My daughter left for summer camp this morning. We brought her to the bus, which was parked in a nearby mall lot. She’s been both excited and sad these past few days—which goes for us, too. I’ve cried several times, though only once in her presence. It’s hard—not merely her leaving, but this big stage in her life. I still vividly recall her birth; a tiny thing of 5 pounds and 14 ounces, emerging with the cord wrapped around her neck. She made no noise, and the doctors seemed nervous. When I looked at her, well, she was angelic. Just a little glowing angel. I actually gave her the nickname “Swan Angel of Love,” which means nothing and everything.
In the immediate aftermath of my original post about summer camp (The Departed), I received several painful comments, all along the lines of “What sort of parent sends his 8-year old off for seven weeks …” Each word hurt; actually, cut. I told my wife, “Of all the notes I’ve gotten through the decades, these are the hardest.” Why? First, because I get it. To me, the idea of sending my little girl off the camp was, initially, crazy, too. Hell, summer is the greatest of seasons. Freedom and liberation and ice cream. Why would I want her to miss July 4 with the family? And what about swinging on the hammock in the front yard? And pancake breakfasts every Saturday morning? And her birthday—July 31? I didn’t have children to not be with my children. I’m a write-from-home dad for a reason: Because I want to see my children grow up. I want to be there. For everything. Every dirty diaper. Every rough night. Every step. Every word. Every triumph. Every setback. Everything. Honestly, I hate (no, HATE) that my daughter left for camp this morning. I am beyond depressed. I am hurting. Crushed.
And yet …
Being a parent is not about being a parent. I’ve learned that from my wife, and it’s true. Being a parent, more than anything, is about giving your kids the best lives possible. That doesn’t mean spoiling them with dolls and games and trips and cars. No, it means making their lives fruitful and engrossing; teaching them empathy and understanding; setting them forth on a righteous journey. I’ve already had my childhood, and while being a dad allows one the blessed opportunity to experience kid-like activities again (jumping on the trampoline, lying atop the car and counting stars, giving voice to my son’s snake doll, building a haunted house for Halloween), I am—sadly—not a kid, and never again will be. Again, this isn’t about me. It’s about them. Their childhoods.
The camp my daughter is attending is amazing. It’s where my wife went, and where my wife’s sister went, and where my wife’s cousins went. My daughter is attending along with two first cousins and six second cousins. They have a waterfront, and water skiing, and a camp musical, and sing-alongs, and pottery, and a million different fantastic opportunities. Last summer my daughter attended a local day camp, and as more and more friends went the sleep-away route, she became increasingly bored. Had she stayed home this summer, she would have been even more bored. Oh, the evenings with her mom, dad and brother would be—as always—enjoyable. But, truth be told, it would have been bad. Not awful, just, well, bad.
What goes unspoken here—until now—is that I’m Jewish, and this is what a huge number of American Jews (across the spectrum) do come summer. My brother and I both attended sleep away camps as kids, as did my only cousin. I’m not sure if it’s, technically, part of our culture, but it’s definitely tradition. Talk to most any Jewish guy or woman in my age range, and you’ll inevitably hear summer camp stories about tipping a canoe, or a hike to see Bigfoot’s grave, or roasting marshmallows on an open fire, or, eventually, a first boyfriend/girlfriend, a first kiss. When I think back to my camp days (which weren’t quite as enriching as my wife’s), I think of—oddly—the Annie soundtrack, and hitting the game-winning homer in color war, and excitedly receiving care packages from my folks, and intense rainy day games of knock hockey. There were girls I had crushes on, and counselors who I idolized, and seemingly endless days in the water, doing “the crawl” out to the deep dock.
For those who don’t dig camp, or don’t understand camp, I get the criticism. And, certainly, I felt horribly empty this morning, as my daughter boarded the bus and tears welled up in my eyes (I’m getting teary again, writing this). I love my kids more than anything I’ve ever loved. I would die for them, without a moment’s thought.
Sometimes, however, a father (and mother) has to let go a little. Sometimes he (or she) needs to know that the best parental move isn’t always the one that keeps Junior closest to your side.
I am deeply saddened by my daughter not being here.
I am equally hopeful.