My daughter turned nine in what I call the summer of my bleeding heart. It all started when her cousin mentioned the two of them going to summer camp. Anna Marie was ecstatic. I, on the other hand, completely terrified.
I asked my husband what he thought.
"Absolutely not!" he fairly thundered. “She’s way too young.”
But parents aren’t always as firm as their voices. After much pondering, amid pleas from the girls, we capitulated.
On the day of our departure, I couldn’t stop thinking about my not yet nine-year-old spending a week without me. Would she remember to bathe? Who would comb her hair? What if she cried for me at night?
Despite such tormenting questions, my twin sister and I drove our daughters to the place of surrender. Upon arrival, maternal terror washed over me like a tidal wave as I observed a sea of youngsters swarming in every direction, looking as I feared my child would as soon as I was out of sight: hair disheveled; clothes rumpled; hard candy hanging out of their mouths. Lost and without hope. It was all I could do to keep driving, but the campers in the backseat had ants in their pants.
By mid-afternoon, we stood inside a sweltering dormitory, staring at rows of metal bunk beds atop stark concrete floors. My stomach lurched. I couldn’t imagine leaving my child—my baby—here for one minute, let alone for a week. I considered grabbing her and running, but it was too late. She and Leslie now stood beaming beside the bunk they had chosen as "theirs." Could we please unload their luggage?
Exchanging horrified glances, Gayle and I managed to stumble outside and return with suitcases holding fresh-smelling clothes and linens. As I spread sheets across a puny mattress, I heard my sister imparting motherly advice to her offspring, so I decided it was a good time to offer my umpteenth lecture concerning housekeeping and oral hygiene.
While I rattled off a list of ingenious tips, Anna Marie’s eyes remained on my face, but she appeared to be in a trance. "And don't forget to brush your teeth and ... are you listening, sweetie?"
She sighed and rolled her eyes. "Mama," she said, "I know you’re worried about me and everything, but—are you finished?” I wasn’t, but just then a dorm monitor announced that teams were being formed for a volleyball game—commencing in 30 minutes. Anyone interested, please form a line.
Like calves out of stalls, the girls bolted forward and were assigned to a team. It appeared to be our cue to leave.
"OK, girls," my sister said, sounding as faint as I felt. "I guess this is goodbye for us."
That's when my child’s face wilted. "But I'm fixing to play volleyball, Mommy," she said. "Can't you stay and watch me?"
Upon hearing her call me "Mommy," I was renewed. Maybe this was a sign she still needed me. Of course, we’d stay!
The volleyball game ended quickly. My little camper was among the losers, but didn't seem to notice. She dashed over to where I stood, her face flushed. "You played great, baby!" I said, but she was too busy eyeing the horde of kids headed toward the cafeteria for dinner.
"Well, I guess Mommy and Aunt Gayle are leaving, sweetheart. We’ve got a long drive home. Are you sure you want to stay?" She nodded excitedly. I hoped for a bear hug, but she only smiled. Kissing the top of her head, I said, "Bye, angel. I love you."
Watching the girls sprint toward the cafeteria, Gayle and I let out a collective sigh, a pitiful sigh, and my heart hurt.
As we drove away, I circled the campgrounds, unable to resist a final look. When I spotted them, they were standing side-by-side, discussing whatever nine-year-olds discuss on such occasions, their faces anxious and eager.
It was almost unbearable to look at them standing there, because I knew they would never be that small again, because of the way they were growing up, right before my very eyes.
I gave a long blast on the horn. When they finally saw us, I waved frantically out the window. Timidly, Anna Marie waved back. And, ironically, I was filled with an intense pride that she was able to stand there—without me.
This story is adapted from my book, Silver Linings. It also appeared in the Beaumont Enterprise. All rights reserved.