July 12, 2006

Reporte'rs Notebook

Summer Camp Blues

Any soccer mom worth her salt knows the party line: Hooray! Summer's here! Time to pack the kids off on the camp bus and break out the bikinis and appletinis!

Six shimmering weeks of kid-free summer festivities stretch before the blurred eyes of dead-on-their-feet parents who've spent the school year shepherding kids to soccer and dance classes and baseball and chorus and band and play practice and basketball and football and wrestling and Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and church and tutoring and awards ceremonies and dentists and doctors and cheerleading and, well, the list is literally endless.

So is it such a surprise that on the day the kids are finally packed — their bags bursting with carefully-packed-and-folded-by-Mom shorts and T-shirts, flip flops, sandals, hiking boots, swimsuits, sunscreen, iPods and cell phones and all manner of snacks — parents, once the bus has rounded the corner, resemble nothing more than a group of prison inmates recently let loose with nothing but time and F-R-E-E-D-O-M?

It's a dizzying prospect. What to do with this booty, this treasure called free time? Shall we engage in an unbridled orgy, a bacchanalia of booze and idyllic sun-drenched beach days?

Tempting. But unlikely. Because while recently sprung parents may entertain such visions, like so many naughty sugarplums prancing through their collective consciousness, the bottom line is that once the kids are gone, the reality is a shocker: Shhh, it's supposed to be a secret, but we actually miss them.

I know. By saying those verboten words aloud I'm taking a risk that might see me kicked out of the sisterhood forever. No mom is supposed to admit to missing her children. No, we smile and breathe loud sighs of relief when that bus takes off, making plans for girls' nights out and an array of dazzling Hamptons parties that would make even Paris green with envy.

Please. It's all an illusion. Because once we're safely home, the SUVs hidden behind closed doors, the truth is that parents don't know what to do on their summer vacations. They putter around, tidying up the all-too-empty rooms that their tiny whirlwinds have left behind, and they fill their days with work and chores and pets and an occasional foray into town for a movie and dinner.

And when night settles and there are no little ones to tuck into dreamland, no preteens to nag about turning off that TV-computer-cell phone, no teen pool parties to supervise; there is a loneliness that blankets parents across the board.

Summer camp signals the beginning. For parents, it is the first step of a lifetime lived without their children, as baby chicks step out of the nest to spread their wings and fly.

My 13-year-old son Billy left for nine days on Friday to help rebuild homes for those less fortunate in Lampeter, Pennslyania. It is the first time in his life that he has gone away without me.

While he's gone, he'll forge new friendships, do important work and make new memories that he'll hold in his heart for a lifetime. All of this, without me.

And I'm not going to lie anymore. It hurts. It hurts like hell to be a mother whose child is going off into the world. I know it's what's supposed to happen, the natural order of things, and I am thankful every day that he is strong and healthy, with a future bright with opportunity.

But just for a moment, I wish I could turn back time to those endless summer beach days when my boy was just a toddler with a sand pail and eyes just for me. A tiny child whose only wish was for a blue Pokemon pop from the ice cream truck and a bedtime story. I wish I could relive each and every one of these precious days of his childhood.

But time marches on, and as for me, I'm counting down every one of these eternally long nine summer days until my son is home, safe and sound, and I can cook his favorite dinners and nag him about his iPod and the computer. I can't wait.

God help me when he goes to college.

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