I was bent over the back seat of our car, fishing my phone out of my purse when I heard Milo yell, “MOMMY!!!!!” At the very moment that I turned around and saw my son, my husband came out of the main building and yelled, “Milo!!!” Just then, our boy froze, looking from his mother to his father, not knowing which way to step.
My husband is faster and got there first, lifting Milo off of the ground in an athletic embrace. When Milo hugged me it was the most unusual hug I’ve ever gotten from him. It was neither clingy nor desperate but a hug of pure, unadulterated relief.
“I hate this camp.” He said with a wide grin.
“Okay. But did you have any fun?”
“No. Except for hiking behind the waterfall, and swimming through the waterfall. And running the class 3 rapids. And making U-da-man laugh.”
“Who is U-da-man?”
“Yup. And smiled. And hummed.”
“He. . . .hummed?”
“If I sang to him, he hummed back.”
The Balsam Base of SOAR, a summer adventure program for kids with behavioral problems, was vibrating with reunions. Three separate programs ended that day. Cameras clicked, addresses were exchanged, there were smiles and warm handshakes.
Before we loaded Milo’s stinky gear into the back of our new used Volvo and headed for ribs and ice cream, we had a chance to speak with his counselors. In the time leading up to the trek my husband and I filled out a lengthy form, detailing our expectations and goals. Milo also listed his expectations and goals, and the counselors listed theirs. As a group, the kids made a list of expectations and goals, as well as a group flag.
The 3 of us faced Danielle across the table. Danielle gushed about Milo.
“He does great British and German accents. And he tells a lot of funny jokes. Also, he’s so helpful.”
“Every time we asked for volunteers to break down camp or do the dishes, Milo and Jack always volunteered.”
“Really? . . . Um, okay. . .Who is Jack?”
“Jack is my new friend,” Milo said nonchalantly, then he got up and wandered over to bother Richard, the director of the llama course and someone Milo had attached himself to. With Milo gone, I pressed Danielle for the truth. “So, how difficult was he?”
“He was great. He had that rough start when he wanted to go home. And he would walk away from the group a lot. But he never went far and he came back pretty quickly. And he would only wear his crocs. But he was enthusiastic and energetic and excited. He was game for anything and he clearly had a lot of fun. Look, on the goals and expectations sheet, we rated him between 1 and 4 on each goal and expectation. 1 is low, 4 is high. Look at what we gave him. . .all threes and fours.”
I glanced at what he gave himself. . .mostly twos and even some ones.
“Did he ever talk about hating himself or wanting to die?”
“Did he ever talk about hating the rest of you and wanting you all to die?”
“Oh yeah, but they all do that. I’ll tell you, Milo always apologized for talking that way, and we never prompted him to apologize. He did it on his own.”
“So he did okay on the trek?”
“Yes, yes. He was great.”
“So, he can come back next year?”
“Of course, please, we’d love to have him back. He was one of my all time favorites.”
Then came my own feeling of pure, unadulterated relief.
Milo wanted to show my husband a secret trail, which gave me a chance to speak to Richard.
“So Milo wasn’t the most difficult kid you’ve ever had?”
Genuine laughter. “You’re kidding, right? He’s a delight. He’s quite smart. And lovely (Richard is British) and I can honestly say he’s one of my absolute favorites. Ever.”
“So, you had kids who were more difficult?”
Richard looked at me as if to say “Are you daft???” but controlling himself, he said, “He”s an awesome kid. And this summer, sadly, we had a kid who had to go home, he was just too threatening and physically violent. That kid was in Milo’s group. Poor guy, he was probably too young for the course. And there was another kid in Milo’s group with ODD, he was a much bigger handful, so please, relax. We all love Milo.”
Then came the 5 hour drive through mountains, sunshine, torrential rain and more sunshine and. . .HOME. Milo went straight for the Wii and a game he ordered before he left which arrived while he was gone.
That night I asked him questions about U-da-man and the other kids and Richard and whitewater rafting, and he answered them happily. But when I told him how proud I am of him he asked me, politely, to stop talking about it.
The next day we looked at the pictures on the SOAR web site of his trek and he narrated the slideshow for me. He was comfortable in the memory. That’s when he explained to me in detail how you can tickle a lama, and what they eat and when. That’s when he told me about the difference between U-da-man and Jack’s llama. (Jack’s doesn’t hum.) He told me about the songs they sang in the van and why they called their counselor Andy “Captain” and what their favorite meal was.
He sounded like a kid who had been to camp. He had, for the first time in his life, bonded with a group. He was an insider, not an outlier. He had an extraordinary experience with a handful of likeminded kids and compassionate adults and the story of that experience was his, all his. And it made him happy.
I give SOAR a big fat 4 for taking my fucked up little beauty with his head full of noise and his heart full of feelings and his body full of nerves and introducing him to a way of being that was wet and dirty, wild and peaceful, difficult and dramatic, calming and heroic.