The plan was to drive K to camp. It takes about 12 hours to get there, but we were going to make a road trip out of it, as we had done the past couple years. First we would stop in Wisconsin for our annual visit with the Pigtail Pals family. Then we would stop outside Minneapolis to stay with my cousins for a night or two, and finally we would make our way up to camp.
That plan did not account for the epic naughtiness of our newly-four-year-old daughter, who is nothing short of a terror in the car. We discovered that she is suddenly an unhappy camper in cars when we took a June road trip to Springfield to visit the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (best place ever). That drive is only 4 hours each way – a mere third of the time we would spend driving K to camp – and by the end, I was ready to euthanize myself rather than spend another minute in the car.
I asked the little one about the screaming, and she calmly explained that her body can’t hold the goodness any longer and that it needs to be naughty.
In light of the End of Goodness, it was time to think about self-preservation. “K,” I asked my 10-year-old, “how would you feel about flying to camp by yourself instead of having all of us driving you?”
“Sure,” she responded. K has flown alone before. In fact, the first time she went to sleepaway camp, she was only 8 years old. We drove her to camp and got her settled, but when camp ended two weeks later, our little girl took a three-hour bus ride with other campers to the Minneapolis airport and then she flew as an unaccompanied minor back to Chicago, where we missed her arrival, which caused me far more trauma than it caused her.
And so we scrambled to purchase a plane ticket for K to fly to camp herself. It was definitely the right decision, because when we all piled into the car to drive K to the airport, we barely made it through that 40-minute drive with the little screamer aboard.
In the first few hours after K’s plane departed, my husband and I ached with sadness. It surprised us, the intensity of our sadness. But the sadness was a good surprise. Frankly, a relief. Over the previous twelve months, there had been many difficult moments with our tween. Sometimes in the midst of the scowling or the arguing during the school year, I often thought of the month at camp as respite for myself.
I felt guilty about that desire for a break from the exhaustion of parenting my complex child. When other parents exclaimed how they could never send their child away to camp for more than a week or two, I wondered if there were secretly something wrong with me. I was afraid that I would not miss her while she was gone. It gnawed at me. But feelings are feelings, and I’ve learned it’s healthier to allow them and contemplate them rather than squash them down into deep dark places.
As I pondered the situation, I realized that, in truth, the greatest part of my ease in sending K off to camp is her own delight in going. In 2011, she came back after her first two-week session and immediately asked to go for four weeks the next year. This summer is K’s third year at camp, her second time going for a full month.
It is the same camp I attended as a child, Camp Lake Hubert, a camp where I first learned that I could be totally okay without my parents nearby, that I could direct my own days and soothe myself to sleep at night. It was a rush, a thrill. It is another home to me, a safe place, a gift. I would go back and be a camper again in a heartbeat if I could. Just inhaling the wood scent of the cabins can disorient me with the intensity of my nostalgia.
Knowing that K is well cared for and gaining independence is an immeasurable comfort. In the age of helicopter parenting, I am forced to stay on the landing pad. She will have to figure out challenges big and small without me there. And she does. This kid who can barely get out of the door on time for school has learned how to pack her stuff and comb her hair and get to her activities. It’s a beautiful thing.
The last few days before she left, K did her best to confirm my belief that camp would be a needed break for all of us. The grumpies, the surlies, the moodies, and the nasties came out in force. Everything was a battle. My husband and I told ourselves it was normal anxiety about leaving us, possibly even K’s way of distancing herself from us to ensure that she would miss us less.
The night before she left, we went out for a family dinner. En route, there was mayhem in the car. Fighting, yelling, screaming. We got to the restaurant with three hangry feuding kids and two furious parents. We ordered some food. I asked K if she would play Hangman with me. She reluctantly agreed. And with food and distraction, the mood shifted at our table.
We finished eating. It was a gorgeous July night. “Let’s leave the car here and walk home,” I told my husband Andrew on impulse. “We can always come back for it later.” We walked over to Andy’s Frozen Custard and brought our treats outside to eat. K and her younger sisters (The Littles) were jovial, giddy with chocolate and fresh air.
We began walking home. About ten minutes later, the youngest, C, sat down on a sidewalk and refused to move another step. “Walk them to the rose garden nearby, and wait there. I’ll go back and get the car and come get you,” Andrew said.
The big sisters each took one of their baby sister’s hands, and we managed to convince her to walk a few blocks to the garden. The girls stuck their hands in a fountain, sniffed roses, traipsed around. “Let’s play Duck Duck Goose,” I suggested. Midway through our 5th or 6th round, Andrew came back with the car. “Come play Duck Duck Goose with us!” the girls shouted. Our family has a unique way of playing the game – we make up crazy things to say instead of Duck Duck Goose. When it was little C’s turn, she tapped each of us on the head saying, “Shampoo, Shampoo, Shampoo, Conditioner!”
Andrew eventually packed C into the car, but the big girls and I elected to walk the rest of the way home. When 7-yr-old AR grew tired, we began a game of Follow the Leader. Each block, we switched who was the leader. People were laughing in their cars as they drove down Ridge Rd and saw us doing crazy dance moves as we made our way down the block. I didn’t care. My girls and I giggled.
I told K and AR that they should take walks together at night when they are older. “Just think,” I commented, “when you are both annoyed at me, you can take walks and talk about how awful I am!” They loved that idea. I want them to see each other as sisters, allies, best friends, even if it means that sometimes I’m the one against whom they are allied. Let them complain because I won’t let them have iPhones or whatnot, I don’t care. Just be together and find support in each other.
When we arrived home, AR asked K if she could sleep in her room. We tucked AR into bed and K promised to be up later. Andrew and K and I went down to the basement to watch Man of Steel. AR’s little face appeared forty-five minutes later. “I’m waiting and waiting for K to come. I can’t fall asleep without my big sister there.” We pulled AR onto the couch as a special treat, and we all watched the end of the movie together. It was late. K took AR upstairs with her and got both of them settled into bed. They slept like logs all night.
In the morning, as I stuffed the duffel bags with bug spray and sunblock and underpants and books, K entertained AR and Cl. For three hours straight, the girls played without a single fight. It was sort of a miracle. And suddenly it was time to take K to the airport.
Eleven months of arguing and nagging had melted away in the space of one good evening and morning. With a wave of relief, I knew that I would miss my K like crazy. The way she can light up a room when she is in a good mood. The way she can organize and encourage her sisters better than any adult in the world. The way she loves to spend time with us at night watching Marvel superhero movies. My girl. My love.
We arrived at O’Hare and signed the forms for our unaccompanied minor. Only one of us was allowed to stay with her until the plane departed, so I drove the predictably grumpy Littles home and Andrew stayed. A dear friend watched The Littles while I returned for Andrew a few hours later. We were bereft. He was near tears. The emptiness felt overwhelming. And yet we both agreed there was a sweetness to the sadness. Just knowing how much we truly would miss her was the happiest sad in the world.
For the next nine days, I had basically no contact with my K. A counselor emailed us on the third day to let us know that K was thriving. But I craved a letter. And finally, yesterday, on the 10th day since I had seen my beautiful daughter, a letter came. She is well. She is happy. She is safe. She misses us and loves us. Same here. Every last bit of it.