This week I drove Nick to school, piled his stuff bag into the back of a van filled with kids, and waved goodbye as they drove off.
Six hours later, an email:
Hello Parents of Upper Elementary Trip Goers! N. reports that they have arrived safely, it’s beautiful, and they are getting ready to go swimming . . .
My son, hundreds of miles away, first time.
When I was six, my parents did much the same with me as I went off to spend a month at Camp Akela in the San Bernadino Mountains. As months go, it was pretty good. I met a nice girl, and I recall we got engaged for a fortnight.
Nick is soon to be eleven, and I suppose it’s a comment on how differently we raise children now that I could have been dispatched so casually at such a young age for so long a time, while his three-day trip seems such a big deal.
It is a big deal. As of the beginning of the school year, Nick hadn’t had a successful sleep over. He’d had friends here, but never stayed the night elsewhere.
“I want us to work on sleep overs this year,” I said. “I won’t be going with you on the Upper Elementary trip.”
“What if I can’t sleep?”
“You know the drill. Stay in bed. You’ll sleep the next day.”
“Okay,” he said.
A month later he came home from a night at his friend Jonah’s.
“I slept,” he said. A flourish of trumpets.
Two more sleep overs followed.
Is the pleural of sleep over sleeps over?
Nick’s bedroom door remained open, his bed neatly made. The cat sat in the hall, peering in.
“Something the matter?” I said.
“Where’d he go?”
“Far away,” I said. “He’ll be back.”
“I’m not sure what to do,” the cat said.
Nora and I moved about the quiet house, two solitudes. The next afternoon we took in a movie at the local palace. We settled into a familiar, slow rhythm.
I used to be a pilot. Actually, I’m still one, though I haven’t flown in a few years.
My instructor and I had just gotten back from my twelfth lesson. We taxied to the tie down spot and I shut the engine off. He popped the door open to let himself out. I moved to follow.
“Where are you going?” he said, handing me the key.
“What do you mean?”
“Once around,” he said, meaning fly once around the airport. He closed the door and walked away.
“By myself?” I shouted, though he couldn’t hear.
I knew the drill.
The second day we got another email report:
Very beautiful and cozy, snowy mountains. Lots of dodge ball and swimming. Maybe a hike today. Eating lots of yummy food. Kids made pizza.
Some pictures post on Facebook. Kids in snow. A tiny snowman.
So what the hell, I googled “Camp Akela.” I found a blog post titled “Camp Girl.” A woman in Sherman Oaks had spent five summers at Akela with her brother. She wasn’t the girl I had been engaged to, but it was nice to read her post. She had a great time riding horses and jumping on trampolines. This is what she had to say about her parents:
One summer, they were so elated by our absence, they threw a party to celebrate! Here’s what it said on the invitation. Two words: “THEY’RE GONE!” Oh, the inhumanity! Not to mention, the years of therapy that followed.
No party for us.
They arrive back at school exactly on time.
“Dad, it snowed!” he says.
He’s seen snow before, not snowing.
Over dinner we tell him he did great.
“What?” he says.
He sleeps thirteen hours.
The first year of Fern Hill, when Nick was three, the school director, a wise woman of a certain age, had said, “First year is all about separation.”
I had spent many hours with Nick in that tiny nursery yard. We had our own special corner with a tire swing and a menagerie of vehicles he rode in. Every day I made sure to leave, if only for a little while. Always his tears.
That had been eight years ago.
And still, we separate.
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