George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social and Emotional Learning

Baby, Don’t Cry: A Child Goes Off to Summer Camp

One mother’s continuing education in letting go.

Two days before my nine-year-old son went to camp for the first time, I died. At least my husband thought I did. My last words, according to him were, "Oh God, oh God, oh God, not yet," before I pitched forward onto his shoulder. It was quite a show. What else was he to think?

He sent my son to get some water and then put his ear to my mouth to see if I was still breathing. Then he spouted out a stream of nonsense: lyrics to a Green Day song, a list of shows we had TiVo-ed at home, movies we'd yet to see. He didn't know what else to do. I could hear him, and, although I couldn't respond, I found his recitation oddly comforting. It felt like he was talking me back from Jupiter with incantations of pop culture.

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If one has to go, and we all have to go eventually -- to school, to camp, to the dentist, to the next world -- there could not be a better way. Drift off while your husband whispers things in your ear from Curb Your Enthusiasm and American Idiot and Live Free or Die Hard. We should all be so lucky.

Obviously, I didn't die. I had fainted from heat exhaustion because I was stupid enough to go for a run at an altitude of 6,000 feet a half-hour after arriving in the mountains on a 100-degree day.

When I came to a few minutes later, I was surrounded by people: my husband, my son and his friend clutching Dixie cups full of water, an anesthesiologist, and his nurse wife. Apparently, I had caused quite a scene, slumped over as I was on a bale of fake hay outside of a Ben & Jerry's ice cream store, unconscious and corpse-like but with my eyes wide open (this detail provided to me gleefully by my son and his friend).

The couple sat with me while my husband went to get the car. The nurse took my pulse and pronounced it a bit ragged but fine. I confessed to the anesthesiologist that I loved anesthesiologists, especially the one who gave me my epidural during the birth of my son. He said he got that reaction quite a bit. I asked him if he would mind taking my pulse again. He declined.

It was to be a weekend of firsts. Sending your kid away to camp, or, in my case, watching your kid sprint away from you as fast as his legs will carry him to camp, is as big a moment as all the other firsts: sitting up, walking, peeing in the toilet, kindergarten, and cracking the code of the alphabet. A first for me -- fainting in public. A first for my son -- seeing what his mother might look like dead.

But something was wrong. My experience with my son was that usually some sort of emotion accompanied his firsts, like a blast of fear or a trumpeting of anxiety -- at the very least, a few sniffles. So, as we neared the day of his departure for camp, I braced myself for all sorts of breakdowns: begging at the last minute to go back home, or pleading when he realized that sleep-away camp really meant sleeping in an 8-by-10 room with ten other stinky boys and no Nintendo, Webkinz, cartoons, or air conditioner for a week. Instead, he steadily and happily pulled away from me.

Finally, when I couldn't take it any longer, I asked if I could just have a little hug. He said he was too busy to hug me, so (and I am not proud of this) I reminded him of the fainting incident. He shrugged and jumped into the pool.

"This is good," my husband said. "He needs to separate from you. He's too much of a mama's boy."

"This is good," my girlfriend said. "He's compartmentalizing."

"This is not good," I said. "Tell me again what I said right before you thought I died."

One of my jobs -- perhaps my most important job -- is to educate my son. I don't mean to scholastically educate him -- I leave that to his teachers. The education I'm talking about is much more ordinary but no less significant, and what every mother needs to teach her child: Why Mike and Ike candies trump Gummy Bears, why you should always sleep on the top bunk, how to get a pistachio out of its shell, or why people are mean sometimes when they really want to be nice.

He did break down, finally. Two hours before we drove him to camp, I heard him weeping in the shower. I ran into the bathroom and peeled back the shower curtain.

"I can't see!" he cried. "There's shampoo in my eyes. I'm blind!"

"Of course you can see," I said. "You're not blind. It's tearless shampoo."

"It's not tearless!"

"Yes it is," I told him. "It says so on the bottle."

I held up the bottle to show him, and sure enough it read "tearless." In fact, it was so tearless that it was called Baby, Don't Cry, but it seemed this shampoo had the opposite effect, as my baby was crying. I wrapped him up in a towel. I draped a cold washcloth on his head and let him watch SpongeBob, all the while thinking, "Oh God, oh God, oh God, not yet."

A couple of hours later, he was gone.

Melanie Gideon is the author of the young-adult novels The Map That Breathed and Pucker.