I just returned from a visit home to camp, and as always, feel the pull to commit to staying there for the season. It isn’t likely to be in the cards for me this year, but I’ll admit that I was plenty tempted to sublet my apartment, quit the job hunt, pack up my dog, and head to camp for the whole summer. This happens to me pretty much every year around this time, and the emotions never seem to fade as the years pass.
Besides the desire to return to a place where I’ve spent half my life, have fun, work with kids, and be closer to my family, there is one huge reason that draws me to camp above all others: my father.
My dad’s presence and influence permeates every building and every blade of grass at camp, and it’s awfully hard not to miss him with extra ferocity when I’m there. Most of the campers who come to Birch Trail now never knew my father, but they benefit from his legacy all the same. Knowing this makes me feel proud of him, and proud of my family for protecting and cultivating that legacy—my father’s memory—in the one place he loved most.
There are all sorts of grief triggers in our house at camp—his clothes, shoes, pictures, books, and hats still line our closets. I’ve come to anticipate these triggers after so much time, but the one thing I’ve learned about grief is this: the loss never fades, and grief will find a way to grab your attention one way or another, the way water always manages to find a way in through an old foundation. While cleaning out my room with my mom, sister-in-law, and friend, I found a huge pile of my dad’s socks, tied together at the toe the way he always kept them. We laughed at this, pulling apart the socks and tossing them into the laundry pile.
I finished the book I was reading much faster than I thought I would, and went in search of something new to read. My mom handed me a copy of David James Duncan’s The Brothers K, and I opened it up to read it in bed one night. I read The Brothers K in college, and have my own copy sitting in the Duncan section on my bookshelves in my office at home. I wasn’t sure where this copy had originally come from or to whom it belonged; books have a way of disappearing and reappearing around camp willy-nilly, and I’ll take what I can get.
With a mug of tea steaming on my nightstand, I opened up the book and settled in for a nice, cozy bedtime reading session, the bullfrogs and loons already warming up their orchestra in lake behind me. About 30 pages in, a scrap of paper that had apparently been used as a bookmark fell out of the book and into my lap. I picked up the little white shred, held it open in my fingers, and began to cry. The bookmark was a torn remnant of an airplane ticket stub with my father’s handwriting on it. I’m sure lots of people use whatever paper they have lying around as bookmarks, as I do, but seeing this reminder of my father’s funny little habits, one that he passed down to me, tore at my heart as if he’d only been gone a few days. The pain is still every bit as raw as it was then.
It’s been eight and a half years since my father died, and seeing his handwriting still brings me to tears. We’ll likely continue to find everyday reminders of him for a long time, just as I still find hairs from my brother’s dog, Jimmy, stuck to my clothing every once in a while, even though Jimmy has been dead more than a year. I wonder what remnants of loved ones other people find and are saddened, or delighted, by. I wonder how many different kinds of grief triggers there are, seeping their way into the lives of those of us who are left behind.
When I go home to visit camp, I expect my grief to be provoked by seeing pictures of my father, or by sitting down in his favorite chair. But this little scrap of paper with a few of his words scribbled down on it—that is the kind of thing I could not anticipate, the kind of trigger that found the hairline cracks in my foundation and crept in, inch by inch, until it became a flood. I’m standing ankle-deep in that flood right now, missing my father, and thinking about camp.