Saturday, December 10, 2016
Back when Carole and I were together, I was privileged to attend Easter Seals Camp with her, over three summers. Easter Seals Camps are for kids with disabilities and their families to attend, and having Cerebral Palsy, Carole's first boy Alex was eligible to participate. When I became Carole's fiance, I was invited to attend, too.
As you can imagine, some of the kids had limited mobility... some very limited. So one, just one, of the many remarkable facets of Camp structure was that each attending child - able bodied or not - was assigned his or her own counselor who would spend each entire day with the child. Made for a nice break for the parents, some of whom needed it more than others. I took it as a learning experience, my eyes and heart open to lives I knew nothing about.
And to become a counselor, well, those kids had to be the best of the best. They were all high-achieving late high school or post-secondary students, incredibly energetic. You were literally looking at the future of your world, in them. Like the pre-med student who would freak out all the little kids by riding his unicycle. I asked him "why a unicycle?" and he simply said, just something no one else was doing. It would have been easy to think him a flake, but for that every time I saw him in his free time, his nose was buried in a medical textbook.
In August 2002 we went down to Camp Lakewood, on the shore of Lake Erie near St. Catharines. (Don't bother looking for it, it's not there anymore.) With our new baby Jacob, in tow, it was our first big trip as a family, and you could not have asked for a more beautiful spot. A little wind-swept, with the gusts constantly rushing in off the vast water, but every evening was magnificent. It was my second camp, so I had a little idea of what to expect.
I said it was a break for the parents. Most of them would take the days to go off and do things on their own. Carole liked to rest, catching up on sleep as any new mother would. I took the time by myself to keep busy. I'd float around the camp, helping out where I could, helping with the kids at mealtime, watching the activities go by. I'd often end up spending a lot of time around the counselors, and in that time I met the most remarkable young woman.
I don't remember her name. Doesn't matter. A small, thin blonde girl. When I first saw her I thought she was one of the campers, because she was in a wheelchair. Then I realized she was older, she was a counselor. Then the next day I saw her without the wheelchair. Had to realize I was looking at the same person. See, the amazing part was that her condition varied. I'm not sure if what she had was, clinically speaking, spina bifida, but the remarkable difference from other kids was that some days she could walk, some days not. Her symptoms actually varied in severity from day to day. Ask yourself if you could handle that. I'm damn well not sure I could.
You've got to understand by now that I had the utmost respect for these young people, but she just cleared that bar by a mile. After watching her at work for a week, near the end of the camp I found time to speak with her. Must be the writer in me, when I find someone with a great story I have to know more about it. Sure enough, she'd been a camper when she was younger, and she grew up to be a counselor herself. And now it was late August, and she was starting university the next week. Can't remember where, but she was moving to a new town. I said... I don't know, something about how it must be so exciting, scary, a lot to deal with. And the kid replied that what she was most excited about, what she was most looking forward to, was to living on her own for the first time.
I can't describe the look on her face when she said it. In that moment, from her wheelchair, she was as incandescent, optimistic, pure, mighty, and as perfect as god could have ever made her. Never saw her again. Never forget her.
I'm done now.