Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A Special Place

Seventeen weeks of my life I spent in a secret place; a magical place. It was a place where dreams really did come true. Though those that knew me in my everyday life didn’t know about this place, nor did they, or could they understand the profound influence it had on my life. Growing up, the highlight of my year was going to MDA camp.

As a child MDA camp was a place to go to be normal; a place without limits. A place where the impossible became possible. A place where kids confined to wheelchairs could go swimming in the lake, boating, fishing. A place to dance... The memories play in slow motion like a slideshow set to the song “love can build a bridge”.

As I grew into my late teens I switched from being a camper to a volunteer. I didn’t need camp to break down any physical barriers for me anymore… but it was important that I be there to help break down those barriers for my friends. We started going to camp at the age of 6… we grew up together. I always felt a sense of guilt that I never got worse… but my friends did. Some of the long-time volunteers used to tell me how important it was that I be there… that seeing me seemingly beating the disease was inspiring to my friends that were losing their fight. I never felt that way. I didn’t want to be inspiring, I, like the others wanted to be normal; not an all-star athlete or a guitar hero, just normal. I was almost normal, but not. I vividly remember one friend, Robert, asking me out of the blue why the disease hadn’t progressed in me; as if I was stronger than him, or if there was something that I was doing that he wasn’t…not that I was just lucky… He died the next year just before camp; his sister wrote a note to us telling us how much he loved camp and how it lifted his spirits every year. One of the older volunteers read the note to the newer volunteers in the cabin so that they could hopefully realize how important this week was to the campers. I never went to his funeral, never acknowledge his passing until the first words of the letter were being read. Then it poured out. We know the fate of most of the campers at camp years ahead of time... But it doesn’t make it any easier.

The older I got, the more I was able to control my emotions. Camp is an emotional place and leaving every year was hard. I remember the first year that didn’t cry when I left camp. I actually felt more upset that I didn’t cry. What did it mean? Was camp not special anymore? Camp was still special. But for me it had lost its innocence. As my generation of campers grew older the harsh reality of life could not be avoided. While it took the letter to come to terms with the loss of Robert, I still haven’t acknowledged the loss of my longtime partner in crime Ramon… The time has come though... in a couple weeks I will tell Ramon’s story, with the much needed closure.

For years at camp we referred to the real world as the other 51 weeks of the year. But for many campers MDA camp is their only chance to experience the real world, to feel normal, to come off the sidelines and be in the game. Camp is the real world. Camp is what is good in the world. In one special week everybody at camp—volunteers and campers alike--are exposed the deepest depths of humanity. You find in you the compassion, love, and spirit of life.

Today I experience camp through my mom. For about 6 or 7 years she has closed her beauty shop for the day and taken her employees to camp to cut hair for the camp prom. Prom is probably the most important night at camp. Most of the kids don’t get to go to their high school prom. So this is their opportunity to get dressed up, get their hair done, and dance. I am proud of my mom for doing this. I think she understands the importance of camp to everybody, and I think she recognizes how important it was in my life. I think this is her way of giving back and being close to me.

So tonight my thoughts are with the campers cuttin’ up rugs on the shore of Lake Huron.


Kristine said...

Your words, your thoughts, and YOU still amaze me.

I feel blessed to have known you when you first came to camp, and watched the adorable little boy you were grow in to such an amazing man.

I know we haven't connected in a few years, but I feel very lucky to have found your blog. It did not disappoint.

I will always remember my weeks at camp (especially those years you were there). The best weeks of my life as well.

Wendy Swartz said...

You made me cry. It's all true, and you write it beautifully. I love ya!