We drove down on Saturday to spend the night with Jack’s aunt and uncle who live in the same town where the summer camp is being held. Their proximity to the camp was a small source of comfort to me – I knew any real emergency would not involve Jack waiting three hours for a loved one to get to him. My stomach still ached when I woke up Sunday morning, however. It wasn’t the 80 degree heat at 6:00 AM that was bothering my system. It was the knowledge that I was about to leave my first born, Jack, on his own for the first time.
Twelve-year-old Jack, excited about the week ahead at a college just the night before, was quiet when he came down to breakfast. He ate his usual mountain of food, speaking only in answer to a direct question from me or his aunt. Feigned stoicism has been a hallmark of his tween years, but when his little brother failed to goad him into a squabble over a Lego ship in his cereal, I asked Jack if everything was okay.
“I’m just a little nervous,” he answered, pouring a third bowl of cereal.
“You’ll do great. You’ll do fine,” His aunt and I responded in unison, but my own worry was growing. Was he ready for this? I was about the same age when I spent my first summer away, but for some reason, my child seemed much younger.
The morning passed quickly, filled with a last minute haircut and shopping for toiletries. The distraction seemed to relax him, and by the time we drove him to registration, he felt confident enough to enjoy a little eighth grade humor.
The summer camp is being held at a small college where Jack will get to indulge his computing addiction for a week. When we got to the camp the first order of business was filing out forms and giving a deposit for his dorm key. Paper work done, we followed paper signs with big blue arrows down the hall of the college science building toward the computer lab.
The arrows lead us around a corner and into a large room with a wall of windows. Rows of tables weighted with the latest in computing technology filled most of the room. As Jack noticed the games on a few of the screens and the very low-tech chess boards setup at the front of the room, he began to smile.
In less than an hour we had installed him in a dorm room and met his roommate (a one-year veteran of the camp). We brought him back to the computer lab to say goodbyes. Now, I was the only one feeling nervous, but it was for myself. How was I going to spend a week without seeing his face?
All nervousness had left Jack’s face as a counselor invited him to play a computer game while he waited for the rest of the group. I knew, for the first time, he was with other science-oriented kids, and he would be fine. The Big Guy and I were smiling as we drove out of the college campus.
But the day’s story had just begun.
The Big Guy and I made the three hour trip home with our six-year-old. We stopped for dinner and ice cream and settled down on the couch to try and find a new, temporary routine. Exhaustion was helping us put the day behind us when my cell phone began beeping. I clicked the home button, saw a Skype alert and clicked it.
“Are you there?” It was Jack.
“Are you ok?” I texted back.
“I think I want to come home,” he wrote.
“Are you hurt?” I asked. “Is anyone teasing you? Do you feel scared?” He answered no to my questions, and I knew he was going through what all kids experience on their first night away from home. Making sure that he felt safe, even if he was already homesick, the Big Guy and I talked and texted him to let him know we were supporting him.
“Words just don’t help right now,” he wrote after a time. I knew they didn’t. I knew the only thing that would help was for him to get through the first night and see things from the fresh perspective of a seasoned camper.
Technology was a blessing and a curse in the unfolding of this story. Once, when summer camps controlled all communications, allowing only mail and care packages in and emergency phone calls out, the parents may have been aware of the first night fears. The ability to connect from anywhere at anytime, however, ensured that we felt his angst as keenly as he did. As we texted good night, I also wondered if the ease of connection was less a safety net and more a crutch.
I spent most of the night with my phone on, waiting for a midnight text and worrying how he was doing. Most likely, he’s eating breakfast right now and getting into his day, his parents once again an afterthought – as we should be this week. I’m still watching the text screen, hoping for a positive update, but knowing that at this moment that ‘No news is good news’, is a lot more than a tired cliche.