This hot summer has been brimming with opportunities, and through my delight in seeing my littlest having grown into shoes big enough for some life-changing new experiences I did not even realize that the very thing that brought so much joy and revival for him would be the thing to send my head swirling under the tepid waters of another grief wave unexpected.
Finally old enough for church camp we excitedly rolled tshirts and shorts into the duffel bag as big as he is, and lingered in the aisles of the dollar store choosing just the right snacks to share with the other campers who would become friends. We watched videos of what to expect, and excitedly counted down the days to when he would set out on his big adventure. My heart bubbled with anticipation for him as I prayed over the days ahead.
Finally it was time to drive him the 40 minutes out to where camp was being held, and he was ready as ever. As I heaved his bag into the back of the car I felt a surge of emotion I could not put my finger on. I pushed it out of my mind and slid into the car to see him grinning in the back seat. He looked solid and strong, a maturity I had seen blooming in the preceding weeks. His face was already tanned from days spent playing in the sun; a smattering of freckles beneath his fluffy shock of dark blonde hair. His eyes were bright with enthusiasm, and it was the smile he flashed at me that poked that emotion I had pushed away, and sent it raging to the surface. It filled my insides with gravel and sent my thoughts spinning. I knew exactly what had me feeling a little “off.”
Looking over my shoulder into the back seat I was staring at the carbon copy of his older brother, blonde and freckle-faced also at the age of 9 going off to his first faith-based summer camp. When we dropped our firstborn off for a week at camp we had the same joyful anticipation for him, but that week was the one that changed our lives in the most painful way, tearing from us something so sacred. The last time I picked my 9 year old up from camp I had to tell him his little sister had died unexpectedly, and I watched his whole world turn on its axis and shake every foundation he had believed in.
Somehow, without me even realizing it my subconscious had put all of these signs together, and the unease I had felt was a full blown terrifying fear that when 9 year olds go away to camp, terrible things happen. I was in fight or flight mode; my memories having strung together a warning of perceived danger.
I prayed silently across the stretches of tar specked pavement that cut through swaying wheat fields and sleepy towns. I prayed for protection, for freedom, for healing. I knew my thoughts were just tricking me, so I pushed them down and smiled as I helped my littlest man choose the top bunk and unpack his belongings for the week. As he stood tall for the obligatory first day of camp photo, I could not believe how grown up and how tender and small he looked all at once. We prayed again as I hugged him goodbye and all the way home I sung loud with the truth on the radio to drown out my anxieties.
Each night that I got to talk to my boy that week was such a balm to my soul, and this time I was the one counting days. Camp ended on a sweltering Friday morning, and I arrived right on time, fiercely ready to pull my little bird back under my wing. The parents all waited in scattered patches in the burning sun until we heard it; the low buzz of a large group of children walking toward us, smiling and skipping and hugging each other. It took me a minute to pick my boy’s face out of the crowd, but as soon as I did I let out a huge exhale I had unknowingly been holding; perhaps all week? I tried to control the tears that swelled at the rims of my eyes and pricked at my throat. Some part of me had still been waiting to know that everything was going to be ok.
I talked with my counselor about these events this week, and she shared something so enlightening with me. She put it this way: If you walk by a blue house and a dog comes out and bites you, it’s going to make you leery of blue houses. The next time you see a blue house you are going to feel afraid, palms sweating, anticipating the ferocious beast you met before. But not every blue house has a dog that bites. We can learn to pick out those blue houses, call them what they are or are not, and confidently walk by with our heads high because we know; this blue house is different.
Glancing in the mirror at my suntanned and thoroughly exhausted 9 year old, I thanked God to be bringing him home with joyful celebration, and I thanked him for the lessons of the last blue house, and the blessings of this one.