Last fall, I was invited on a dads and boys camping trip, and I almost didn’t go. My mind took an inventory of all the possible disasters: there won’t be any pasta (Graham’s obsession), the other boys will want to play with his trucks (he was very possessive of his trucks), lots of unstructured playtime with typical boys (variables too numerous to count), there will be hiking (Graham would tire after a hundred yards), and he probably won’t sleep (read: I won’t sleep). Plus, rain and freezing temperatures were in the forecast, I own no camping gear, hadn’t put up a tent in 15 years and didn’t know any of the other dads or boys.
But, then, there was this: my dad took me camping when I was a kid, and those trips are some of my fondest memories. Nights in front of campfires, rising early and making pancakes on the Coleman stove, midnight snacks, snuggling in the sleeping bag, and best of all, quality time with dad.
Like any parent with a child with special needs, I wanted those kinds of “typical” experiences with Graham. Just camping. No aide necessary, no therapy, no assessment to be done…just hang time for the two of us, smores and fun.
I was on the fence until the night before. I had acquired the gear, pitched in for the food, and was pretty sure I’d be a last minute cancel. And what tipped me toward going was just some good old-fashioned hope. Fingers crossed, hold my breath, and let’s go.
And I’m so glad I did.
I thought Graham would like it, but I wasn’t prepared for the momentousness of every aspect of the experience for him. Every little thing was like the most amazing happening.
I could almost hear his thoughts throughout the experience:
The tent!! What a cool thing, like a little fort for just dad and me! Getting to “build it”, and arrange our beds inside; snuggling with my blankie, my special snack and dad… Can we just move here?
Midnight snacks? (technically 8:30). What a concept! Could there be such a benevolent and wonderful thing in life as a yummy, slightly unhealthy snack past bedtime? I get to stay up and eat a treat? What rapture!
And the campfire! Real fire? That thing mommy had always warned me about, that strange and alluring thing! I get to help build it? I get to make it bigger? I get to hold a stick in it? I get to put a sugary marsh-mellow in it and then eat it? Are you kidding me? Six-year-old Heaven!
And mom, love you to death, but would you let me get this filthy, eat this many smores, and stay up this late?
Since that weekend camping trip, we’ve done two more camping trips with the same group of dads and boys. Graham looks forward to the next one more than he looks forward to his birthday. He talks about them, reminisces about funny camping moments, reenacts favorite super-soaker battle scenes, and counts the days til the next trip. And he blossoms there. Freed from the structure of his normal days, he’s allowed to run free with the other boys, and is forced to “work it out” when he doesn’t get what he wants. Off playing, he forgets about pasta, and realizes the benefits of sharing his trucks (he becomes the center of attention!). It’s like he sheds a layer of old skin.
As I think back to my hesitation, I can see how it was representative of a lot tendencies in me: the desire to overprotect, to clear all the obstacles out of his way, to micro-manage his environment, to choreograph social interactions.
And while I still have some of those tendencies, and come by them honestly, I realize that one of the best things I can do for him is take him camping, three times a year, just dads and boys, and let him spread his wings.