sad camp

There are some stories I can’t tell.
They are too heavy.
There are too many.
They are not mine to give.

Last week I packed up some dusty tshirts and tennis shoes and headed out to the Adirondacks. I sat on a bus with thirty counselors and thirty campers. We were all there for free. Working for free, playing for free, for once in our lives, missing the rent and never having to collect it.

I am a story teller more than I am a writer, and I am a writer more than I am a person. Because of this, when things happen to me, it’s like I’m watching a sentence be crafted, melded, melted and started all over again. I am a story teller. I don’t understand people until I write them as characters– everything feels like a plot point, feels like turning the page.

I don’t believe people are born as writers or storytellers or lovers or givers. We grow into ourselves, our ways of getting by. When we’re small, we don’t really have a good way of getting the heaviness out of us. When important things happen, it can feel like they’re ricocheting around our ribs.

The camp I worked at this week was for children with families affected by cancer. Most of them didn’t have a way to talk about their heavy feet. They didn’t have a place to unfold and then crumple, a person to cry to, time enough to write their stories– they were too busy living them.

Camp is a place for writing stories, for letting go of some of the heavy.

Have you ever heard of muscle memory? It’s the way your body learns certain feelings. Everyone who has ever lived in a house with cancer has a lot of the same muscle memories. It’s strange to share a memory with a stranger. Like, two o’clock in the morning, driving to the emergency room, unsure if you should say goodnight or good morning. Like, praying to the God you’re afraid has forgotten all about you, asking for more time and asking for less suffering, trying to choose which one you’d pick if you couldn’t have both. Like, hospital food, and the way nurses look at you, and never feeling like a kid because you were born knowing more about dying than being alive. Like, crying in a public bathroom. Like, I know I’m supposed to be strong. Like, because I wasn’t dealt the worst deck I made a rule that I can’t be sad. I can’t ever cry. Like, when the cancer comes back and it wasn’t supposed to, and I don’t want to be scared again. Like, being four feet tall and eighty years wise. Like, I miss my mom so much. I miss my dad so much. I miss them both so much. Like, I’m sorry this is happening to you. I’m sorry this is happening to us. Hold my hand.

Before I left for camp I wrote down three questions to answer as soon as I knew how. I put them in an envelope. I asked myself,
Do you trust me?
Are you happy?
Do you feel sorry for me?

This week I brushed so much hair. I pulled it taught and tight and braided till my hands bled. I gave away food when I was hungry, gave up beds when I was tired, emptied my pockets when I already felt vacant. I cried hard. I cried loud. I cried in front of a lot of people. I told my secrets. I fell asleep in the grass, holding a hand that was far too small to have felt so much death. We were counting constellations. Her breath got heavy and slow. I ran a race. I put bug spray on my face. I didn’t hear from you. I made five new best friends. I learned five new ways to have your heart broken. I kissed the tops of heads. They told me they loved me back. I trust you, he said.

I don’t know what it’s like to be twelve years old and watch two parents die. I don’t know what it’s like to come home and find your dad in heaven. I don’t know what it’s like to know six types of cancer before you can memorize a telephone number. I don’t know what it’s like to be strong– really strong, not the oh-you’re-so-strong but the actual strength that builds roads out of cemeteries, lifts baby brothers over broken bridges, moves mountains when you don’t know what it means to be here. Of course you’re not happy. We don’t have to be happy. Hold my hand.

I could feel sorry for sad kids for the rest of forever. If I started right now, I wouldn’t run out of pity. I could apologize. I probably should apologize. You remind me of my brother, but he’s never had to carry a casket before. Being sorry for you doesn’t take away the heavy. So, I will tie your shoes. I will count the constellations. We are going to dance long after we should be asleep. I will hold you tight while you cry over a mosquito bite. I will hold you tighter when you cry over a tumor. I can’t feel sorry for you; I’d run out of space for all this love. Here, hold my hand.

I heard the most incredible stories this week that cut through me in a way that I never thought was possible. I usually want to give everything away. I want you to have my stories. I want to give you my life on a silver platter. I will romanticize it and erase all the grey, all the commercial breaks. I want to serve you. I want my stories to teach you. This week I learned that there are some stories I can’t share. But there are a few that I can.

Here are some things that I really, really need to tell you :

When it comes to roasting marshmallows, it’s always worth it to play the long game.

It’s not fair. They should be flying kites, not making appointments. I don’t understand. Why do some people have to grow old before they grow tall? Where does this wisdom come from? When will they get to act small?

People really need to stop making broad generalizations about how kids experience grief. They feel things as differently as adults do, and it’s preposterous to treat them like a single symptom.

At camp, we snuck into the kitchen. We stole so many snacks. I saw big smiles and fistfuls of chips, brownies. We’d already brushed our teeth.

I’m not the same.

We lost a sneaker in the creek.

There were two snakes in our cabin. We were screaming, but we were not scared.

I hate cancer. We all hate cancer, but we have this family. We have an extra family that we can find in the middle of the mountains. We will help each other feel less heavy. We love each other very much. There is magic at camp, and it helps us tell stories.


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