That’s the typical criticism for an only child.
When my Dad was alive, no doubt that was me.
The biggest way he spoiled me came with summer basketball camps. I have rich memories of going to camp after camp during the summer growing up, stirring up happiness and fueling my self-esteem. Back then, I didn’t know exactly what “camp” was giving me. I thought it was just basketball skills. In retrospect, it was so much more.
Last week, I returned to camp as a counselor. This wasn’t a camp designed specifically for basketball players like the ones I went to growing up or the ones I worked for in college. This camp, Seany Foundation’s Reach For the Sky, was for kids who have/had siblings suffering from or affected by cancer. Many of the kids at the camp were attention-starved, neglected and alone. In other words, they were the opposite of spoiled.
Camp was these kids’ safe haven, their place to be themselves and come out of their shell, their place to let loose and have fun, their place for peace, to feel important.
Going into the week, I didn’t know what to expect. I had plenty of experience working camps and working with kids. This was way different.
Serving as a counselor for teens, going by the camp name “Pippen,” I had easily the best week of my life. The guys in my cabin were all going through normal teenager stuff—anxiety of talking to girls, negative peer pressure, uncertainty with their futures. Being able to help them and provide guidance, in any way, was incredibly gratifying. During the week at the beautiful Cedar Glen campus in Julian, the camp was set up for constant fun whether it be swimming, hiking, rock climbing, a ropes course, basketball, paintball, arts and crafts, or team building exercises. It was also set up for constant bonding between the campers. There was a continuity I noticed that carried over from previous summers as my kids all felt comfortable around themselves. Most of them had grown up together. There was no name-calling (unless it was joking), no bullying, no altercations. They weren’t just friends, they were family. Just being a part of that camaraderie, as a counselor, was so graceful.
There were plenty of highlights. From an ego-driven camper attempting to eat a whole apple pie in four minutes (and barely failing)… to a “Food Wheel” Fear Factor-esque eating competition that rivaled the atmosphere of sporting events I cover and saw a tiny girl take down two juggernauts…to an all-camp dance that trumped any junior high soc hop or high school prom I ever went to.
By the end of the week, I didn’t want to leave. I too had found a second family with campers and fellow counselors. One of the counselors, when speaking to the kids who were graduating, shared some words that truly struck me. He said that every person we meet and every person we touch in this life has a profound impact on our lives and a little bit of them gets carried on through us. And with that, the thought of not meeting or being touched by all of these kids and staffers is hard to contemplate.
At the end of the camp, after we watched the campers go away on the buses, we de-briefed in the most emotional way possible. All the campers had written small notes about how cancer affected their family and what camp meant to them. With 50 or so staff members, we went around the room reading them one by one. Some said they wished they had cancer instead of their brother or sister so they could protect them. Some said they felt invisible because there was always a spotlight for the cancer victim with them lost in darkness. Some said that they were struggling with their desire to live but they relied on camp to lift them up. Some said camp was their favorite week of the year because it was the only time they could be themselves and not get bullied. Some said that they were confused about their identity and pretty much everything…but camp gave them temporary peace.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. You spend a whole week working a camp and somehow forget the underlying theme. These kids are struggling beneath the surface. These kids are sad. These kids are alone. This camp, this week was their sanctuary and it recharged their batteries to go back to the real world where they don’t get attention or they’re picked on at school. It’s staggering to think how one week impacted their lives on such a deep level and unbearable to ponder what their lives would be without camp. Unsurprisingly, I found myself relating to these kids in such a resounding way. But why? I had a strikingly different childhood, one dazzled with attention. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. When you lose a parent, especially one where you’re the apple of his eye, it’s impossible not to feel alone. It’s impossible not to crave attention or cling to others for stabilization. That’s been my life for three-plus years now. Just trying to make it through like them. Suddenly, the “family” atmosphere makes perfect sense. It’s like a secret society of campers and counselors alike sharing the same pain. At camp, “alone” isn’t possible. It’s a mere myth.
The perfect memento was given to campers and counselors at the end of camp. It was a little card that read, “Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” – A.A. Milne
With a new belt of confidence and inner strength, that’s a promise I’ll keep.
When I finally had a chance to unwind after camp, ironically, it was Father’s Day.
And I didn’t miss him.
Because he was with me last week, and he’s always with me. Sometimes it takes an emotional boost from a jam-packed week to actually feel that comfort. Similar to the campers, six days gave me necessary grace. Before my Dad died, when he was going through radiation and chemotherapy, he used to say: “When I get up in the morning, I get up to live.” I haven’t truly been able to do that since he’s been gone. I was getting up to survive instead. Not anymore.