The Other Fellow First

I wasn’t supposed to go to the outdoor chapel service at Camp Dudley today, Sunday. I was supposed to wait at least a week to see my camper briefly after chapel. It’s a rule at Camp Dudley, the oldest boys’ camp in the country. Even if you’re a local family, which we sort of are, since my husband Chris’s family has summered down the road from Dudley for more than 50 years. The rule is parents are not supposed to come the first Sunday.

But I couldn’t wait a week.

I sat in the back of the service as the Rev. sermonized about the difference between having greatness and being great. He said having greatness was related to the Camp Dudley motto, “The other fellow first.” Being great, you could be a sore loser; but having greatness meant you could teach someone how to grow. I think that’s what he said.

I couldn’t concentrate. I was distracted by the breeze, by the birdsong, by the Cedar trees creaking.

I stared down at the rows of young men clad in blue blazers, searching out the back of my boy’s head. I should know my boy among the 200 or so boys. I should know him by the back of his head, I thought, the swirl of his Alfalfa cowlick. But I did not see him. He was already indistinguishable from the other brown-haired boys.

So I sang half-heartedly along to the earnest young guitarist, leading us in, “Blowing in the Wind.”

I noticed Chris, who cries easily, was tearing up at that song. Chris is proud of his ease with tears. He’s sensitive, my husband, and this sensitivity seems to be exacerbated by his Parkinson’s lately. “Please don’t dare cry when you see him,” I said.

“The same for you,” he said. I nodded.

My son and I had agreed if we were to meet one of his four Sundays at camp after chapel, we’d meet by the hymnal nook, a wooden enclosure for the red-bound books. I was walking there when this young man approached me. For a moment, I didn’t recognize that the young man was my son.

Already, he was tanner, taller, thinner. He’s a long, cool drink of water my son is, I thought. I somehow had imagined my 9-year-old Hayden, not my 13-year-old Hayden.

“Hi Mom,” he said. His voice sounded, I swear to God, deeper. Croakier. ‘He has only been gone since Tuesday. What have you done with my boy?’ I wanted to find the camp director and shake him. I felt panicked. They took my boy; they made him a man! No wonder I’ve put off sending my only son to this damn camp. They take your kid away. And I loved that kid.

I admit it. I wanted clingy; I got cool.

His lips barely moving, like a ventriloquist, he leaned beside my ear and whispered, “I love you, Mom.” Then he looked at me kind of strange as if he barely recognized me too, but really did love me.

He hardly paid any attention to Chris, so there were no tears.

Hayden started to walk away from me.

“Wait, wait. I heard you’re playing a lot of basketball?” I asked him. His Aunt Shoshi works at the camp and she’d reported this to me.

“Yes, yes, it’s fun. It’s great. I had a long talk with Shoshi. You can talk to her.” As if she’d do in his absence. He gave me another hug, a bony, young man kind of hug. Not the kind of hug that pulls on your skirt or wraps its arms around you and never lets you go. No, just a hug, like an I’ve-gotta-get-going hug.

He said, “I love you,” again. Then he walked away from me down the hill. And he never once looked back. But I could tell that he knew I was watching him walk away. He was putting on a brave show, I thought.

As we walked to the car Chris asked, “Do you think he was embarrassed by us?”

“Oh, definitely,” I said, laughing. “And he’s not using sunscreen.”

But it was more than his embarrassment, his tan, his hugging me awkwardly. Seeing him at chapel today was some kind of a rite of passage for him, for me, for us. Our son is growing up. He is on the cusp. And he is on his own. And actually, that has greatness in it, although it’s not great.

5 thoughts on “The Other Fellow First

  1. I love so many things about this story…first, I love that you broke the camp rules and went to church on the first Sunday! Awesome! I love that you couldn’t recognize your son from behind, but then couldn’t recognize him when he was standing right in front of you! I love how distracted you were by so many things during the church service, but you basically heard the lesson being taught. I love that your son is “away” at camp down the street from a (your husband’s) family home and that he has aunt (spying) working at the camp. What a great story and so incredibly well written. You are such a gifted story teller and writer. Oh, and I love that you had a secret meeting place already picked out ahead of time! Loved reading this and must tell you that parts of it could have made me tear up too! 😉

  2. This posting not only is great…I think it has greatness in it. Being only three years away from that time where my only son chisels out a piece of my heart and leaves me bleeding, it reminds me not to moan when his still girlish voice calls from the bedroom asking me to come snuggle before he falls asleep (even though I am exhausted, still have 10 things to do before bedtime, and know that the alarm is going to sound an hour too early for my aging body).

  3. Oh you poor sap. HCJ is entering “the tunnel” that spans the years between 12 and exits about 16 years old. You can still reach into that tunnel and influence him because you feed and shelter him. There is another tunnel that starts about 18 years old and exits at maybe 22 years old…that you cannot reach into. Just trust that the 18 years you have him in your house have put in place the ability to navigate on his own.

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