By Candy Schulman
I missed Amy’s first day of sleep away camp. I was in Florida, registering my mother at a senior activity center, deciding if she needed bus service and watching an eighty something man flirt with her—while my ten-year-old daughter was unpacking for camp.
Ever since my mother’s heart attack, I’d been visiting her regularly. At the age of ninety she’d finally slowed down from a busy life of competitive golf and chiseling large alabaster sculptures. Juggling my marriage, child-rearing, and responsibilities as a college professor, I was often exhausted overseeing Mom’s care 1,500 miles from my home.
At first I didn’t think I’d mind missing my daughter’s first summer separation. She’d be gone less than a week, playing soccer on a bucolic boarding school campus. Her dad was driving her up to help get settled; I’d made sure her duffle bag contained everything she needed for six days—enough sweatshirts for a sub-zero plunge, when New England was encased in an unrelenting heat wave.
There are a number of “firsts” that every mother misses: a baby’s first tentative steps that occur while we’re at work, or a wiggly tooth eased out by a school nurse. Momentarily I cheered up when Amy suggested we buy matching journals, and write to each other when we were apart. I predicted that I’d run out of pages, while Amy would document each day with something succinct: “Camp was great.” Or I could write something terse myself, using her vocab: “Life without you sucks.”
Other camps have Web sites with updates and new photos of your child daily. Other camps have e-mail addresses to write to your child. (“Use sunscreen. Eat vegetables. Drink lots of fluids so you don’t get dehydrated and throw up on the soccer field. Love, your nagging Mom.”) But Amy’s camp is only six days. Although I haven’t yet given in to buying Amy her own cell phone, two of her friends have brought theirs … do I dare call? Or is the whole point to allow your child to experience freedom, responsibility, and independence? I want to call so badly! All I’ve gotten so far is a message from Dad: “Tell Mom my room’s really cool.” I need to know more … would she shower in six days, or consider the daily swim in the pool an act of body cleansing?
On Day Two, after touring and approving Mom’s new Senior Camp facilities and programs, I fly home. Amy calls on her friend Emma’s phone. I lunge to hear her voice, proud that I’ve held off longer than she had.
“Hi,” I say, hyperventilating. “How’s camp?”
“What did you have for dinner?”
“What are you doing now?”
“Talking to you.”
“Anything else you want to tell me?”
Her voice picks up. “We had a ping pong tournament. I came in second. I had two killers a 12-year-old boy couldn’t return.”
Ping pong? Why did I pay so much money to send her to soccer camp?
“Gotta go.” Click.
On the way to bed, I pass her room. It seems stiller than all the times she’s been to sleepover birthday parties. I empathize with the zoo of stuffed animals on her colorful striped comforter … alone … lonely … abandoned. She’d asked me to watch over her Golden Retriever, a frail yet cuddly “lovey” named Puppy, who’s been in our family since Amy was born. She still sleeps with her every night. We’ve joked that she will take Puppy with her to college. Amy is only in middle school, but friends with older kids warn me how quickly time passes; before I know it we’ll be unpacking her and Puppy in her dorm for freshman year. I don’t want to miss more “firsts” than I have to, yet I know that the older she gets, the less we will share. I place Puppy on my night table, feeling foolish when I tell her, “Good night,” the way Amy always does.
* * *
After work on Day Three, I go to the movies, then meet my husband for a late night out. It feels luxurious, almost decadent. I almost forget that Amy is 175 miles away. My husband and I stop for gelato on the way home, like a couple on a date without babysitter curfews. Instinctively we glance at our cell phones and look up, alarmed, when we see two missed calls from the same number: Amy’s roommate’s cell. While we were enjoying our freedom, she was needing us. I dial quickly. No answer.
At home, a small almost quivery voice on my answering machine: “Hi Mom and Dad …. It’s Amy. I was just wondering where you are. I love you. Bye.”
It’s 10:02 p.m. Do you know where your parents are? I want to be there whenever she needs me—but the older she gets, the more often she’ll have to navigate the world without me.
I finally reach her at 10:18. “How’s camp?”
“My ankle hurts.”
“When did it start hurting?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Does it hurt now?”
“No. Only when I put pressure on it.”
“Are you crying?”
“Of course not.”
Of course she is. “Did you go to the nurse?”
“I haven’t told anyone. But I bought some tape in the canteen and taped up my ankle.”
What kind of tape would they sell? Scotch tape? What does she know about taping up ankles? What if she’s sprained it, stressed it, damaged it? What if she’s sidelined for the rest of camp? I picture her, limping on crutches, duct tape holding together her sore joint….
I make her promise to see the nurse the next morning, and then do what any other parent would do: call the dorm mother, who has no idea my kid is ailing. Amy’s school reports always say: “She never asks for help when she needs it.” Tenacious on the soccer field, reluctant to report a serious orthopedic injury. Here I fretted she was going to have heat stroke, when the real worry is that she’ll come home in a full body cast. I lay awake half the night, convinced that freedom and independence are not a good thing … not for my little girl … not for me.
* * *
Day Four is interminable. The phone doesn’t ring until 10:04 p.m.—again via Amy’s roommate’s cell.
I grill her, but she says her ankle doesn’t hurt anymore. She talks again about what fun she’d had playing ping pong.
“How about soccer?” I ask.
“Did I tell you about the magic sponge? The coaches have a huge sponge in a bowl of water. Whenever we get too hot, they squeeze the magic sponge over our heads and it cools us off. Like magic.”
I need a magic sponge. Only fifty-one hours to go.
* * *
It’s amazing how much you can get done when you don’t have to pick up or tend to a child. Each day I accomplish twice as much as I usually do. I cook salmon with wild mushrooms for dinner—something Amy would never eat. My husband and I have a romantic dinner alone. Then we have a fight. About nothing much really, just your average, typical, marital spat that lasts no longer than the next morning, and is indicative of how stressed we both are—by the usual daily burdens of life, coupled by our only child being Gone.
“I don’t feel comfortable when she’s not under my roof,” my husband says, after we start talking again. He, who’s always lax. I’m the overprotective one. He’s the one who went to sleep away camp as a child; I’m the one who never left home until college.
“Why? What do you think could happen?” I imagine bears, disease-ridden mosquitos, her glasses shattering from a hard-hit soccer ball, broken permanent teeth….
“Tonight’s the dance,” he says morosely.
“She’s only ten,” I remind him.
“Much too young for that sort of thing,” he says, shaking his head. I don’t confess about the micro-mini skirt I let her pack for camp.
The phone rings at 12:23 a.m. Is it an emergency with my mother? Groggily my husband misses the call. There is a message on my voice mail, which I don’t hear until morning: “Hi you guys, it’s Amy. Um, we got back really late so I didn’t call you because it’s … like twelve now, but I’ll try calling in the morning. If I have time. I’m gonna fall asleep any minute, I’m so tired. G’night.”
* * *
During the four-hour ride to fetch her at camp, I recall my husband reporting his phone conversation with her while I was still visiting my mother. When she said, “How’s M—” he was certain she was about to say, “How’s Mom?” Instead she asked, “How’s Macaroni?” Her hamster. It reminded me of the time in preschool, when she drew an abstract “family portrait,” and she identified the blobs of color on the page: the huge splash of purple was “Daddy,” and, pointing to a tiny speck of brown marker all the way in the bottom corner, she added, “This is you, Mommy.” Was I just a speck of brown in her whole universe?
When I get out of the car in the parking lot, I see groups of kids emerging from the cafeteria. Searching for girls Amy’s size, I soon spot her, but am unsure what to do. At Amy’s age, being coerced into hugging your mom in public will be used against you, in countless future hours on the analyst’s couch. Her roommate leaps into her mom’s arms, but she’s a year younger. Coolly I approach Amy. Gingerly, without much oomph, she gives me a perfunctory hug.
In the car I tell her to put her seat belt on. She rolls her eyes. “Sleep away camp was great—no parents to boss you around,” she growls.
It isn’t until much later, when we are alone, that Amy sits on my lap like a toddler. She plays with my hair. “I missed you,” she whispers.
“I missed you too,” I say. “A lot.”
She gives me a light kiss on the cheek.
I extend the moment, holding my little girl on my lap as long as she allows. Soon enough, she’s off and running again. Away from me, then back to me. I would have to get used to it. And so would she.
Later that night I get a phone call from my mother, documenting her first week at Senior Day Camp. She loved Chair Yoga, enjoyed “Kibitzing with Cantor Jack” and the discussion “Imagine” Bladder Control Therapy, felt foolish playing dominos and bingo, missed progressive bridge because of a dental appointment to finalize her lower bridge, and absolutely hated the meatloaf and mashed potatoes at lunch. She’s a picky eater, just like her granddaughter.
Author’s Note: Similar to many mothers I know, I juggled raising my daughter with the growing demands of looking after my aging mother, who lived 1,500 miles from our family. I saw both humor an poignancy in the parallels they both faced. Even though I wasn’t always at their sides for all the important “firsts,” both of them filled me in on what I’d missed. I couldn’t always be physically present, but they learned to thrive in my absence.
Candy Schulman’s essays have appeared in the New York Times, Parents, Salon.com, Babble.com, The Chicago Tribune and in several anthologies. She is an Associate Professor of Writing at The New School in New York City.
Art: Michael Lombardo