Day one of cancer camp:
(For part one, click here.)
I remember standing around the BBQ supervising the cooking of dinner. I cleared a small corner for my tofu. "What is that?!" I seized on the opportunity to educate and attempt to convert the impressionable youths to vegetarianism. They were game to taste, but I think it's safe to say tofu has never converted a carnivore. The conversation drifted in and out of various topics – had I ever eaten bacon? How many years had they been coming to camp? How old was I? Did they have siblings? Had I had cancer? I stopped smiling. I felt fear and shame in answering, "No. No, I have never had cancer."
We encircled the campfire that night warmed by the orange firelight, bathed in bug spray, laughing and leaning into one another with a familiarity that is seldom ever achieved in just a day. The details of that first day – the activities, how our food tasted, if we swam – I can't remember any of that. But the feeling I had, the feeling of belonging, that feeling I can recall as if it is happening to me right now. It's that glorious feeling of being invited in, embraced and welcomed. A place where laughter comes easily and silliness is required, and kids can genuinely become best friends in a day because they share the battle wounds and the battle won with cancer. And it's the place where I stumbled upon my second family.
I have met some of the most amazing and courageous kids at camp – athletes, scholars, musicians, artists, dancers, writers and more – all with big dreams and ambitious plans for their future. And as incredible as they all are, they are also just like every other teen I've ever met – angsty, hormonal, dramatic – and I love that. I love that cancer, as insidious and devastating as it can be – cannot take that away. These kids are normal. They are superheroes. They are survivors.
After a few years at camp, my husband and I started a family. This kept me from returning for several summers. I ached to smell like campfire smoke and defend a meaningful life without bacon. The second that last kid was off my boob, I raced back to camp while my husband stayed back with our young brood of three. Although the faces around the campfire had changed, the feeling, the magic, the family, it had all just extended itself. The connections, the mighty connections that humans need in order to have meaning in life are for me, in the very soul of One Step at a Time Camp.
I have experienced the greatest love I have ever felt outside of my own children at camp. At camp, I have fallen deeply in love with wonderful kids, and sometimes, I have lost them. When that happens, a little part of me dies too. It's frightening to be reminded of the unfairness and fragility of life. To know it has nothing to do with goodness or big dreams, fairness, age or hope is an impossible thing to accept. At camp, devastating loss is a possibility. However, at camp, no one holds back for fear of losing. If anything, it creates a sense of urgency to open up more quickly. Love more easily. And let the bullshit slide because it's just not that important.
Being welcomed and embraced into this wonderful and wacky world of kid camp characters has brightened me. I have felt love and loss and laughter all at once. It has made me a better person. To those who I miss, I will never forget. And I am forever grateful for having had the gift of watching firelight dance in your eyes.