Writer Muffy Fenwick discovers summer camp is a learning experience for moms, too.
My little boy suffers from “frequent and debilitating” migraine headaches. These are the words I choose for the countless forms I complete for his school, his sports teams, his camps. They started when he was barely two years old. We were at a family dinner and I watched as his chubby, freckled face drained of color and his usually twinkling blue eyes became vacant. I carried his listless body to the car and tried to coax him as he stared blankly out the window, barely responsive to the passing trees and darting cars. I slept on his floor that night, scared by his unresponsiveness. At some point in the night, he became restless and whiny, finally vomiting all over his crumpled airplane sheets. He then plunged into a deep, immovable sleep.
I kept vigil all night, petrified he would asphyxiate on his vomit. As I lay in my make-shift bed on the floor, I comforted myself that everything is better in the morning light. That morning, after our pediatrician and I began to dissect his unusual symptoms, my hopes were realized. He regained his boyish energy, kicking a red ball across the backyard and sliding gleefully down his green slide.
In the coming years, we visited various doctors and neurologists, experimenting with diet, schedule, even medicine. My little boy relished the silly reflex tests he was asked to perform. He giggled when they tapped his knobby knee and sprinted down the file-strewn hallway of the cramped doctor’s office. He touched his nose, tracked his eyes, walked backward, tip-toed forward. At every juncture, the result was the same. He suffered from migraines, an affliction not uncommon but, for him, not altogether great. They came every two to three weeks, crashing in unexpectedly and interrupting his otherwise carefree childhood.
Here, I pause. I know, without question, that we were incredibly blessed that the diagnosis only came to this. I sat in those waiting rooms and saw, first hand, the alternatives. I knew the devastating results that an MRI could reveal. For that, I am extremely grateful.
However, the selfish side of me will admit the alternative. As a mom, and a selfish one at that, I want my little boy to have the childhood he deserves. One un-interrupted by bouts of violent vomiting, throbbing eye pain, nauseous stomach, and crushing fatigue. I want him to run unabashedly on a soccer field on a humid fall day without ending up in an ER, dehydrated and hooked to an IV, taken down not by a vicious defender but, instead, an epic migraine. I want him to go to slumber parties, to stay up all night throwing popcorn and burying himself in his sleeping bag while a horror movie flickers on the TV. I want him to enjoy this boyhood pleasure without paying for it the next day- a slow creeping headache that erupts in vomit and is finally quelled by sixteen hours of sleep. School events, play-dates, holidays and sleepovers, all aborted by migraines.
There is a silver lining, however. At ten, my son is the strongest, bravest and most empathetic person I know. He has muscled through a post-migraine haze to embark on a memorable island picnic with his cousins. He has traversed a fifty-foot ropes course for his best friend’s birthday while fighting an on-coming migraine. He has endured sickness every year of elementary school. He will always be “that kid” you remember throwing up in the hallway.
But, he is also that kid who is beloved by his friends and, because of that, protected by them. He runs, plays, cackles, yells, jumps and jokes with the best of them. He is also the first to help someone who is sad, feeling left out, or needs a hand. He is the kid who is solicitous when his mom is sick and the rest of the family is wondering who will make dinner.
And, finally, he is the kid who bravely went to a month of sleep away camp. The same kid whose only fear was what would happen if he got a migraine while he was there.
At ten, little boys embarking on their first summer of camp worry about spiders in the eaves of the outhouse, a stray bear lurking in the woods, and maybe, in their most vulnerable moments, missing mom. Mine might have worried about these things but none as much as the possibility of having a migraine on his overnight camping trip to Mount Megunticook.
And now I will offer the perspective to his mom. I, too, momentarily worried about spiders, the sensationalized chance of a bear, even tears late at night when the rest of his cabin slept. But mostly, I worried about a migraine, deep in the woods, yards off the hiking trail, in a stuffy tent cramped with other campers. I worried about how they would care for him. Would he even tell them of his impending sickness? Would his silence mean another bout of dehydration? Would they have to carry him off the mountain because migraines typically rendered him too weak and disoriented to walk?
I conjured all these terrible images as I scrutinized the camp’s daily photos, searching for a sliver of his wavy brown hair, a sleeve of his bright green fleece. Without these reassurances, I continued to worry, to stew and to speculate.
Here was the irony though. Despite the conveniences of modern technology that afforded a worried mom these fleeting glimpses of her camper, I was not there nor could be. Camp remains that hollowed ground devoid of parent scrutiny and protection. Yes, there are pictures and one-way emails. However, those originate in civilization and are luxuries not afforded the campers themselves. Suddenly, kids have to figure it all out for themselves…”just like the old days.”
And guess what? So do their parents.
In the wise – and somewhat brutally honest – words of my husband, “you have to let it go.”
In doing so, I also had to let him go.
From my house in 800 miles away, I could no sooner prevent the onset of a migraine- or its terrible aftermath- than I could cook my son’s favorite dinner, make his bed, or fold his dirty laundry. I had to relinquish that control, and consequently, instill that trust in him. I had to let him earn his wings, stand on his own, and figure it out.
While his letters were rare and lacking much detail, I savored every exclamation, every accomplishment- pitching a tent, shooting a bulls eye, learning print-making, catching a fish, loving “kanoo.” I also hung onto every omission. Every absence of that dreaded “M” word.
For someone who is charged with marking every migraine incident on a calendar, I could clock the rhythms of my son’s life with those marks, falling every 15 to 21 days. Instead, for 26 days, nestled in the woods in Maine, his calendar remained mark-free. While a seemingly strange accomplishment, it was one of profound effects for both of us. In those 26 days, he learned to take control, to recognize the signs, to advocate for himself. He also gained undeniable confidence and was rewarded an incredible gift – 26 days of unadulterated boyhood.
And in those 26 days, I, too, learned something- to let him go. It was a growing up experience for both us.
My son on his first camping trip.
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