The summer before she entered first grade, my oldest daughter asked me when she was going to go to sleep away camp. I was stunned. She was too young and why the heck would she ever want to leave us, her family?
I blew the question off until the next summer, when the topic came up again. But the following summer, some of her friends going into third grade were headed to camp and she was more insistent that she would like to go too. So, in an effort to familiarize ourselves with what was out there, we looked at some sleep away camps. As we are kosher and I wanted a place where the girls would learn and embrace our Jewish identity, our choices were somewhat limited.
The third out of four camps that we looked at was Nah-Jee-Wah. While my daughter appreciated the other camps we saw and she is the type of person that would do well anywhere she went, she turned to us, this girl who was not even eight, and said, “THIS is my camp.” She was only just enamored with the hundreds of activities (camp sure is different today than when we went years ago), but the positive vibes and energy that was felt in every inch of the camp.
I didn’t send her the following summer as I still felt that she was young, but I did send both her and my middle daughter (a grade year younger) for a rookie week. They both came home wanting to be signed up for the following summer for all seven weeks. I found some comfort that they would go together.
A few months before they were set to leave, I still felt hesitant to send my two babies off. I couldn’t understand why they wanted to go. We are a close family. I sometimes even dare to think that my husband and I are “cool parents,” they still snuggle with us in our communal bed. I selfishly didn’t want them to have a summer family. We are their family–for all four seasons.
As the day finally came to leave, I was depressed but I didn’t want to take away from their excitement (or add to their nervousness). So I did it. I sent them off. The daily pictures and emails confirmed that we made the right decision to send them. I felt at ease and began enjoying the summer.
Until I didn’t. Last Monday, tragedy struck the camp. An email came to the families that an 11-year-old boy passed away, we later learned with bacterial meningitis. Shock, intense sadness and empathy for the family, nausea confusion, panic. These were only some of the emotions I was experiencing.
We wanted to be there for the grieving community, for the family that was suffering the most unimaginable loss. But there was also, I confess, a parent’s natural instinct: “We are going to get them to bring them home. Now.”
This piece would be quadruple the size if I reiterated all of what transpired last week and the umpteen doctors I spoke to with different specialties, the Department of Health, social workers, camp officials, and…and… and…
But ultimately, this was an isolated tragedy and the first to strike at Nah-Jee-Wah in 90 years. We decided to keep them at camp at least until visiting day, which was soon approaching, so that I could see for myself how they are doing.
I felt helpless that I wasn’t there for them, until I learned that the camp was teaching them how to be there as a community in grief. Some friends who worked at the camp assured me that the campers, including my girls had been were encouraged to make cards for the family. I decided to do the same, learning from their example.
For the boys’ bunkmates who were directly affected and lost a fellow friend and camper, the camp provided transportation to the funeral to be with the family and say their good-byes, offering the comfort of their presence. They were accompanied by compassionate staff members. Grief counselors have been provided around camp for anyone who needed and needs support.
During this time, I formed deeper relationships with the other parents, and also with the camp staff that were not only protecting and looking out for all of our children’s safety and mental health—but were there for us anytime we needed to talk or have questions answered.
When the gates to their camp opened this past Sunday on visiting day, the adrenaline kicked in and I ran like a race horse to my daughters’ bunks. I will never forget their faces and hugs that I gave both of them. I will never forget their excited voices as they introduced us to their friends and took us around their summer home.
My oldest daughter and I had alone time as we found some time to take a walk. She told me that her bunk learned about the boy and that it was a very sad day at camp. She didn’t know him, she said, but had heard a lot of good things about him—especially that he loved camp. She hoped that the family was doing okay. Sometimes at night, she and her friends spoke about it but she told me that she felt safe and that camp is where she wanted to be. Her maturity blew me away.
I still secretly wish that I could keep my kids in a bubble. But I know that I can’t, which is why I didn’t pull my kids out from camp and bring them home. I know that devastating things can happen anywhere, at any time, whether my children are standing next to me or at school or two hours away from me at sleep away camp. We are all vulnerable, and none of us is promised a tomorrow. I know that my daughter is right: you have to grieve, you have to reach out, and you have to move forward at the same time.
They are growing up and becoming wiser and more independent, which is what this whole sleepaway camp experience is supposed to do. Equally as important, they are experiencing what it is like to be part of a Jewish community that sticks together and helps each other out in hard times. They have even given me and other parents a lesson on how to support the bereaved in your midst, while continuing to embrace life’s beauty.
I am no longer resentful that my kids found a “summer family” to love, because what I realized Is that through this trying time, Nah-Jee-Wah and the wonderful people that I met throughout all this, have become my summer family too. And a family sticks together through thick and thin.