A Tale of Two Summer Camps


A week ago Sunday I took my 9-year-old, Franny, to the bus drop-off for sleepaway camp, a camp I will refer to as Mountain Lake. A high-octane, uber-friendly counselor loaded Franny’s duffel bag, filled with bedding, t-shirts, shorts, sneakers, and a bewigged get-up for the 80s dance, into the luggage compartment of one of the buses.

After registering her asthma medication with another relentlessly cheery counselor, Franny, Atticus and I deposited ourselves on the grass and waited for the bus to leave. Hundreds of parents milled around the enormous parking lot, stepping out of Escalades and Hummers with their Starbucks cups in hand.

Although we live in a large, socioeconomically diverse city, there was not one whit of difference strolling through that parking lot. I knew by the cookie-cutter appearance of the parents–the women: full-cheeked, duck-lipped cosmetic surgery, Brazilian blown-out tresses, major ring-finger bling; the men: bermuda shorts, golf-course tans, and Master-of-the-Universe struts–which part of the city they lived in. I knew they were doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and a few notable Reality TV stars, that they resided in McMansions with buzzers at the front gate, in rolling-hilled enclaves hermetically sealed from the country’s 9.2% unemployment rate.

Atticus, who grew up with a self-made, wealthy father who turned more misanthropic and paranoid the more successful he became–and who, unfortunately for his children, left all his money to the stepmother–checked sports news on his iPhone while grumbling about “conspicuous consumption.”

My own feelings about Big Money are complicated. I grew up around it, but not of it. When I was married to Prince, who stands to inherit a gazillion dollars when his parents kick their gold-plated bucket, I felt soothed by the cocoon of comfort that mega-wealth brings, yet also anaesthetized and dumbed-down by it. After awhile, I wasn’t sure what I thought about anything–except that I didn’t truly belong with the Machiavellis.

On a yacht trip we took with Prince’s family, on a 150-foot vessel that Mrs. Machiavelli hunted down so that all the Machiavellis and their spouses could sleep in king beds and not, God forbid, in queen beds, I spent most of my time hanging out with the staff in the galley. A few years later, when I told my divorce attorney that I had always felt more comfortable with the Machiavelli’s Help, she cackled and replied, “That’s because you’re one of ’em!”

Back when I used to receive child support, Prince would inform me that I had to shift my schedule to accomodate his, or pack the kids’ suitcases and schlep them to an airport for a trip he was taking them on, because “that’s what I pay you for!” Because Luca mimicked his father’s attitude towards me, and because I couldn’t afford to pay half of sleepaway camp or golf lessons or new computers, I often had to struggle against the feeling that I was my children’s au pair and not their mother.

While I am immensely grateful that my kids are recipients of the privileges the Machiavellis bestow on them, I sometimes struggle with believing that the intangible things I have to offer–empathy, loving my kids for who they are and not who I thought they might be, a conviction that everyone, regardless of their bank account, deserves respect–are of value.

When I saw Prince the morning of the camp drop-off, I was struck by the aura of abundance that emanated from him. His limbs, lean from hours of tennis and spin classes, his $150 shirts fresh from the fluff ‘n fold and laundered with “light starch,” his skuffless Keen sandals, his face blemish-free from facials, his swagger, all said: “Look at me, I’m the biggest rooster in the barn!”

Prince and his new wife Sarah were there to drop off her younger son Jake. The three of them sat next to Franny, who sat next to Atticus and me. I thought it might be nice, at this point, to have a splash of Merlot in my Starbucks cup.

“Hi, Guys,” Sarah said, just as nice as you please. If you met her and didn’t know anything about her, you would not expect her to be married to Attila the Hun. But, then, that’s what people thought about me.

Atticus kept his eyes fixed on the iPhone sports reports. He’s not anywhere near over Prince’s shenanigans. I smiled back, for Franny’s sake.

“Pauline, did you go to (fancy east coast university?)” Sarah asked.

“No, I went to (other fancy east coast university).”

“Oh. I thought you might have gone to (first fancy east coat university). Jeremy’s there for journalism camp.”

Jeremy is Sarah’s older son, an all-around smart, athletic, handsome, nice 16-year-old whom Luca reveres.

My eyes teared up as I thought of Luca, now at Namoro (not its real name), a wilderness camp a few states away. I learned the day before that, not only did Prince send him to this camp, but that he chose to have him transported via escort.

I imagined Luca, just shy of 5′ tall, seated on the plane next to some burly Alpha dude, choking back tears. I thought about what it must feel like to realize that you are not going to the bells-and-whistles camp you adore, the one that your father told you you were attending, the one where your sister and stepbrother are headed…but that you are going to a very different kind of camp. A camp for kids who can’t control their behavior, a camp for kids who have spent years torpedoing their way out of playdates, schools, homes, therapy. You don’t know what you will be doing at this other camp, exactly, but you are beginning to realize it won’t involve paintball, jet-skiing, or girls. When you ask the Escort where you’re going, and when you’re coming back, he gives you the steely Alpha-eye and tells you all will be revealed–later. And then it sinks in, harder now, how different your summer will be from your siblings’…and how different you are from them.

Franny boarded her bus and sat in a seat towards the front. Prince and I did our best to ignore each other, standing outside the bus, below the window, waving at Franny who was ensconced with her busmate and who was doing her best to ignore us.

I heard Prince’s I’m-so-rich-that-nothing-fazes-me guffaw, and turned to see him chatting up someone else’s father. I watched the ease in which he struck up the conversation. I imagined him encased in a Teflon shell that protected him from regret, longing, grief. The shell that keeps him from empathizing, from thinking I should fly my kid to wilderness camp so he doesn’t think I’m abandoning him. After 21 years of knowing Prince, I am still amazed that he seems completely and utterly unaffected by reality.

In the days since both kids left, I’ve checked their respective camp web sites for photos. Franny’s camp posts hundreds of photos a day, which requires scouring pages and pages of frolicking children. One photo of Franny showed her upon arrival, beaming, sprinting from the bus towards two weeks of non-stop fun.

Days went by before photos of Luca appeared on the Namoro web site. In the picture taken at his arrival, his eyes are red, and he’s smiling a brave, uncertain smile. Another picture shows him at base camp, cocking his head, still smiling gamely. And in the third picture, he’s on bended knee, crafting a bow drill he will use to start a fire for cooking.

I was at work looking at these pictures so I went into my bathroom to cry. I slid down the wall and sobbed into my knees. The day that the photos were taken was Luca’s actual birthday. I thought of the morning he was born fourteen years ago, the morning that changed my life forever.

And I thought, maybe, this day would change his.

Luca making his bow drill

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About perilsofdivorcedpauline

I am a survivor of a world-class gnarly divorce. My dastardly ex-husband is suing me for full custody of my son, and more time with my daughter. He’s super-rich and I’m super-not. You get the picture.
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12 Responses to A Tale of Two Summer Camps

  1. I love this piece…it’s touching, funny and truly special. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Jenny says:

    This rang true on so many levels. Glad Christina posted it on BTB too. Luca will probably get a lot out of his Outward Boundesque camp, but I know it’s tough medicine. Looking forward to hearing about his return.

  3. Pauline — your writing absolutely breaks my heart. I think any mother whose heart doesn’t break as she reads your story is heartless, in fact!

    I, too, am completely repulsed by my ex’s sense of entitlement and self-righteousness. I experience those same emotions you do as I watch him casually chat and network with other baseball moms and dads at the ball park as we watch our kids practice. I’m constantly filled with the urge to scream from the top of my lungs, “If you only knew who this man REALLY is!” as he casually chats it up with seemingly like-minded parents. Ick.

    And I can’t imagine how you must feel, knowing the sense of disappointment your son felt — especially given how excited he was for his camp. I can empathize entirely.

    I know it doesn’t help right now, as you’re in the thick of the constant unknown, the nagging fear that he’s miserable and sad and lonely and longing for the experience he thought he’d be having: But he’ll come out better for it. You know this, but in many ways, it just doesn’t matter — because what takes precedence right now is the heartbreak you’re feeling. Please know that many of us are out here wishing you and Luca much peace and healing right now…

    • Thanks for your very thoughtful, empathetic comment, Mikalee. I’m trying to be as zen as possible about this whole thing, and am sending my son zen vibes through the ether. A progress update was posted on the camp web site, so I’m feeling a bit more settled now that I know more details about the program.

  4. No matter what everyone says, mothers are not ‘parents’ only and mothers are not interchangeable with fathers. We are also not fungible as mothers. We have connections which are biological and psychological to our children, and also connections which are spiritual, however we define that.

    Christina is a brave woman to keep putting her children first. Dealing with Prince is only part of her bravery. I think she should consider him the same way she would consider an unwanted growth that is unpleasant: with an eye to its removal. This may not be possible in the short term, but someone with Prince’s incapacity to be fully present and human seems to be adding a toxic element into her children’s lives.

    If her son had to be transported out of state to attend that camp, I would think her permission would be required before doing so. Isn’t that the case?! If not, it should be.

    I am sorry Christina has to deal with Prince. I am sad that her child was so unhappy. I hope he can come back from his ‘retraining’ camp without murderous rage. I know if I were sent away like that, I would never forgive the people who did that to me. Ever. It is a betrayal of the worst sort for a child to believe their parents agreed that they are doing x but instead are switched without their knowledge into doing something they consider to be punitive and rejecting and betraying, y. You don’t bait and switch your customers in businessf (it is unethical and against the consumer protection laws in some states), and you NEVER do it with a kid.

    My advice? When he comes home, give him love. Lots of it. Tell him you’re sorry. Tell him you would never have sent him to that particular camp without his agreement (if that is true), that you were surprised too (but only if that is true, too), and you hope he can forgive you. And then implement whatever useful suggestions the ‘camp’ gives you so that your child will not be totally confused about how he should behave.

  5. I have my fingers crossed. I’ve heard great things about camps like Luca’s. And I’ve heard the separation does need to be pretty vicious to work. It’s a hard position to be in allowing pain to fall upon our children so they become better for it. But it’s part of being human and usually the most wealthy are the most sheltered as well. You’re a tough mama. You’ll be fine. Luca too. Time heals everything eventually. You’ll see.

  6. Money. Parenting. Single parenting. Differing value systems.

    This is unconscionable, and I’ve lived my own versions and the cleanup afterward, never certain of what scars lay beneath what I see and try to soften – any way that I can.

    What some would call bait and switch, I might call constant undermining of trust. Something that some of us have to fight, in ways not always understood, when it comes to our children.

    And all the complexity of situations and emotions that our kids can’t possibly know or understand.

  7. Such a beautiful piece! As always, my heart goes out to you. And my heart aches for you and for Luca. The part about crying in the bathroom, I can totally related. Big hugs… XOXO

  8. It seems narcissism, lack of reality, and feelings of power over others runs deep and thick in ex-husbands. Your piece moved me, it was touching and beautiful. Real. Life of co-parenting families is hard. I just got off the phone with Him talking about an encounter with his ex while dropping off the boys and…it’s always just so painful and aggravating. You want to scream “Don’t these people see what they are doing to their children?!?” But I suppose if they were the kinds of people that saw what they were doing to their children, they’ wouldn’t do them and we’d still be married to them.

    Hugs to you.

  9. I had to send my daughter away to Outward Bound when she was 17 (over her birthday, too). AT the time, she said it was the worst thing that had ever happened to her, but nowadays she says she’s glad we made her go. Keep thinking long term….

  10. Bekah says:

    Ive been reading your blog for the past three days, but this post touched me the most. I have sole custody of my brother who I gained guardianship of whilst married, but only precious little time with my daughter, much like yours with Luca because of my brother’s anger disorder. It’s so hard for me to be without her when i’ve been there every waking moment since she was born.Like you I gave up majoritive custody hoping it is for her best interest. I hold onto the hope that some day she’ll see that and forgive me. I dont know what Im trying to say other than thank you for being here on this scary rollercoaster ride with me. I hope Luca has a good time at camp.

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