We labeled everything – socks, swimsuits, sheets, towels. We rolled and folded and crammed it into the trunk. We sat on the trunk until it latched. We carried the trunk to the car. We made one quick stop at Starbucks for a “secret menu” butterbeer Frappuccino we’d seen on YouTube. And then we were off, driving through the dawn out of New Orleans, northeast up Interstate 59 to Interstate 65 and then veering off somewhere in north Alabama to winding, hilly country roads. We sang along to the radio; we told dumb jokes; we stopped for gas and sour candy; we pointed out cows and horses and roadkill and falling-down houses and barns.
And then – the huge sweep of green and the huge sheen of water that we remembered from last year, and there we were, at camp.
We unloaded the trunk. We lugged it to the cabin. We made the bed and hung up the storage pockets. We inspected the bathrooms. We hugged goodbye.
“It’s OK, Mom. Jeez. Don’t cry!”
“I’m not. Whatever. I’m fine. I love you.”
I got back in the car. There was no more “we.” I drove back down those same winding, hilly roads, alone. I sang along to the radio, with much less enthusiasm. I stopped for gas and potato chips. I had a moment of melancholy even doing something as simple as throwing away Ruby’s melted Frappuccino from that morning because it was the last thing she’d leave in my car for three weeks; even knowing I was being dumb, it was still hard to throw out that plastic cup.
It’s the second year of sleep-away camp for Ruby, but she’s going for three weeks this time. It’s easier in many ways – I know she had the time of her life last year, so I’m less worried about that, and I’ve fallen into the same pattern from last year: I have a constant sense of what she’s doing throughout the day (“Oh,” I think vaguely when I glance at the clock around 2 p.m., “she’s just finished up mail call and is about to go to the camp store for snack.”); I eagerly await the daily emails from camp each night that recap the day’s events and the menu; I scan the dozens of nightly photos posted for any sign of Ruby and try to analyze her facial expressions for clues about her state of mind, hygiene practices, and general wellbeing; I write an email each morning that I make sure to keep newsy and bright; I send care packages a few times a week with silly toys or nail polish or art supplies.
But it’s harder in some ways, too, because she is older this year and more independent, which just makes me realize – not realize, I guess, as it’s something I’ve always known on an intellectual level – children grow up, of course – but it just makes me acutely aware, in my heart and my gut, that my whole job as a parent is to make my kids no longer need me.
There are moments when having no one need me sounds like heaven: no spilled juice to mop up, no dresses to button, no hair snarls to comb out, no boo-boos to kiss. And then there are moments when it sounds incredibly, achingly lonely. Who am I if no one needs me?
Too often I say “we” when I should say “Ruby” or “Georgia.” It’s a habit I try consciously to break, but I still fall into it: “We’re doing cheerleading next year for sure” or “We can’t do dinner tonight because we have a lot of homework.”
That drive home from camp – that moment where “we” becomes “I” – is in many ways preparing me for life once the kids are grown, just as the weeks of (supervised and carefully curated) independence at camp is preparation for Ruby to fly the nest.
But I always remember the first time Ruby got really sick. She was 11 months old, and she had a high fever but couldn’t keep Tylenol down. I stayed up with her all night, rocking her, taking her temperature, bathing her, crying with her. Finally, around 6 a.m., I called my mom.
“When does being a mom get easier?” I sobbed.
“Well,” she said, still half-asleep. “You’re 27 and calling me at dawn crying, so … I think maybe never? Calm down. I’ll be right over.”
I hope my kids grow up strong and independent and brave. But I also hope they never entirely stop needing me, ever.