This weekend, my kids' dad, Walter, went out for Dad's weekend at my ten year old, middle son Zachary's camp. All the Dads bring tents and they have a weekend of games, competitions, singing, skits and campfires. At the end of every day, they have a time to sit around and reflect, as a group. The counselors give them a question, and everyone answers.
One night, Walter told me, they asked, What does it mean to be a man?
Zachary answered, To be strong and thoughtful.
Walter is very strong physically, no question. I love that Zachary sees his thoughtfulness, because to me, Walter's strength is not his ability to lift a ninety-pound boy over his head and toss him across the swimming pool but his ability to emotionally connect on a very deep level.
It makes him very thoughtful.
Walter answered that a man is an individual who also realizes they live in a community and are a part of that community.
At the end of the weekend of festivities, the Moms are invited to visit from 12 to 4pm. My wife Jeanine and I drove out, picked up our other son, Ben, from his much shorter stay at camp and then went to visit Zachary. I couldn't wait to see Zachary -- he has been gone three weeks and has one more to go. I missed him so much. The big blue boo boo eyes trying to get something special, his kicked backed relaxed time on the couch first thing in the morning.
His wry sense of humor.
When we were driving up, Ben said, I don't know why you are torturing him like this. It's just going to make him want to go home. It'd be easier if you didn't show up at all.
Maybe, I said, but ... it's not always about easy.
Walking down the path toward his cabin, we heard Walter's voice. Jeanine called out and in the instant Zachary saw us, he jumped and started to run towards us just for an instant. He then slowed down and said, Hey!
We both hugged him the way Moms hug boys they have not seen for three weeks. He did not run away.
At the end of the day, we ended up by the lake at a basketball court. Zachary and I were shooting hoops, something Ben had a hard time letting happen -- teasing each other a little, laughing a lot.
Show me your moves, I said to him. His moves included a great deal of double dribbling and traveling but ... they were sweet.
I could tell all day that something was bugging Zachary. He had said, over and over, I'm not missing you, I'm having a great time!
On the way to the basketball court, I pulled him close as we walked and said, It's OK to miss us AND have a good time.
I know, he said. He wouldn't look at me.
Ben finally announced he was ready to leave, as Zachary and my game slowly wound down.
Don't go, Zachary said, You just got here.
It's not time yet, I said, glaring at Ben, But it will be soon.
His head dropped and he focused on the basketball.
Let's go over there, I said, and put my arm around Zachary. I gave the look to Jeanine and Walter than meant, keep Ben busy. Alone time needed.
We went over to the water's edge. It's really beautiful out here, Zachary. I love it. I wish I could go to camp again.
He didn't say anything but I looked over at him and his eyes were full of tears.
Hey, what's going on?
Buddy... I can see you're about to cry... what's going on?
I dunno, he said, shrugging his shoulders.
Come here, I sat down and motioned for him to sit in my lap. I wrapped my arms around him. We sat for a few minutes.
Do you know why you are sad?
He shook his head.
Has anyone been mean to you?
He shook his head fast.
Do you not like your counselors?
He shook his head fast again.
Any idea why you might be sad?
He sat for a while and then said, It's weird that you're leaving without me.
I hugged him tight -- I know. I miss you very much.
He nodded. No words, just more silent tears.
It's OK to miss home and to have a great time, you know.
It's about feeling both things at once, Zachary. You can miss home and love camp all at the same time. You know, you might want to talk about it tonight with your cabin at circle time. My guess? Everyone feels that way today. At least a little bit.
We sat for a while longer, just looking at the water. My baby in my lap holding me as much as I was holding him. I know the experience is pure growth for him -- he's learning how to identify feelings and to talk about them. He's learning how to miss home and still try something new and different.
I am proud of you, Zachary. Not because you can stay at a camp for a month on your own. But because of who you are.
He nodded. The bell rang calling the boats in off the water. It was time to leave. We both got up slowly and walked back to his cabin.
The camp is a beautiful place. I know it's a great experience. As much as I wanted to bring him home, that minute, I knew he needed to climb up the stairs to his cabin and sit on the railing. I saw the tears in his eyes. I needed to let him go.
My definition of a man is a person who is strong enough to let himself be vulnerable. Someone who defines himself rather than let other's dictate who he should be. Someone not afraid to champion those who cannot champion themselves. Someone who expresses fear and uncertainty knowing the definition of bravery is feeling scared and doing it anyway.
And on Sunday? My son was learning a small piece of what it is to be a man.