Fragile—that’s how my heart feels. Fragile heart syndrome is not a condition that’s listed in the DSM…but I know it’s real—I can feel it. This weekend I will be a Big Cabin Buddy volunteer at Camp Erin, a camp for kids who are grieving the loss of someone they love. My father died when I was a teenager; this camp is a way for me to feel like I am helping others through something that was one of the hardest times in my life. But going into it, I always feel like I am packing up to go to war. I don’t know what the terrain will be like, and the enemy—grief—I can’t spy on in advance and know what kind of guns it’s toting into this battle. I know how camp was in years past, but it’s different every year—for me, and for the kids. I learn more every year about grief, about resiliency, and about myself. Some years it almost feels normal most of the time, just another summer camp full of squirrely kids who want to swim and run and hang out with their fellow campers. It feels that way until we get to the first evening’s memorial service, where each child holds a picture of their loved one who has died, carries it up to the front of the group and tacks it onto the group’s memorial board. Luckily, that service is done in a magical outdoor space, surrounded by giant trees that have seen it every year, and help to hold all the emotions of the kids.
I wish I had had a camp like that to go to when I was a kid. No one in my 9th grade class had a clue what it was like to lose a parent. Some of them tried to empathize: one group even made me a card with a beautiful butterfly drawing on the front of it that I have to this day. But what it would have been like to talk to other kids who were going through it—I can only imagine. Now that I have been able to sit with some of the kids over the years at this camp, I can see just how much it would have helped me to not feel so alone, such an outcast, in a time of life—teeangehood—when it was already so easy for me to feel like an outsider.
So why am I feeling fragile right now? Camp’s not new to me—I know exactly what to expect: rough sleep on hard mats, camp food, and a bunch of kids, some more fun than others, some in more pain than others, all of them immensely real and loveable. I’m feeling especially fragile this year because I’ve been trying to face lots of my childhood dragons and ghosts, and it’s been a hard fight. I don’t have a lot of energy to give out, and I’m anticipating needing to be “on” a fair amount of the time. It’s not more than I can handle, I know that—but it’s asking me to pull out all the stops.
The other night I dreamed of a little girl who was eating swords. She didn’t understand the magic trick—instead of pulling the swords back out, she ate the swords whole. I tried to get her to stop, but she was so proud of herself and excited to show off her magic skills—she kept eating swords. I finally asked her—“How are you going to get those out of your stomach now? Are you going to poop those out?” She looked at me with annoyance written all over her face, and ignored my question. I am that little girl—she is me. We have been trying to put on a good illusion, a good show, and instead of learning the trick the right way, we’ve gone and filled up our stomach with swords. That’ll make us sick, probably killing us, but we don’t want to look at that.
I don’t want to put on a show anymore. I just want to be real, and feel fragile, and still pull out all the stops, everyday. And maybe fragile is exactly how I’m supposed to be feeling right now—to remind myself that I can live through that feeling. I used to fall apart when I felt fragile, and sometimes I still do—but I’ve learned how to handle stresses and grief in much better, non-sword-eating ways over the years. My feelings can be scary, but I know that feeling them is better than squashing them down and trying to ignore them—that never ends well. So now I know that that fragile feeling is a sign that I have feelings to mull over and to let out.
The kids who are packing their backpacks and preparing for camp are most likely feeling more fragile than I am. I hope that this is a healing weekend for them—and I hope they learn this weekend that they can feel fragile and keep going, too. And be all the stronger for it.