in the car. So I did the next best thing: I left the store without saying goodbye. That’ll teach him, I thought.

When we got back to the car, I inquired about my son’s finger.

“It’s fine, mommy,” he said and then went on to talk about the birds. “I liked the red one by the door, and the one that bit me.”

“You like the one that bit you? Why?” I asked.

“Because he was so cute,” my son said. “I can’t believe it.”

“You’re not mad at him for biting you?”

“He’s just sort of like a silly guy. He’s a silly guy. Sometimes, if you put your arm out like this, they fly onto your arm, and when you’re really, really loud, they fly off your arm,” he said. “I think he’s a baby one. So maybe he doesn’t know any better.”

At that pivotal point in the minefield, my son had to choose between love and hate, and he chose love.

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