The summer before she entered first grade, my oldest daughter asked me when she was going to go to sleepaway camp. I was stunned; she was too young. And why the heck would she ever want to leave us, her family?
I blew off the question until the next summer, when the topic arose again. But the following summer, some of her friends entering third grade were headed to camp, and she was more insistent that she would like to go, too. So in an effort to familiarize ourselves with what was out there, we looked at some sleepaway camps. As we are kosher and I wanted a place where the girls would learn and embrace our Jewish identity, our choices were somewhat limited.
The third of four camps we looked at was Nah-Jee-Wah in Pennsylvania. While my daughter appreciated the other camps we saw and she is the type of person who would do well anywhere she went, she turned to us — this girl who was not even 8 — and said, “THIS is my camp.” She was enamored not only with the hundreds of activities (camp sure is different today than when we went years ago), but the positive vibes and energy that was felt in every inch of the camp.
I didn’t send her the following summer, as I still felt she was young, but I did send both her and my middle daughter (a grade year younger) for a rookie week. They both came home wanting to be signed up for the following summer for all seven weeks. I found some comfort that they would go together.
A few months before they were set to leave, I still felt hesitant to send off my two babies. I couldn’t understand why they wanted to go. We are a close family; they still snuggle with us in our communal bed. I sometimes even dare to think that my husband and I are “cool parents.”
I selfishly didn’t want them to have a summer family. We are their family – for all four seasons.
As the day finally came to leave, I was depressed — but I didn’t want to take away from their excitement (or add to their nervousness). So I did it, I sent them off. The daily pictures and emails confirmed that we made the right decision. I felt at ease and began enjoying the summer.
Until I didn’t. Earlier this month, tragedy struck the camp. An email came to the families that an 11-year-old boy passed away, we later learned with bacterial meningitis. Shock, intense sadness and empathy for the family, confusion, panic — these were only some of the emotions I was experiencing, along with physical nausea.
We wanted to be there for the grieving community, for the family that was suffering the most unimaginable loss. But there was also, I confess, a parent’s natural instinct: “We are going to get them to bring them home. Now.”
This piece would be quadruple the size if I reiterated all of what transpired in the following week and the umpteen doctors I spoke to with different specialties, the Department of Health, social workers, camp officials and … and … and …
Ultimately, however, this was an isolated tragedy and the first to strike at Nah-Jee-Wah in 90 years. We decided to keep them at camp at least until visiting day, which was soon approaching, so I could see for myself how they are doing.
I felt helpless that I wasn’t there for them until I learned that the camp was teaching them how to be there as a community in grief. Some friends who worked at the camp assured me that the campers, including my girls, were encouraged to make cards for the family. I decided to do the same, learning from their example.
For the boy’s bunkmates who were directly affected and lost a fellow friend and camper, the camp provided transportation to the funeral to be with the family and say their good-byes, offering the comfort of their presence. They were accompanied by compassionate staff members. Grief counselors have been provided around camp for anyone who needed and needs support.
During this time I formed deeper relationships with the other parents, and also with the camp staffers, who not only were protecting and looking out for all of our children’s safety and mental health, but were there for us anytime we needed to talk or have questions answered.
When the gates to their camp opened on visiting day, the adrenaline kicked in and I ran like a racehorse to my daughters’ bunks. I will never forget their faces and the hugs I gave both of them. I will never forget their excited voices as they introduced us to their friends and took us around their summer home.
My oldest daughter and I had alone time as we found some time to take a walk. She told me that her bunk learned about the boy and that it was a very sad day at camp. She didn’t know him, she said, but had heard a lot of good things about him — especially that he loved camp. She hoped that the family was doing OK. Sometimes at night, she and her friends spoke about it. But she told me that she felt safe and that camp is where she wanted to be. Her maturity blew me away.
I still secretly wish that I could keep my kids in a bubble. But I know I can’t, which is why I didn’t pull my kids from camp and bring them home. I know that devastating things can happen anywhere, at any time, whether my children are standing next to me or at school or two hours away from me at sleepaway camp. We are all vulnerable, and none of us is promised a tomorrow. I know my daughter is right: You have to grieve, you have to reach out — and you have to move forward at the same time.
They are growing up and becoming wiser and more independent, which is what this whole sleepaway camp experience is supposed to do. Equally as important, they are experiencing what it is like to be part of a Jewish community that sticks together and helps each other in hard times. They have even given me and other parents a lesson on how to support the bereaved in your midst while continuing to embrace life’s beauty.
I am no longer resentful that my kids found a “summer family” to love because what I realized is that through this trying time, Nah-Jee-Wah and the wonderful people I met throughout all this have become my summer family, too. And a family sticks together through thick and thin.
(Lisa A. Bloom lives on Long Island with her husband and three young daughters.)