Happy: A Quest for Life After Death

Friday, October 24, 2014

Manitou magic

One day in August I drove three hours to Oakland, Maine. I stayed about an hour, and then drove three hours home. It was the best seven hours I’ve ever spent.

I was picking up my boys from their week at Camp Manitou Experience, a camp for grieving boys. I could have sent them home on the bus, but I wanted to see the camp for myself.

Good call.

Since my two boys lost their dad three and a half years ago, I’ve tried to help them get the help they need to process their grief without a lot of success. We do some things that work well, like declaring dad’s death anniversary a family holiday every year and spending the day skiing. We talk about dad a lot, usually in casual ways: “Look, I’m folding my pizza in half to eat it just like dad.”
 
We have also tried some things that haven’t worked well. Twice-monthly support groups, which I have seen open the world for some children, haven’t worked for us. My peer-conscious teenager, Ian, sees them as something that makes him even more different from his friends than his lack of a dad. “I feel like if I have to go to a support group then there’s something wrong with me,” he said. He added, “It’s like this hour where I have to be sad.” His younger brother Colin kept getting hit by the boy sitting next to him during circle time, so he was happy to drop out.

But the boys need more than just me, and quite frankly even my own attempts to help the boys sometimes misfire. Ian especially needs his peers and other adults. The Big Brother-like relationship for the boys I’ve been hoping will spontaneously develop has yet to materialize. Perhaps a youth leader in our church congregation, a scout leader, or a teacher would take a special interest in the boys? It turns out that these things can’t be forced.

The boys both have good friends, but can they talk to their friends about their dad? Not too long ago Colin pointed out a picture of his dad to a friend who quickly said, “Don’t talk about it. It’s too sad.” Ian’s friends are older and therefore more sensitive but they also don’t get it.

So, no.

The boys have made a lot of progress, so maybe I shouldn’t worry. Colin, then barely six, spent the first month after his dad’s death building a cocoon. He hid inside his shirt, pulling in his arms and his chin, and wrapped himself in his blankie. We took a trip to New York shortly after dad died and I cringed at the filth being collected on the blanket as Colin dragged it around the city. I spent the trip tucking his protective armor around him and into his shirt and pants to try to keep it off the ground.

Colin has come out of hiding since then, but he has a long way to go. He’s only 9, and Ian is 13, and they still don’t fully realize what they’ve lost: dad’s presence at high school and college graduations, at their weddings, career advice, advice about fatherhood. How could they?
Camp Manitou Experience was my last-ditch effort, and the boys went with some trepidation. What if it was a week-long support group? But from the minute I stepped foot on the camp to sounds of cheering boys -- the UNH team won the week-long college league competition! -- I knew we had hit the jackpot. 

Far from the suffering and downtrodden demeanor you might imagine from 120 or so kids who have lost someone close, usually a parent, they were a happy and confident riot of boys at the end of a week-long celebration of boyhood.


It was a week of all the usual camp stuff on speed -- roasting s’mores, boating, scavenger hunts, stirring chocolate milkshakes in huge vats with lacrosse sticks, fireworks (fireworks!), mini-golf, and a pudding slide. Added to that were daily circle times, activities that connect boys to the person they lost, and a final campfire designed to provide space for sharing emotions and memories of their missing loved one.

It's the combination of the two -- the swimsuit portion of the Mr. Manitou competition and the campfire sharing time -- that makes the difference. It's about the fact that despite grief, and maybe even because of it, life is great. The boys developed camaraderie, and then friendship, and then the brotherhood that comes from sharing their deepest feelings.

After Ian was home from camp he said, “You know, I liked the boys in my cabin, but I wasn’t really good friends with them until the last campfire.” He paused for a minute. “It’s amazing that you can be talking about something sad and then 20 people can be hugging you and you can feel so great.”

Ian was able to talk about his dad with a group and have it be a good, supportive, healing experience. For the first time ever.

Ian wasn’t the only one whose life was changed by Camp Manitou Experience. At the closing ceremony, a hastily assembled but remarkably good natured and talented a cappella group, the Manitones, sang “Change in My Life” to their new-found brothers:

A man gets crazy when his life is all wrong,
And a heart gets weary when it doesn't belong.
When the road gets rocky, Lord, you've got to keep on,
Let the new light come shining on through.

I've been lonely, I've been cheated, I've been misunderstood;
I've been washed up, I've been put down, and told I'm no good.
But with you I belong, 'cause you helped me be strong.
There's a change in my life since you came along.

The chanting started as soon as the group finished: “That was awesome!” I was too busy wiping the tears out of my eyes, a lucky fly on the wall of the gathering of boys in the camp amphitheater. I wasn’t the only parent there who started rifling through my bag for a tissue.

Then a group of 14-year-old boys finished me off. They presented the camp with a beautifully painted wooden tree showing words that tell how they feel about the camp and about each other, and explained the choice of each word:

Invisible strings. Family. Phantasmagoric. Confidence. Growth. Bonding. Unity. Connection. Hope.

Later, Colin and a crush of other boys had an impromptu dance party to “Singing in the Shower” in the middle of the cafeteria, deliriously happy to have found each other. Then an announcement: “51 weeks until next year!” and more cheering.

Many boys do arrive at the camp lonely, cheated, and misunderstood. But once they arrive, they are transported to a magical land where they’re not different. Where every single person can say, "I know how you feel," and mean it. They have the rare experience of being completely comfortable.

The camp doesn’t cost the boys or their families a cent. Even the daily canteen, which stocks candy bars, sunglasses, and necessities like toothpaste, is free. And, mindful of the fact that many boys’ families are financially as well as emotionally impoverished as a result of their loss, the food is good. Really good. I’m talking about lobster rolls (Ian ate five) and barbecue ribs for dinner. And for the carb-starved: mac and cheese in a bread bowl.

Angels on earth made this happen, mostly volunteers who spend their vacations as camp counselors and their free time doing the endless planning and organizing that makes this happen. And people like you and me, who make Manitou Camps Foundation their charity of choice on Amazon Smile, or write a check. Or both.

Like Ian and Colin, each boy at Camp Manitou Experience has a huge hole in his heart and at camp, they help heal the edges of the hole for each other. That they come out changed is immediately apparent. After a few years at camp, the boys have emotional IQs that are off the charts. They come out equipped to go through the rest of their lives helping other people come out of hiding, helping to heal their broken hearts.

I walked away from Camp Manitou Experience camp with this thought about our family: "We are going to be OK. We might even be great.”