You’re lying on your bedroom floor, ten years old in the sixth grade, lazily paging through one of those historical novels you used to love. Your mother calls for you, and you yell back rudely, without even getting up to see what’s the matter. Your siblings are causing some ruckus in the room next door, and you can’t be bothered. In fact, you feel rather peeved that you’ve been called. You don’t know at the time that this will become your final lasting memory before you are told the news.
You cannot remember anything that happens between this and being eleven, when your mother pulls you to a corner in your dining room – you still know the exact spot – and tells you of her suspicions. She does not cry. Neither do you.
The suspicions turn out to be true. Your siblings are so little. They seem to know things are serious, but their small heads cannot wrap around the gravity of it all. The last few weeks of the school year are clouded with well-intentioned pity that sits, rancid, in your lungs. You do not remember breathing at all in the following year.
The night your father helps your mother shave her hair off in preparation for a full year of chemotherapy, you and your siblings crouch in the bottom bunkbed, waiting. She emerges, smiling for you, and you are choking, unable to respond to the reality of the situation. You had planned to offer words of encouragement, the kind people much older than eleven would use, but you are young and stunned and terrified and unable to come up with anything. Later, you feel as though you should have apologized for not verbalizing support, but even that, you cannot find a way to properly say. That night, your siblings see her perfectly shaped bare head and they cry and it so clearly hurts her so you hold it in until you can wrench yourself away from them to be on your own.
You cry very rarely after that, feeling selfish that you not only weep for your mother and her pain but also feel sorry for yourself. You are ashamed that although you are trying to keep up in school and clean up and help out and watch the kids and so much of your physical time is focused on others, you spend too much brain time thinking about yourself. You do not know how to take time to forgive yourself for being this way.
Even now, you remember more from that year than any other you’ve ever lived. Some memories you’ve revealed, in cracked whispers to a select number, but others are so vivid and so horrible that you guard them like a dragon and its eggs. Some eggs are meant to never hatch.
A little while after that year, your parents sign you and your siblings up for something called Camp Kesem. You are cynical, believing that the magic of summer camp is something that only works on children, and you haven’t felt like a child in a while. You have long convinced yourself that it’s fine to feel alone in a room full of people. You expect nothing from anyone anymore.
Camp Kesem is joyously loud and deeply intimate all at once. The camp songs disgust you at a musical level, but they’re welcoming and silly and foreign and great. You are met with people who understand fear and pain and sadness more deeply than most. You are struck when seven year olds talk about their parents’ deaths with such grave sincerity. For the first time in what feels like a long time, you can say things without knowing condolences are on their inevitable way. You feel less alone. You cry without feeling selfish. You laugh without feeling guilty.
You have had to pause in writing this five times already. It’s been seven years, but you still flinch every time you hear that word. Grimace every time you hear someone joke about it. Cry every time you talk about it. You are confused and embarrassed that it still affects you so physically, especially because your mother is alive and well and it has been so long. Despite all that, every October, you see pink ribbons around and you plunge into the familiar fog you seem to fall into at some point every year. It tells you that you are shameful and alone and, worst, weak. It’s hard, but you crawl out every time. You allow yourself to feel. You call your family. You will be fine.
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