Life Happens in the Detours: An Unexpected Journey to Camp

I had the usual anxieties as we prepared to drive from Chicago to the very northern edge of Minnesota to leave our 8-year-old at sleep-away camp for the first time.

Would she be homesick?  Would her counselors keep on top of her extensive allergy medications – a daily regimen of pills, inhalants, and ointments – or would something get missed? What if she ate peanut or sesame products and no one knew how to use her EpiPen?

Our older daughter is already at the camp.  She is a returning four-week camper who is having a great time, based on her letters.  The kids are not allowed to have electronics at camp, so we only know how things are going when we get old-fashioned mail.

We wrote our older daughter to tell her that the whole family would be there to see her and spend time with her on the day her younger sister arrived.  At the end of camp, the two girls are scheduled to take a three-hour bus ride to Minneapolis and fly home to Chicago together as unaccompanied minors.  Our older daughter has been doing this for four years, and she relishes the independence.  The first year, we missed her plane arrival, which was a blog post in itself.

My top concern as we embarked on the drive was the behavior of my 5-year-old.  She is notoriously terrible in the car.  So terrible, in fact, that for the past two years, our oldest daughter has flown both to and from camp so we could avoid the torture of being in the car with the little screamer.

The day dawned sunny and bright. We set out with bag upon bag of stuff loaded into our van.  The girls ate lunch in the car at 10 am and again at 11 am.  We stopped for a 12 pm lunch at the house of our good friends, the Pigtail Pals family.  Our youngest daughter discovered Cheetos.  I discovered turkey pepperoni.  Damn good stuff.

We stopped for the night at a Hampton Inn.  We gave the 5-year-old her medicine. She was on the 7th day of a 10-day course of 4x/day oral antibiotics to treat a nasty infection on her upper arm that had developed suddenly in Michigan a week earlier. The arm looked 95% normal now.  We had stopped checking it every few hours.

Although we didn’t get to the hotel till half-past bedtime, we let the girls have a little swim in the hotel pool as a reward for not being horrible in the car.  After baths and jammies and fifty iterations of saying goodnight, they fell asleep.  Andrew and I huddled on the floor, reading by the light of the bathroom door, trying not to wake the little monkeys.

At ten-thirty, we turned off the lights and went to bed. Success. “That could have gone a lot worse,” Andrew remarked.  “They should get a decent enough night’s sleep.”

The phone in our hotel room rang. “WTF!” we both said, annoyed at the shrill noise.“Hello?” I said.

“There is a tornado warning.  Get your pillows to cover your heads from sharp objects and come downstairs immediately to the first floor hallway.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Andrew groaned. We each hoisted a sleeping girl and headed downstairs. We joined a crowd of people sitting in the stairwell. It was hot. We waited. Someone’s kid fussed and cried.  Our little one sat in my lap, sucking her thumb. My 8-yr-old lay on her pillow and put her feet up against the wall, rhythmically kicking her heels. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.

Tornado drill

The storm switched course slightly, and after about 45 minutes of everyone consulting the identical weather radar of 25 different iPhones, we decided to go back to bed.

The hotel had a waffle iron at the breakfast buffet.  The 8-year-old made a waffle, drenched it in syrup, covered it in whipped cream, and decorated it with sprinkles. “This is the best breakfast ever,” she announced as she gorged herself on sugar with a side of sugar.  I insisted she eat eggs and veggies when she announced she was still hungry. She had two omelets.

We arrived in Minneapolis and unloaded all our stuff into my cousin’s house. I have about a hundred cousins in Minnesota, and we planned to spend the weekend hanging out before doing the final three-hour drive up to camp.

We played croquet outside in the front yard – and had a really good time – until the mosquitos and the heat became too much to bear. The 5-year-old complained of a particularly itchy bite on her leg. I checked and saw a welt on her ankle.  “Poor pumpkin,” I said, and kissed her fuzzy head of curls.

My cousins made a great dinner for us (including the most epic chocolate chip cookies I’ve ever had, with the exception of those insane creations from LeVain’s Bakery in NYC).

At bedtime, the little one moaned that her ankle hurt.  The bite looked swollen.  “Well, she is already on antibiotics for her arm, so I guess there is nothing we can do besides give her some cortisone and ice it,” I said to my husband.

In the morning, she could barely walk.  “It hurts, Mommy!” she cried. I wrapped her swollen ankle in ice.  My cousin Beth ran out to get children’s Benadryl and children’s ibuprofen.  I gave her the morning dose of antibiotics, and she cuddled with my cousins on the couch to watch Big Hero 6 (she calls it Marshmallow Guy). Within a few hours, she was running around like normal.

We went with more cousins to visit an awesome bookstore called Wild Rumpus. It’s an independent bookstore that has live animals wandering around freely. Chickens and such. The kids loved it. Next stop was Sebastian Joe’s (aka Sebby Joe’s), which has crazy good ice cream.  The oreo ice cream is the best. Sometimes you get a scoop with a whole oreo in it.

Cousins and more cousins arrived for a big dinner at the house of the cousins where we were staying.  The 5-year-old jumped around for hours.  The party ended around 8:30 pm. I carried her downstairs to the basement, where we were sleeping. “My leg,” she whimpered in pain.

I looked at it and caught my breath. Oh no. The entire foot, ankle and leg were grossly swollen. The skin was stretched so taut that it had split open in several places, and oozy spots appeared. The skin was a dark reddish brownish purplish color. It was very hot to the touch, and she yelped in pain when I barely grazed my hand against her leg. She developed the chills.

I ran upstairs to get my cousin Jim, who happens to be a doctor. He knelt down and looked at her leg. “She needs to go in,” he said. We went to the local ER. Even during the time we waited to be seen, the discoloration and swelling spread further up the leg.

The ER doctor examined her and told us she needed to be transferred to Children’s. “But we have to start IV antibiotics right now.  It can’t wait. So we will insert the line here and give her the first treatment. In the meantime, I’ll arrange a direct admission to Children’s for you. I’m actually an ER pediatrician there, so I can get it all set up.”

By the time we got in our room at Children’s, it was 2 am. By the time the admitting doctor, Dr. Sidler, had finished with her, it was 4 am.  During this whole time, my 5-year-old chatted with everyone.

The nurses gathered in our room to listen to her expound on life, equality, and ethics. “I want to be a police girl when I grow up, and I know not to use excessive force, because you don’t want someone to get hurt,” she chatted.

 “For as bad as that leg is looking, it is amazing that she is so alert and talkative,” Dr. Sidler told me.  It was amazing.

She made fast friends with everyone who came into her room.  Her hospital bracelet was actually a secret spy machine that she programmed to catch bad guys.

And so it was. Once again, a trip of ours took a detour for a hospital stay.  Thank goodness for doctors and medicines and hospitals and the kindness of relatives and friends.

*          *          *          *

The 8-year-old was very nervous about the upcoming camp drop-off, so we had spent days explaining to her how we would all be there as a family on her first day. The plan was that I would help her get unpacked, and then we would go walk around the camp and see our oldest daughter. The beauty and comfort of having a plan, a sense of control to soothe our nervous girl.

Now, we scrambled to make new plans. Andrew would stay with the little one at the hospital, because we all knew that I needed to be the one to take the 8-year-old to camp.  It would be an all-day affair – three hours driving there, several hours to get her settled, and three hours driving back to Minneapolis (originally, we were going to head straight from camp drop-off towards home in Chicago).

My cousin Jim took the day off work to do the driving, because I was running on a massive sleep deficit.

During the drive, my middle daughter became very frightened about the upcoming transition, and she started to lament that nothing was happening the way she had been expecting. “I’m scared, but I want to be excited,” she said.

I unbuckled, climbed into the backseat, and sat next to her. As I re-buckled, I took her hand.

“You know,” I told her, “it is okay to feel scared and excited at the same time.  I’m feeling all jumbled up right now too. I feel so sad that I had to leave your little sister and your dad at the hospital.  But I also feel really happy to be here with you and Cousin Jim on this special day – your first time at camp!!!! – and so I’m feeling both sad and happy all at once.”

She nodded. “Part of me doesn’t want to go to camp at all, and part of me wants to stay for two months.”

“Two months!” I exclaimed.  “I’ll be very ready for you to come home after two weeks!”

*          *          *          *

My oldest daughter was waiting for us at the 8-year-old’s cabin.  I had called ahead and asked the camp director to prepare her for the fact that her dad and her youngest sister would not be coming.

Although I hadn’t seen her in two weeks, my biggest girl pretty much swooped past me to greet her younger sister.  The seasoned camper proudly marched off with the new camper to give her a quick tour.

The girls returned, sweaty and red-cheeked. My older girl raced off to join her next activity, and the 8-year-old looked panic-stricken and lost without her big sister.  It was time for her to face the reality of walking into her cabin.

It helped when the 8-year-old quickly met some very sweet girls in her chalet. During the chaos of me having been at the hospital and Daddy having been the one to assemble the toiletry bag, a few items were missed.  Including a toothbrush.

“It’s okay,” said a little girl, smiling sweetly. “I have two toothbrushes!  And they are both new!  So you can have one, even though it has my name on it.”

“Thank you!” my daughter beamed.

We walked over to the health office, and I handed over all of my 8-year-old’s allergy medicines and EpiPens and inhalants.  I’ve never let her out of my sight for so long.  What if I can’t leave her here? I can.  I was a camper here over thirty years ago. I loved it. I was okay. She will be okay.

The other parents were leaving. It was time to go. She hugged me fiercely around the waist and then followed a few girls outside to play.

“She’s a wanderer,” I warned her counselor.  “If you can’t find her, don’t worry, she’ll be somewhere within a mile.”

“She can’t eat even one bite of peanut or tree nut or sesame,” I warned another counselor, “or she will begin reacting.”

Jim touched my arm.  “It’s time to go,” he said gently.  “She is going to be okay. They have other kids with peanut allergies. They are trained in what to do.”

Yes, but the world feels especially scary right now, when something as simple as a mosquito bite has put my little one in the hospital.  I feel safer when I can see my babies.

Then it occurred to me.  I was standing three feet from the little one when she got that bug bite.  And it happened anyway.  I can’t control everything that happens to my kids.  I can protect them in the ways I know how – with seatbelts and helmets and swim lessons — but other stuff happens.

“It will be good for her,” Jim said.  “It will be good for you, too.” I know he is right.

“But she is really little,” he admitted. “It’s hard to leave her here.”

I watched from afar as she played for a few minutes with her new friends. I was astonished at how easy it had been. My brave girl, so stoic and earnest, eager to make friends. No tears. No meltdowns.

On the way out of camp, I found my older daughter at her activity to give her a kiss goodbye. I gave her a sign I made for her to put above her bed. She tolerated my hugs and thanked me for the sign, but I could see she was impatient to get back to the activity she was doing.  And that was a thousand times better than if she had been clinging to me and asking me to take her home. With a glance back, I whispered a goodbye.  A goodbye to the camp of my childhood, to my daughters, to my illusion of control.  The sun glinted and I swallowed a lump in my throat.  The first day wasn’t how I had planned it, but it went better than I could have expected.  Funny thing, expectations.  I always get caught up in them.

*          *          *          *

The little one responded like a champ to the IV antibiotics.  She won the hearts of her excellent care team at Children’s Hospital of Minnesota. She has been switched to oral antibiotics, and we are heading home.

As I write this, we are on the road, now a family of three.  Our baby girl is still in her Minions pajamas, her leg propped up on a cooler.

“That was not exactly the detour I wanted during our road trip,” I sigh, as Andrew and I sit in the front of the way-too-quiet minivan.

“Life happens during the detours,” he said. Yes it does.

We drive and drive, and as the hours pass, I am filled with a hope both huge and fragile for my children, for their resilience, for the fact that our detours always eventually lead us back to where we are supposed to be.

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