My 9-year-old just went off to sleepaway camp for the very first time. On the flight down, she was all nervous smiles and excited chatter. But after an hour of standing around with a growing number of kids she didn’t know, waiting to get on the bus to camp, her excitement dwindled. Tears began to well in her chocolate brown eyes, her lower lip trembling, and her whispering pleas of “please don’t leave me mommy” tugged at my heart.
Yes, saying goodbye is hard, but there was a part of me that couldn’t wait for that bus to hit the road. Of my three daughters, Ruby is the one I need a time out from the most. She crosses my boundaries more than the others, sauntering into the bathroom while I’m peeing, unwilling to break a hug or conversation until asked–no, begged–a hundred times. She is emotionally demanding, excitable, and thrilled one minute, anxious and frowning the next. Her amazing brain leaps from one subject to another, stringing it all together by a thread so quickly it’s easy to lose track.
Finally, the bus driver gunned the engine. Ruby waved goodbye through the tinted window and I waved back, praying she wouldn’t cry all the way to camp. The bus pulled away and…yes! My older daughter left for camp a few days ago and with Ruby gone, that left just the 3-year-old at home. When you have three kids, dealing with just two of them is totally manageable; having just one around is like a mini-vacation.
The first few days without my older girls went by in a happy, sunny blur. I didn’t even attempt to tackle my summer to-do list. Instead I reveled in my relatively quiet house, ran errands with the little one, and spent time with friends. On day five, I decided to get down to business and clean out Ruby’s room. I plopped down in the middle of her purple shag rug at a total loss.
I was surrounded by piles of tattered worksheets, half-used composition books, and towers of books everywhere. An impressive collection of hotel key cards was haphazardly fanned across a shelf next to a bunch of rocks, some purchased, others delivered from the side of a mountain or the road. There were many tubes of lip balm and lots of hair ties and innumerable Rainbow Loom elastics. Pens, broken pencils, markers, glue sticks, loose staples, and nubby erasers cluttered up the desk corner. A crumpled tissue dared me to pick it up.
I was overwhelmed by everything in that room, much the way I’m overwhelmed by Ruby. Caught between the roiling emotions of my 12-year-old and the incessant demands of my 3-year-old, I often shush Ruby impatiently because I cannot abide yet another voice or another set of needs in the melee. She folds her arms and storms off or bursts into angry tears. She is a force all her own, and yet somehow she’s become the lost middle child I never dreamed I’d have, but not because she’s let go of my hand and wandered off. It is me who lets go of hers. I resolutely wrest free of her little-girl grip to wipe a tush or make dinner or knock impatiently on her older sister’s closed door. It’s me who interrupts her long-winded tales and daily reports to ask if she’s unloaded her backpack or finished her homework.
There, sitting alone in her room with many miles and a few days between us, I saw Ruby more clearly than ever–and I missed her. I realized that her collections evolve out of her curiosity and her need to catalog her experiences; I found a folder full of original songs with beautiful lyrics and know that my girl is a poet. I think about what courage it took for her to strike out on her own and go to Camp Ramah in Ojai instead of with her older sister to a camp in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
Sending Ruby to sleepaway camp isn’t just about her being independent and making new friends. It’s also about me learning to appreciate my middle child, the one who sometimes gets lost, and finding her again.