My son's alacrity to head off to a lakeside camp in Maine was due, in no small part, to the fact that one of his buddies was going as well. To an 11-year-old, friends are everything.
I once took Alyosha on a mountain hike at the apex of autumn to view the Maine woods from on high. While I was being awed by the silence and the chromatic rush of color laid out before us, my son, between yawns, could only pronounce, "Booor-ing!" But the very next week, with one of his friends in tow, he rushed to the summit and took charge of the view as if he were its sole owner.
So it was with camp. Once my son knew that bosom buddy Thomas was going, he focused on his departure like a laser. In moments of domestic friction, he would even inform me that he might not come back.
The two boys couldn't have been more different in their attitudes toward camp. In the weeks leading up to their departure, Thomas was fretful and anxious, in steady need of reassurance and comfort. My son, on the other hand, was full of swagger. He had never been to a sleep-away camp, yet spoke of it with Viking bravura.
When Thomas worried that they might be made to swim beyond their endurance, Alyosha waved him off with, "Big deal!" When Thomas spoke of homesickness, Alyosha pooh-poohed the very concept.
My son's confidence and anticipation made it easier on me, of course. I had spent undergraduate summers as a camp counselor and had witnessed my share of screaming "drop-offs," the children wailing for their parents as the latter drove off for home. At times I was almost in tears myself, wondering how parents could be so cruel.
But my son's Mt. Rushmore countenance reassured me that I would be spared any such test.
On the day of departure, Thomas's mother and I took the boys down to camp in her van. It was a bluebird day, sunny and warm, the forests and fields green despite a dry summer. The inland route to the coast of Maine from the north is lovely - a descent through river-and-lake country, full of winding roads and rolling hills.
During the trip, Thomas continued to cast his doubts upon Alyosha's tranquil lake. "I hear the counselors are mean," he said.
My son laughed off the comment.
As we drove down the road to the camp the boys fell silent. The woods opened upon a scene of rustic cabins, forest paths laden with pine needles, veteran campers clustered around their counselors, and doubtful-looking newcomers lined up at registration tables.
When the boys took in all of this, the strangest thing happened: Their personalities flip-flopped. Thomas's face was suddenly alight with the newness of it all, while Alyosha became as dark as slate. "Are you OK, buddy?" I asked him.
His response was immediate: "Take - me - home."
My son's despondency was such that I could barely get near him. At every point in the process - registration, unloading the car, going to his cabin - I felt as if I were hurting him. And he made sure that I knew this. Even personal experience returned to torment me: I was assaulted with images of the crying children I had comforted so many years ago, thinking their parents' actions punitive in sending them to camp against their wishes.
My son must have felt that almost all was lost as I helped carry his things to his cabin. "Take me home, Dad," he repeated. When I tried to continue on, he loaded the silver bullet. "I see," he said. "You hate me."
I fell into a twilight of uncertainty. Was he really miserable, and so soon? Or was it simply the initial reaction to new faces and a cabin without TV or radio?
Alyosha would not bear speaking to, so I left, assuaged somewhat that Thomas would be one of his cabinmates. This was clearly a situation where a friend could offer the comfort that a parent cannot.
By the middle of the ensuing week there had been no emergency call home, but there was a postcard: "Dad, I love you. I am homesick. Please pick me up. Love, Alyosha."
Even from a hundred miles away, my son was exerting his sizable influence.
AS the week drew to a close, I prepared to see my son again, wondering what his bearing would be. Either he would be in good spirits, having had a fun time, or I would be paying for his misery for days.
When I got to the camp there was a glad air of reunion as departing campers swept their things together and climbed into the family car. I caught sight of Alyosha, sauntering down a shady path, his hands in his pockets. When he saw me he leapt into my arms.
I knew his experience away from home could have gone either way, but it had all been to the good. During the trip home, my son related his adventures to me, showed me the scratches on his shin from some brambles, and gave me a kidney-bean necklace he had made in arts and crafts. When we got home, he set the table for supper.
I had a dream child on my hands.
My son's week at camp had allowed him to center on himself and his relationship to others. The boy I retrieved was a bit more grown up, more responsible, and eager to help me with the dishes. I don't know how long this will last, but if a week of camp can buy a day like this, then it is a bargain at the price, for it offers a glimpse through a small window into my child's future, at the person he has every chance of becoming.