This is a long piece, written a while ago. I’ve edited it but the truth is it covers 19 years and I’m not a good enough editor to distill it further.
I place it here now for a couple of reasons. This is a tender time of year when accessing support is critical. The holidays are upon us and with them can come much pain and rumination. I notice in others and myself two things; a reticence to ask for help for fear of burdening at a busy time, and awkwardness in extending it as though the help given must be extraordinary to be worthy.
I offer this story of life-altering support in the context of two women who did a little something extra over a period of many years, and how lives were changed because of them.
I originally penned these thoughts upon reflection in Spring of 2005.
From age five my son’s ritual summers were divided into three activities. Time at home with his father or me in unscheduled hours, a trip to Iowa to see grandparents, and a day camp where kids were tightly scheduled with delightful trips, crafts, games, sand, dirt, and swimming. There Chris’s days involved vast amounts of picnicking, water and supervision by all too fun college students.
Nothing about the program was more important to him than the two women who owned and directed it. Best friends, Diane and Terri, two mom-like ladies with a personality mix equal parts goofy and savvy, ruled with a magical combination of affection and no-nonsense, we-all-follow-the-rules-here attitude. Summer didn’t officially start until my boy could run up the path to this special getaway, into their waiting embraces and broad smiles. He never looked back except to make sure I’d quickly left.
In order to maintain sanity and order, age 12 was the cut-off for their program. My husband died a few months before Chris’s 12th birthday and summer without a plan was looming. Paramount on my mind was locating a safe place where he could find fun and comfort. Too old for his favorite day camp and too insecure to be with strangers, funds in short supply, options were few.
As I stewed about the situation an unexpected phone call came. It was Diane. She told me that each summer they extended an invitation to one child to attend “on scholarship” and this year they wanted that child to be mine. She explained that the 12-year-old rule wasn’t cast in concrete and added that because of his age he was particularly well suited to keeping an eye on younger children who might be unsure with the college aged camp counselors. Therefore he would be known as a recreational assistant and have small jobs helping with shepherding younger attendees.
In spite of the calm and convincing tenor of our conversation I was certain this was the inaugural year for the Diane and Terri scholarship program; same could be said of the title recreational assistant and the we’ve done it before attendance of a 12-year-old.
In the midst of the worst of times, the best of these two ladies sang out. With that phone call they established a tradition that lasted through high school. Each summer brought a new title, new responsibilities, new challenges, and his dear friends and guardians. The summer after his 13th birthday he became a paid employee. His first paycheck arrived with a touching note (which I still have) that concluded with a P.S. “You’re an official staff member, now!” He remained so every summer and Christmas break until after his freshman year in college.
College was a long process of both work and study and after five years of rare contact, I couldn’t help but think of Diane and Terri as I addressed graduation announcements. By then Chris was 24 and they had been in our lives for almost all of his. I sent an announcement to them and included my gratitude for all they had contributed.
Again my phone rang.
Coincidentally they would be in the graduation city for a professional conference on graduation weekend. They had a scheme in mind.
We decided on an ambush at a pub close to school where a party was already planned. True to the plan, among a crowd of college buddies and fraternity brothers ready for celebration, sequestered unknown in a corner sat Terri and Diane.
To a backdrop of low lights, smoke, pool tables, beer, hip-hop, tank-tops, denims and bar noise, Chris and family entered the crowded night spot following the ceremony. He was greeted by whistles and cheers as he walked threw the door. We snaked our way through the line of friends; hugging, high-fiving, and shaking hands, he stopped to greet each guest. Sitting at the back of the crowded room, hidden from view, Diane and Terri waited for him to work his way toward them.
I knew exactly what happened when mid-conversation I heard his astonished, disbelieving yelp. “Holy crap!” He surged through the swarm to the corner where the ladies now stood waiting. Chris, in stunned disbelief, hugged his old friends. They huddled as three as I’d seen many times before. The women cried and he hung onto them both, happily wearing the remnants of their lipstick kisses on his cheeks. Once the small one they protected, he towered over them, two partners-in-crime who had invented the unexpected to nurture, support and surprise him. They did so one more time.
I looked back on the years our lives had been entwined, sometimes closely, other times at a distance. I thought of the initial year when his father had researched every summer program to find the right one for his beloved little boy. The right amount of fun, the right amount of supervision and safety, the right amount of love.
He found it. And it lasted 19 years.
So here we are, nearing the end of October, 2012, on the cusp of Halloween costumes, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hanukah. I sometimes wonder how we made it through, then I remember. People like this made it possible.
Remember when I started this blog with The First Bite? I told you I’d capture stories of the people who helped make our journey a success, albeit a painful one. These ladies are on that list and I remember them now because support is so vital especially at this time of year.
If you need support, ask for it. If you are or could be support, as athletes say, play within yourself. You need not act outside of who you are and what you know. If I’ve learned anything from Diane and Terri it’s to leverage who I am when rendering support. They didn’t do things outside their area of core expertise; they did what they always did (and do today) as loving and enterprising guides to children. But they did it in a broader way, made their circle larger and tossed in a dose of creativity. They changed the life of a child, now a man who will never forget them.
And neither will I.
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