“Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.”
~ Benjamin Spock
The memory still haunts me. It’s one of those from ‘before’ – from the days that we didn’t know. The days when we stumbled through the motions of normalcy – not well, and not understanding why we struggled.
We had planned what we thought would be the perfect trip for the girls. A family resort in the middle of the Caribbean, based entirely around Sesame Street. What could be better for a two and a four year-old? A reasonable question if you haven’t a clue.
And look, honey – a kids’ camp! This will be wonderful! Perfect, even! We’ll have some time to ourselves in the morning while the girls enjoy all these fabulous activities at the camp. Just look at the brochure. They’re sure to have a blast. It says so right here. And look at those smiling kids in the photographs. The ones hanging out with the loving, nurturing camp counselors. The bonded, background-checked, CPR certified counselors! The kids just look so gosh-darn happy playing games and going on scavenger hunts and reveling in all the campy camp-ness of it all.
Yes, it would be perfect. It said so right there.
For the first time in years, I’d brought a book on vacation. I had visions of sitting by the pool and reading – READING, for heaven’s sake! Luau brought one too. We would read TOGETHER!
On the very first day, we dropped the girls off at the camp. The place looked lovely – a primary colored paradise. This was going to be great.
Luau and I headed off to the pool, armed with a buzzer that they’d assured us would work anywhere on the property. I’d made the counselors promise – PROMISE – that if there was any distress they’d buzz us. So what could possibly go wrong? As long as nothing was buzzing, I’d know my girls were fine. I even made them test it. I stood there watching it light up and vibrate. It worked just fine.
As we settled in by the pool, I realized I’d forgotten my sunglasses. Luau offered to go back to the room to grab them for me. When he came back a few minutes later, he had a lot more than my glasses. He came back carrying Katie on his shoulders and pushing an exhausted looking Brooke in her stroller.
When he’d walked by the camp, he explained, he’d seen Brooke right in the middle of the doorway. She was squatting down on her haunches, sobbing and screaming bloody murder. Not one of the nurturing, loving, bonded, background-checked, CPR certified counselors was doing a thing to help.
As she screamed, the three to five year-olds paced around a cordoned-off section of grass in front of the door searching for scattered treasures. Katie wasn’t with them.
As he told the story, I looked down at the buzzer in my hand, thinking I must have missed something, but it remained silent.
“Katie, sweetheart,” I said, “why weren’t you outside with the other kids?”
She bit her lip. She looked as if she’d done something wrong that she was trying to hide.
“Mama, Brooke couldn’t stop crying,” she said. “They wouldn’t let me go out because they wanted me to make her feel better. But Mama, I didn’t know how to make her stop crying.”
I was livid. How the hell did they expect a FOUR year-old to take care of her sister? How could a FOUR year-old take care of anybody for God’s sake? I had no idea then how sensitive I would later be to this concept – to Katie as her sister’s keeper. But even then, it was just wrong.
It’s been just shy of five years since that trip. We had never tried again. Within a year, Brooke had been diagnosed with autism.
On subsequent trips, Katie happily headed off to the kids’ clubs while Brooke spent ‘special time’ with Mama and Daddy. As hard as it sometimes was to leave her out, there was never a possibility that she could handle it. There were just no circumstances in which it was possible.
We are on our first big vacation in years. And on two out of the past three days, Brooke has gone with her sister to the resort’s camp. Read that again, won’t you? Because truthfully, I still can’t believe I’m able to write it. On two out of the past three days, Brooke has gone with her sister to the resort’s camp. Even last year – even six months ago – I never, ever, EVER would have believed that I could type that sentence. My baby could NEVER have done it.
But it was time. It was time to trust that all of the tools we’ve worked so hard to give her would be enough. It was time to trust that she could handle it. It was time to trust that she had enough language to express herself. It was time to trust that she understood that she couldn’t walk out the front doors without asking a grown-up first. Above all, it was time to trust Brooke.
I spoke at length with the coordinator before we arrived. She promised to bring in extra staff for Brooke. She assured me that they were comfortable with kids with special needs.
I nearly balked. I drilled Brooke over and over (and over) again about not walking out the doors without asking a counselor.
I talked to Katie.
“Sweetheart,” I said. “I don’t want to ask you to be responsible for your sister. This is your vacation too and I want you to have fun. The only thing I’m going to ask is that if you see her really upset, that you tell them to call us. You don’t have to fix it, OK? Just make sure they call us.”
She nodded soberly. “I promise, Mama. Don’t worry, OK? We’ll be fine.”
I drilled Brooke some more. “Do we walk out the doors? If you want to walk out the door, what do you need to do? Who do you talk to if you need help?”
“No. We ask a grown-up. The counselors.” She seemed to have it down.
There were four counselors for eight kids. I spoke to two of them. I asked them to shorten their sentences. I asked them to give Brooke warning before transitioning from one activity to the next. I told them not to worry if she wasn’t engaged in everything they did, as long as she was having fun. I told them to call me if they needed me. I told them I’d stay close.
I hovered for a while – watching. Katie winked at me. I walked out with my heart in my mouth.
No one called.
Luau and I went back to pick them up at the prescribed time three and a half hours later. When we got there, they didn’t want to leave – EITHER OF THEM.
Brooke did it.
Not only did she do it but she wanted to go back and do it again. So we did. And she did it again.
And then on Monday morning, we went in for the third time. The formerly calm, quiet space was suddenly crawling with kids. They had only been expecting six, but walk-ins were piling up. Children continued to stream in as the girls settled in at the drawing table. I looked around for the counselors. There had been four of them over the weekend, but there were only two of them now. One was behind the desk checking kids in and the other – who I hadn’t seen over the weekend – was staring down at a table.
I counted twelve kids in the room, but there was a long line still waiting to check in.
I asked if more counselors were coming. They said they usually only have two on the weekdays, but they could always call someone in if they needed them. I was now counting sixteen kids and there was still a line. I asked at what point they would decide that they ‘needed them.’
“Well, technically,” said the counselor behind the desk, “we can have ten kids to each adult, so we’re still fine.”
Brooke made her way over to a swing. She pushed off the wall with her feet. The counselor who had previously been staring down at the table shot her a dirty look.
I went over to the swing. I crouched down in front of my girl. “Brooke, honey,” I said. I couldn’t get her attention. There was too much going on in the room. She kicked off of my legs to push herself on the swing. I caught her. “Honey, I don’t think we can stay at camp today.”
She yelled – a sharp, shrill shriek.
“Noooooo!” she shouted into my face. “I would stay!”
I told her that she needed to speak calmly. She repeated her plea, “Mama, I would stay please.”
I walked over to Katie. “Sweetie, Brooke really wants to stay here, but this place is getting crazy and I’m just not sure she can handle it. Do you think you could watch her today just enough to make sure that she doesn’t walk out of here? I’m worried about her with all of these kids.”
Katie looked around the room. “Mama,” she said with a grimace, “I’m really not sure that I can.”
“Fair enough, baby,” I said. “Fair enough.”
As we spoke, Brooke wandered out the first set of doors. Not the ones I’d drilled her on – she was still in the building, but she had left the room. Neither counselor flinched. They hadn’t even noticed.
I walked out to get her and I told her that we were going to have to leave. I got our money back from one of the counselors who hadn’t seen her leave the room.
Brooke began to calm down as we got outside. We left Katie behind and headed out for some ‘special time’ by the pool.
About ten minutes in, a mom I’d seen at drop-off arrived at the pool with her son. “It was mayhem in there,” she said. When she’d run back to bring her son his water bottle, she’d found him completely overwhelmed and miserable. If I hadn’t been sure that I’d made the right decision before, I certainly was then.
Thing is, I did trust Brooke. I DO trust her. I trust her when the situation is manageable. I trust her when the supports are in place that can keep her safe. And when they aren’t, I now trust myself enough to know the difference.