Celebrate Your Life – Experience the World
by J “Kat” Loren : :
An eyeball rolls across the floor, keels over and lays flat on the floor, pupil enlarged, fixed, staring, clearly dead. One of the children notices me staring at it, walks over, and picks it up. He carries it to the table, reaches for the bottle of Elmer’s glue and dabs a bit onto the animal cut-out stretched out on the table before him to affix the eye on the monkey’s face he is creating. “My monkey,” he squeaks in his 8-year-old voice. It was the eyeball that got away, apparently, for it matches the other eye. The monkey face takes shape as eyes, nose and mouth get pasted onto the art project of the morning. It’s raining outside so summer camp has moved inside until the downpour ceases. The kids are learning how to construct faces. First a monkey, then a child, then a deployed mom or dad. If only it were that easy to reconstruct a face. Some parents have been away so long that the children stop talking about them. It is too painful to speak with them on the phone. They want a warm body close by, not a distant imitation of a voice or video body image sent through cyber-space. They have no way to process time and as a result each day a parent is away at war feels like a thousand years. Many of them feel abandoned.
I wander over to another table where an older boy sits alone working on a craft. I’ve noticed him the day before, walking as if he carries the weight of the world – a tough load for a 9-year-old even on his tough frame and stocky shoulders. While other kids laughed and roughhoused by the lake, he sat alone, stony faced, pondering something deep. He didn’t strike me as a loner. While other kids launched off in canoes, he told me he didn’t feel like going out. The rest of the children huddled around the swimming area while he sat on his towel staring off at the island not far offshore but still to distant to swim easily. It captivated his attention. Something close but far away. A rock obstructing the view of the other side of the lake, unmovable, irritating.
Intelligent, articulate, depressed…is my initial assessment. I have traveled across the country to work with these kids and have only a week to reach inside him and pull out what’s eating him. I decide to take it slow and keep it light, hoping he will open up. However, it doesn’t take as long as I expect. It is as if he has been waiting for some adult to come alongside him, an adult patient enough to wait and listen.
He bends over a pile of Popsicle sticks and a bottle of glue, building something undefined as I slip into the seat beside him. My presence doesn’t seem to disturb him. So I decide to ask him a question, “A lot of the kids here at the camp have a parent deployed and working overseas. So I’m wondering, is your mom or dad in Afghanistan or Iraq?”
I expect a shrug, a silencing response or signal that my intrusion isn’t welcome because he seems so quiet and withdrawn. Instead, the boy looks up from his project makes eye contact with me, decides he could trust me, perhaps desperate to trust someone with the secret knowledge that has been ticking away inside him, ready to explode.
He blurts out softly, “My dad is in Afghanistan.”
His lips pull up into a grimace, his eyes squint as if trying to keep from crying as he continues, “My dad says they are putting bombs on kids and sending them into the street to blow up.”
“Did he tell you that directly?” I ask, keeping my voice calm despite my instant horror that a father would impose such a burden of war on a child.
“I heard him say something to my mom on the phone about it,” he replies, pretending to refocus on his art project.
There is something about his voice, the twist of his face that unsettles me; and it dawns on me how he must have interpreted the half-heard phone conversation. His father marched out his front door and off to war as a loving dad, a hero, strong and kind. But now, a haze of confusion clouds the boy’s vision, morphing his father into a monster. The boy needs to hear the truth that would combat the lie that was possibly tormenting him. I decide to check it out and found myself intuitively responding, “Not your dad. Your dad and our guys would never do that.”
The boy looks up as a wave of relief softens the painful wondering that has weighed him down. “Not my dad?” he asks hopefully.
“Your dad and our guys would never do that. It has happened once or twice but not to all children. And it was the terrorists who did that. Our guys would never do that to any child. Our guys are there to protect children,” I emphasize.
“It was the enemy?”
“Yes,” I reply and then wait as the news sinks into his little mind and pushes out the overwhelming lie he has believed based on an overheard conversation. I can almost hear his thoughts. Not my dad. He is not a bad guy after all. I don’t have to be afraid of him when he comes home. We are not monsters after all. I can tell as we sit together in silence that he is joyfully reconstructing the last image of his father’s face he had seen when his father walked purposely out the door and off to war and reinstating his father to the hero throne of his family life. He is now free to become a child again; a child whose father remains a hero.
Later that afternoon the rain squall gives way to a blazing sun and the children run down to the lake for water sports. He runs with them, lighter, laughing, ready to make friends. He pays no attention to the island far offshore.
This summer camp for children with deployed parents is supposed to be light and fun, a happy place for children to forget about mom or dad being absent month after month during a long deployment, a place for kids to forget about taking care of an injured warrior at home, a place for kids to become kids again. I’m there to help the young counselors in case the kids brake down emotionally or act out in ways that the typically young, college student counselors are not trained to handle. They are trained to present arts and crafts, run water sports, sing campfire songs. Not deal with war trauma. That is where I come in.
My sister Melissa, a Marriage and Family Therapist from California joins me at the camp based in Redwood, NY, a town near the St Lawrence River. I knew we were in for some fun. Two, middle-aged sisters sent to summer camp, not as campers but as the highest paid camp counselors in history, a couple of road shrinks longing to recapture the fun of their youth. I anticipate that we would do less therapeutic intervention and surely show those kids how to have fun. Or maybe we would just have fun after hours. After all, it is Pirate Week in town.
Melissa had just returned from a little jaunt with a girlfriend to Korea and Thailand where she visited our cousin. Still jetlagged from her flight from Thailand to San Francisco, she spent one night with her kids at home, shipped them off to their father’s house and flew from California to New York, the next day. I meet her at the hotel. She will be rummy for a couple days yet. Too much flying and too little sleep.
Given her exhaustion, I drive us on the first day or two along the long and curvy route along obscurely marked country roads that led to the camp so she can recover from her travels. On the ride back during the second day of camp, we talk about the stories we’ve heard, the trauma the kids share about their families, the tragic and the comic stories of summer antics that only children can get away with.
We talk about the girls freaking out over the spiders in their tent cabin, the boy who thinks he saw a bear and won’t be dissuaded from his anxiety by the fact that there are no bears in the area; the plump girl whose self-esteem is so great that she is already gathering a following of friends; and the big boy who is the man of his family and proudly lets us all know it. At age 10, his father deployed to Iraq for the second time, this child has stepped up as the man of the house. And he acted like one – way too mature and serious for his age. We had both noticed him. My sister had wanted to talk with him but had been preoccupied with a gaggle of girls who were trying to settle into camp as first time campers scared and unsure of where to go and what to do. I had previously talked with the boy and filled Melissa in. The child’s mother was home-schooling he and two other siblings. The boy was the oldest and often called upon to cook and clean and help with the younger ones. At one point, his mother left him in a hotel room to babysit the kids overnight while she went off with an “auntie” for an overnighter somewhere to shop. . . or something like that. He was never sure where she had gone. Once in awhile he would talk with his father on the phone. His father was proud of the way the kid was taking responsibility for the family. As a reward, his dad promised to take him golfing when he returned from deployment. I think the parents forgot that a 10-year-old is still a boy – not a man.
Anxiety and depression run rampant among the suddenly-single, stay-at-home parents. For some reason, they think their children are more resilient, that they do not have a right to honest answers about deployments and war. They have no clue that kids internalize the parents’ emotions, adding them to their own, and learn not to further burden their parents by talking about their own thoughts and fears. So parents interpret their children’s silence as resiliency when in fact, they are trying valiantly to take care of the adult’s emotions at the expense of their own.
Some have no idea where their military parent has gone. One girl says her father in at the “far-away-work-place”. Another told the story of how some men came for her father and took him away and how she cried for hours inconsolable, certain that she had done something wrong and her father was paying the price for whatever she had done. Some were never told their father was being deployed. He just disappeared; went to work and never came back. Could that happen to their mother, too? Would everyone start disappearing around them? The youngest children have no concept of time so for them, a parent downrange for a year seems like forever and they think of the absence as abandonment at best, or as the parent being dead and gone forever. The primary caregiver thought the child didn’t have a need to know, that not-knowing would be better than trying to explain the realities of long-deployments. Many children never get to say goodbye to the deploying parent and it haunts them.
It is little wonder the kids are often more anxious and depressed than they let on. Their pain leaks out in little ways – like expressing a fear of spiders and bears, weeping in the night, wetting the bed long past the age of potty training, walking as if the weight of the world were on their shoulders, fighting everyone who comes within a stone’s throw, or closing their hearts and barring their lips from speaking the family secrets that may cost a soldier his job and a mother her marriage. We see and hear what the college-aged counselors don’t. And we do what we can.
My sister thinks the story of the child-man is horrible. She let’s loose a candid, uncounselor-like thought or two about the momma. She is tired, raw, unguarded. I like hearing her so unguarded. Jet-lag and exhaustion act like truth serum. It is fun to hear her speak out all that she would never say if she were in a face-to-face counseling session with a parent or child. We drop the professionalism and get real. We’re back in sister mode. It is time for us to debrief, not just about our work, but also about our lives. It has been a long time since we’ve been alone together.
I decide to tell her the story of the boy who overheard his dad talking about the carnage of kids along the side of the road in Afghanistan. The boy is about the same age as her son. Her ex-husband had done a short stint in Iraq a couple years ago. She thinks of them, I’m sure, as she stares out the window trying not to let me see her eyes misting over. But her middle finger tenderly wiping her eyes gives her away. I am sure she thinks of the hours she spent worrying for her husband’s safety while he was in Iraq; the days trying to keep herself and her children upbeat, connected to their father; the sadness her son felt at the loss of his father to a land far away doing a job he could not understand. Weeks into the deployment, her son decided he could not longer talk with his father on the phone. It made him feel too sad. There was nothing to talk about. The distance was too great between them. Children need more than a disembodied voice to relate to. What thoughts had tormented her son about his father’s disappearance? What had the child overheard from her phone conversations? She knew, as a therapist, that one half-truth, once imbedded in a child’s brain, was more difficult to root out than a splinter in an infected thumb. The children are the hidden casualties of war whose wounds may never be heard or seen by the parents who should be protecting them all along. And those festering wounds could change the course of their thoughts and ultimately, their lives.
As she turns her head to look at me, I see a tear trickle down her cheek. And I know what she is thinking beyond the impact of the war on her own kids. We think the same unspeakable thought – what if that boy went on thinking that his father had become a monster who thinks nothing about the sanctity of life or the need to protect and love children, while he worked heavily armed in the streets of Iraq, free to rig up explosive devices on small children and send them into the street as unwilling suicide bombers. How long would the boy have wondered, Might he come home and kill me, too?
My concentration breaks and I miss the turn off. Miss one street and you might end up at a different lake or the wrong shore. No cars are coming near in either direction so I pull a U-turn. She does too, and switches the topic – filling me in on her happy trip to Thailand. While she chatters, her gaze drifts out the window of the car, and comments on the amount of road kill kicked off to the side of the roads by a hundred passing cars. These small animals have been run over so many times they resemble nothing. There is no way you can identify what life form it had once been. It is as if people went out of their way to completely demolish the little critters.
I ignore the carcasses while driving. Melissa, having ample time to reflect on the carnage, however, finally speaks up. “What kind of animals do you think they were?”
“Monkey meat,” I instantly and authoritatively reply as only an older sister can tease.
“No really,” she asks. “What do you think they were? They are too small for deer and too big for cats.”
“MON-KEE meat,” I stress.
She had just come from a land plentiful in monkeys running rampant in the country and in the cities. She is jet-lagged so I think she might take the bait. She grows silent until we pass another carcass. I notice her staring intensely at it as we whiz by and the same look crosses her face that I’d seen on her 9-year-old son when he was reflecting on some bit of new knowledge and pondering the possibility that some absurdity could be true.
There it is….wait for it. Ha!
Her jetlag zeroes in for a landing on the tarmac of the absurd.
“Do they have monkeys in upstate New York?”
I burst out laughing. “Only at the camp.”
She laughs, too, hysterically, until the tears run freely down her cheeks.
J “Kat” Loren is a Pacific NW-based journalist and author of more than a dozen books. She currently focuses on writing health, fitness, and travel articles. Her blog “Crazi Culture” is a popular read among those who like eclectic topics and travelogues about odd places and adventures. http://www.craziculture.com
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