by Stephanie Harris
My kids attended a cancer survivor’s camp last week. It consisted of a 5-day, 4-night stay in the mountains near near Estes Park, Colorado. The four of us had spent the night with some colleagues in Boulder the night before, and the next morning we headed toward the campgrounds that housed this special event that we had all been anticipating for months. As we followed the winding South Fork of the St. Vrain river up the canyon out of Lyons, I was too caught up in grappling with my anxiety over leaving the kids for 4 nights, and so I was blindsided when we arrived at the camp… as I could never have expected the greeting we were given.
We pulled up to the camp office, and were instructed to drive around and park near the cafeteria, where the camper check-in was. We pulled up and parked in the gravel lot outside the log building. Upon opening the car doors, we quickly noticed that a cheering crowd of colorfully dressed camp staff and volunteers was greeting us. They stood tall and lofty in the alpine sunshine, forming two lines, opposite each other. With arms reaching toward the sky, they created a 30-foot tunnel for us to run through. These people didn’t know who we were or anything about our story, but they cheered with wild abandon in celebration of our arrival.
It felt a bit intimidating to be received by a crowd. But there was nothing left for us to do but run through this tunnel, and to open ourselves to this opportunity. Thankfully my kids didn’t need convincing, and without a word they ran forward. I followed my children into the arch of arms and hearts, bringing my mix of awkwardness, gratitude, and awe with me. I cheered back. I waved my arms and slapped high fives. And my heart burst open in the process. The benefits of having bravely proceeded into this collective heart-consciousness in spite of my reservations greatly outweighed any discomfort I had beforehand. While in that tunnel I felt held, seen, and appreciated. We were at cancer survivor’s camp! We had been through a lot, and these camp staff knew it. We so deserved those cheers and that unconditional welcome.
The tunnel of love led us to the registration table, where each of my children was introduced to their camp companion (every camper is matched an older camper who accompanies them 24/7). Their companions showed them to their respective cabins, where they each chose a bunk to call home for the week. Each person who greeted us, either at registration or at the cabins, had a light in their eyes, and purpose behind their words. All of this helped me ease into trusting that is was safe to leave my kids at this camp among strangers so very far from home.
Craig and I went through all of these procedures, including schleping our children’s belongings to their cabins, with bouts of tears running down our faces. After having been touched so deeply while in the tunnel, I was reminded of my belief that healing is an ongoing process. There is always potential for more healing! This camp served to heal all of us, even though Craig and I were not attending.
Just when I thought I had experienced all of the emotional stuff that comes with a childhood cancer diagnosis… my heart was cracked open once more. This receiving of love and recognition served to remind me, among other things, that in life, my heart will repeatedly and unexpectedly be cracked open.
It was time to say good-bye, and I took some parting photos of the kids with their companions. We we hugged and kissed our children with all of the love in our heats. We held them tightly, then let go, and with one final wave we turned to head toward the car. By letting go, we were giving them over to their own healing journeys and unique camp experiences.
Since we were eight hours from home, Craig and I made reservations to stay in the area for a childless retreat/vacation together for the duration of camp. Our ten-year wedding anniversary is later this month, so it seemed like an appropriate occasion to celebrate.
Craig drove as we rode away in silence, salty-faced, toward our nearby destination in Estes Park. Minutes later, we somewhat tenderly found our hotel and checked in, and then moved into our peaceful, quiet, creekside room. The tunnel of love had opened our hearts just enough to fill the void of not having our children with us. What I noticed next was that love for one another rushed in. A softness and fullness entered my heartspace, and I knew that, in the absence of my children, it was enough just to be with my husband. I felt a love and acuity for him that I had not experienced quite this fully since Chloe’s diagnosis. It was a welcomed and healing reconnection.
This tunnel of love set the tone for our entire week away from home. I was grateful that this opening happened in a situation where I felt safe doing so, among people who understood our journey. That understanding filled me and carried me forth with a new fortitude for being. The openness that came with letting our hearts be cracked open shed new light on our journey.
Craig and I spent the next 4 days creating new memories together, giving one another the gift of our full presence, enjoying uninterrupted conversations, and taking in the majesty of the Rocky Mountains. Even though I remained energetically tethered to my children, my nervous system had some space to unwind from the constant demands of parenting.
When we returned to retrieve our children from camp, we discovered that they had been happily immersed in this culture of love and inclusiveness during our absence. Chloe made a new friend, who was the exact same age and who also was one year out of treatment. Jordan discovered new passions for kayaking and mini golf. The four of us reunited as a family, having each been transformed by love. And we move forward from here, safely our healing journeys. Grateful for the expansion and renewal in our hearts.
For more information on Camp Wapiyapi, which is a nonprofit based out of Denver: