My son, Alexander, went to Sleepaway Camp this week for the very first time. I agreed to this with some serious hesitation. It’s not just that he’s eight and never spent a night away from home on his own before, it’s that he absolutely needs to fall asleep with the light on, is deathly afraid of any insect, even the smallest gnat, and is a little OCD about things like icky, sticky things on the floor or sink. So I wasn’t sure how he was going to handle Lights Out!, or a night spent sleeping under the stars where all manner of creepy crawlies could brush up against him in his sleeping bag, or a shared sink where other kids might inadvertently squirt toothpaste on the ledge. Hazards, hazards, everywhere and my sweet son full of fears. I told myself that the camp was only an hour from home so in the event of a disaster (i.e., your son refuses to sleep without a light on and we just can’t accommodate this), I could always dash up to fetch him.
On Sunday, when I dropped him off at his cabin, I helped him make his bed and unpack and then we stood there, eyeing each other.
“Okay,” he said. “You can go.”
Go? He wanted me to leave, just like that? He didn’t want me to stay and help him get acclimated? Check under the bunk bed for centipedes, check the four corners of the ceiling, and the center, for spiders?
“Really,” he said. “Go.” His hug was brief; it told me that he was ready to begin his adventure and didn’t want any lollygagging sentimental mushiness. It was a hug that told me he might not be afraid of this at all. I wanted to cry as I left him standing on the porch of his cabin, because I was so proud of him that he was jumping into this week of being away from me, from home, from everything that was familiar and safe on his own, with self-assurance. When I walked away, I had to keep myself from looking back for him again and again, to let him be.
Two days into the week and I received a letter from Alexander: “I’m having a great time at camp. I wished you could’ve sent me both weeks. How are you? Please write back! I love you!” No need to fetch him home. No hint of any troubled waters. In fact, according to my son, things were going so well, that he wanted to stay another week! Which meant: 1. He was sleeping without a light on (something he’d never ever managed to do); 2. He was either wearing a full suit of mosquito netting or he’d somehow, perhaps through the pressure of his peers, realized that full-on terror at the sight of a gnat was a bit silly; and 3. He’d managed to live with the fundamental messiness of a cabin full of boys. Which really meant he’d faced his fears and walked through them to the other side which was freedom, and in this case, was a week of canoeing and archery and swimming and arts and crafts and camp fires and ghost stories and messing around with a gaggle of eight year old boys.
But Alexander hasn’t been the only one away at Sleepaway Camp. I’ve been at Camp On My Own, too, for the past 5 ½ weeks with 1 ½ to go while my husband has been away on a teaching gig in Greece. It’s been the kids and me for all that time, except for the one week that they’re at Sleepaway Camp when it’s just me—or me and the two dogs and two cats. This is the first time in my entire life that I’ve been on my own for this long. A ridiculous thing to admit at almost (next week!) 42. But it’s true. I left my parents’ house and went off to college where I was in a relationship for 4 years and when that ended, within a week, I met my husband and we pretty much moved in together within a week or two—and that was when I was 22. Sure, there have been a few days here, a week there, when I’ve been on my own when my husband or I have been traveling, but never this amount of sustained time.
When I first contemplated being on my own for these 7 weeks, I panicked. How would I manage the kids and all of the meals and the giant house and its upkeep and all of the animals and their upkeep, not to mention my upkeep by myself? How would I stay on a stable path? Listen to the healthy sane voice and not give space to the voice that likes to do me in or lure me over to the dark side, where I believe the worst about myself, believe that I am inadequate, a failure, incapable of living the life I’ve been given? How would I hand the nights alone, the silence? Not having another adult—my friend, my constant companion—in the house to talk to, to check-in with across the day?
This was my dark room, my spiders, my ooze on the floor. I was filled with fear.
Then it happened. I kissed my husband goodbye at the airport and he went away. I got back into the car with the kids and turned around to look at them, and said, “Okay. Now our adventure begins.”
And it has been an adventure. There are things I’ve had to do that I would have run to my husband to fix. An exploding pipe under the sink. Bats invading my house—I even caught one in a net! Me! And even released it outside against a tree where it crawled up and away (thank god). Broke up a fistfight between a bunch of teenage girls. My car breaking down en route to my grandmother’s funeral on I-80. Fan belt snapped and tension pulley seized up while I was going 75mph. But I calmly guided the almost un-steerable car to the side of the road and called AAA—all without dissolving into tears. Not to mention keeping the house in general working order, keeping all the animals (including an extremely geriatric dog who seems to be on the verge of her 9thlife), healthy, including keeping the kids healthy and most importantly happy.
I can do all this and still feel whole in myself. I haven’t fallen apart because I’ve been alone. The silence and loneliness haven’t decimated me. In fact, the opposite has happened. For the first time in a long time, I get to be the sole decision maker. I don’t need to check-in or compromise. I go to bed when I want to, wake up when I need to. Eat what I like. Keep a schedule that I like. Watch what I like on TV, or don’t watch anything at all. I don’t have to be afraid to be with myself, to be alone with myself because now, as opposed to a few years ago when I was aiming to destroy myself in most any way possible, now, I’m good company. Of course, I’m looking forward to my husband’s return, his body curled up next to mine on the couch at night in front of the TV. when we watch a movie together, working in the kitchen together on a shared meal, the give and take of conversation, but Camp On My Own has shown me that I, too, can be fearless.