Friday, July 6, 2012

A different kind of day

This morning at 8 a.m. I set out for 142nd and Lenox Avenue, which if you don't live in New York you'd know by the name of deepest Harlem. Andrew had made the trip to the Armory there two weeks ago, to drop off Big Guy for the bus to camp. And because I am heading out for a week of Cub Scout camp (what was I thinking when I agreed to do that?) this weekend, I was on the hook to retrieve my older son from upstate New York before I left.

Scene One:
I get off the train and head toward the east-bound side of the street. A young woman near me says, "Oh, I hope I don't miss my bus!" I comment that I am aiming to catch the same one, and she smiles at me. When we get to the other side of the street (in time for the bus) she introduces herself as Stephanie, and tells me about how she works at the hospital and goes to a community college on the other end of Manhattan (though she lives in the Bronx) and how her hero is Neil deGrasse Tyson. It is an effusion the likes of which I rarely encounter; she is very sweet. I tell her how to get into the Museum of Natural History for a dollar, and she looks at me as if I've totally transformed her life.

Scene Two:
Andrew has given me specific transit instructions, because I am going to a rough neighborhood. I follow the directions, feeling somewhat foolish for all the caution. A block from the bus there is a loud bang, and everyone on the street momentarily freezes. We all look to see if anyone is bleeding on the ground, but since no one appears hurt the reel of life continues to roll.

Scene Three:
Moms are talking outside the Armory, including one who's ranting a bit about finding support for parents who have to deal with kids with severe ADHD. The camp we're all going to visit specializes in kids with various difficulties: there are kids on the autistic spectrum, kids with mental illnesses, kids with so many H's in their ADHD that it makes you gape. I offer a few supportive-sounding words, and suddenly find myself with new friends.

Mom #1 is a single mom who was originally told her son would never talk or comprehend what she said. He is eight, has various difficulties, but is a kid. She is a tenacious mother, a woman who has ground down the Department of Education by sheer persistence and gotten them to do right by her child. This is someone who lives below the poverty line and sued the DoE, anyway. (Me, I would have given up because I couldn't afford to do that.)

Mom #2 is a single mom whose son was born at six months' gestation after seven prior miscarriages. The baby went through brain surgery, lung surgery and several other major procedures before age two, at which point the dad said goodbye. The dad called a year later to say he had another baby by another woman, and oh, by the way, he tested positive for HIV. She talked about how she was recently told that her son is still at a first grade level in school, although when she works with him he can read on a third grade level. Mom #1 and I both advise that she needs to find a different school. We give her a short list of good ones.

Scene Four:
After two hours of talking to Mom #2 on the bus, we emerge into the greenery of the upper Catskill mountains to find our children. Big Guy expresses faux-indifference at seeing me, to which I respond with wry and dry humor. The staff laugh; one comments to Big Guy, "Now we know where you get it from!"

Big Guy gives me the grand tour of the camp. I am surprised at how big it is. He says there were about 300 kids. For his cabin of seven there were five counselors, though they worked in shifts, so there were never more than two or three at a time.

I contemplate the amount of work required of these counselors. I calculate the amount of respite given to the parents of the kids here. I guess that about a third of the camp consists of kids who, like Big Guy, are here on scholarship. God bless whoever contributes for that. These parents have it tough.

Scene Five:
A few hours later we are back on the bus. The mother across the aisle from me has two boys snuggled up against her. Somehow we strike up a conversation. Her 10-year old is asleep on her lap and she whispers, "They let him call home twice because he was so homesick. But now I know my boy loves me. He really loves me. He wanted me, and missed me." There are tears in her eyes.

I know what it is like to have a child who requires so much attention that you wonder if he has any idea of what it means to give. I am so glad that this woman has received the gift of the knowledge that her child cares.

Later she tells me she has five kids in all. They live in an awful neighborhood, rife with drug dealers and gangs. She is scared for her children. I admire her courage and her love. If I am ever rich I will give money to camps like this, to help people like her. I will.

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