“How many more days until my soccer camp?” Brennan asks, every day. I cringe inwardly but pretend enthusiasm.
Months ago, he heard about this camp and begged me to enroll him. The opportunity for him to run and play at a park all week with other four-year-olds sounded great idea. I signed him up.
Then I ran into my neighbor, Craig, whose son Drew would attend for the second year.
“You know about this camp, right?” Craig laughed. “It’s kind of…sketchy.”
“Well, it’s run by this crazy bunch of kids from England,” Craig said. He described them as “clueless.” He repeated the work “sketchy.” But, he said, Drew loves it.
Brennan sits on the living room floor, struggling zip up his backpack. “You are going to bring me there and then leave, right?” he asks, beaming.
He appears long after bedtime, too excited to sleep. I tuck him in again. He rolls onto his side, hugs his stuffed gray kitty and smiles at the wall, imagining…what?
I am kept awake, too, imagining less happy things. What was I thinking? An unfamiliar camp at a huge city park, with a bunch of strangers? He’s barely four.
I look over the camp information and realize I forgot to pick up a copy of Brennan’s immunization record. A sign that I shouldn’t be sending him — or some kind of subconscious sabotage.
I’ll have to convince the coaches to let me drop him off and return with the form at pickup. But I fantasize they’ll send him home with a little clap on the shoulder, saying, “Maybe next year, mate. When you’re five.”
The park sits on a buried landfill framed by a towering housing development and four-lane highway. Waves of kids shriek and run across the turf on their little shin-guard clad legs, pulling at each other and tripping over soccer balls.
Brennan tugs me toward the field, eyes huge with excitement. “Now you leave. And I stay by myself.”
“You stay with your coaches,” I say. But he is already running ahead of me.
I spot a guy of nineteen or twenty swinging a clipboard. “I’m called Paul. Who’ve we here, then? Master Brennan. You’re a big man of four then, eh?” Beside Brennan’s name on the attendance list is a highlighted, glaringly unchecked “medical form” box. I prepare to plead my case, but Paul cheerfully strikes a bold line through the box.
Brennan is wearing an Italian soccer jersey and Paul grabs him by the shoulders. “All suited up, are you? Ready to play some football then?” He spins him around to read the back of his shirt. “Buffon!” he yells as Brennan cracks up. “You’ll be taking care of us then, eh, Buffon?”
Brennan’s coach, a wiry kid with glasses and black curls, is leading a group of preschoolers in a game where he appears to play some kind of British pirate-monster, threatening and growling at kids as they scream, claw and jump at him. Before I can say goodbye Brennan takes off and is absorbed by the pack. They move away, yelling and pummeling the coach with their tiny fists.
Dragging myself toward the parking lot, I spot Ruth, whose daughter Sivan is Brennan’s age. Enviably unflappable, Ruth is the opposite of me. But she says, “I don’t know about this place. Look at that little guy wandering off over there and no one’s even noticing.”
We watch the boy hop around the edge of the field. Then someone waves to me from among the trees — Craig, spying on Drew.
I walk over to him and he shrugs and laughs in an I-told-you-so kind of way. We watch for a few minutes before he says, “Okay, I’m going to stop being an overprotective parent and go now.”
“Me too,” I lie. “See you later.”
Brennan’s group moves across the field. Something in the grass catches his attention and he stops and kicks at it, then squats down to examine it more closely. His group keeps going. He sits down and, within a few seconds, he is enveloped by a different group of kids just as his group blends into a mass of older kids. But then a pony-tailed teenaged girl runs back for him. I see her reach out her hand and they run across the field together.
At pickup, kids run all over, tackling each other, taking off to find the bathroom or climb a tree. I spot Brennan: red-faced, exhausted, happy.
“Bye, Buffon,” the curly-headed coach calls. I make a mental note to put him in the yellow Italian jersey all week.
On the drive home, Brennan smiles out the window when I ask about his day. All he says is that he needs to wear a green t-shirt tomorrow, because he is going to play for the green team.
“Right when you drop me off, are you going to leave?” Brennan asks
“Yep!” I say. And really, I plan to. But dark clouds are rolling in and the park has no shelter. I sit in my car in a nearby parking lot until a crack of thunder sounds. Rain falls in a thick curtain. I call Ruth to tell her I’ll take Sivan.
The rain soaks through my clothes as I run to the field. Kids huddle under trees as the coaches try to organize them and call parents from cell phones. One boy sobs as a coach asks, “What’s your name, mate? What’s your name?”
“I’m taking Sivan,” I shout to the ponytailed coach.
“Who?” the girl asks.
I point. She half nods, half shrugs and moves toward some older kids who are wrestling in a puddle.
Brennan, Sivan and I grab hands and run. They are drenched and laughing as I buckle them into their seats.
“Did you leave today?” Brennan asks as we sit in traffic in the downpour. “Was I there by myself?”
“Yep,” I say. “Hey, guys, what’s the name of your soccer coach?”
“Who?” Brennan asked.
“Do you know, Sivan?” I ask.
She looks at Brennan, widens her eyes and shrugs. And then they both laugh as though I’ve said something hilarious.
I will stay for just ten minutes. I peer through the bushes. The ridiculousness of the situation falls on me in its full weight. I am hiding from a four-year-old.
I spy Brennan’s group moving toward a cluster of trees with their bags. Sivan’s eyes immediately find me and she raises an arm to wave. I duck but then give in and wave back, embarrassed. But Brennan is oblivious. He is bringing up the tail of the group, dragging his red backpack through the dirt behind him as he shlumps along heavily in the heat. He plunks down next to Sivan and says something to her, and they laugh together.
Brennan’s temperature is 102.3.
“Can I still go?” he asks, and cries when I shake my head.
I feel sick myself, with guilt, like I have somehow willed this.
In the afternoon, our babysitter Tasha comes by. She picked up her sister from the camp and mentioned to the coaches that she would be seeing Brennan.
She holds out a huge bag of stuff: Soccer balls, t-shirts, water bottles. “Those guys were so nice! I told them Brennan was sick and they were like, Oh, poor little guy, and they just kept bringing me stuff.” Tasha seems unaware that their attention might have actually been captured by the fact that she is a tanned, twenty-two year old knockout in a tank top and shorts.
A year later
Brennan still talks about soccer camp all the time. Even though he was only there a few mornings, the experience made an impression. This summer, he’ll go to a real, reputable day camp where he’ll swim and hike and play soccer, too.
Maybe I’ll hire Tasha to drop him off. She’ll make more of an impression on the counselors — and both they and Brennan are sure to admire her when she walks away.
Photo by Megan Dempsey