“Hey, Josh, it’s okay. We’ll see each other next summer.” I pushed my friend’s wheelchair toward his van, trying to act like I wasn’t upset. He turned and stared at me, clutching Moosie, his stuffed moose. The tears I had begged him to hold came pouring down his cheeks.
“I have you,” he whispered. His voice cracked. “You’re mine?”
I smiled at him, tears flooding my eyes too. “I’m yours,” I said, “forever.”
We had reached the van, and his attendant was waiting. “You’re my friend,” Josh said. “You’ve been good to me. You help me out. I love you.”
I nodded. “I love you too. I love you too, dude.” His attendant took his wheelchair from me, and Josh began to break down completely. His body shook with sobs as he reached out for a final hug. I held him, his tears wetting my sweatshirt.
And then I left. There was nothing more I could do to delay the inevitable: saying good-bye.
I’ve had to say a number of hard good-byes in my lifetime: to my childhood best friend, to my grandpa, to a favorite teacher. But none of these hurt as much as leaving Josh.
Last summer I decided to volunteer at a day camp for kids and adults with special needs. I was paired with Josh, who was 33. He used a wheelchair, and although he could speak, understanding him took getting used to.
On my first day, Josh and I had a great time doing camp activities together – yoga, arts and crafts, and “activities of daily living.” I quickly learned that Josh loved to arm wrestle, and he was good at it. No matter how hard I tried, he would always beat me. Whenever he won, he would smile and say, “I beat you up, forever!” Try as I might to change his winning streak, I couldn’t.
The moment I realized that I honestly cared about Josh was the end of our second day. A staff member had told me that Josh’s van had to pick him up early, and Josh was really upset about it. Earlier, he’d told me how much he dreaded returning to his group home. It was boring there, he’d said. He had proclaimed that camp was his favorite part of the year, instantly making me regret all the times I had complained about how dull my life was. Josh began to cry when I told him the new schedule, but I was able to cheer him up with a bit of arm wrestling and the promise that I would see him the next day.
During camp, Josh and I had a routine. He would hold my hand up to his chest and say, “I have you! You’re mine!” I would try to escape from his iron grip, but – of course – fail, and I’d then reply, “You have me! I’m yours, Josh!” Often this would be followed by an affirmation that we were “friends forever,” complete with a pinkie swear.
Josh didn’t swim with the rest of the campers, so we would often sit together on the beach. That time we spent just talking: about our families, school, and our likes and dislikes. We got to know a lot about each other, just like any pair of friends would.
Which is what we were. Our age difference didn’t impact that. It was just a number, and it meant nothing. I woke up every day excited for camp. Hanging out with Josh had quickly become the highlight of my summer; I was having a blast.
Of course, the last day of camp had to come. That morning, I told Josh that we weren’t going to worry about what day it was until the very end. I did my best to keep both our spirits high. We sang loudly, went fishing, and arm wrestled with the exact same outcome as always. At our last “swim chat,” we had a mock photoshoot with my camera and took several photos together. At one point I was videotaping us, and Josh interrupted our conversation to do our “you’re mine” routine. It ended up being perfectly captured on film, and it means so much to me.
Then it was time to go. We pinkie-swore to be friends forever, hugged, and arm wrestled over and over again waiting for his van. As it pulled up, I realized what a fantastic friend I’d made and how badly I wanted camp to go on for another few hours.
The worst part of leaving Josh was that there were other cars behind his van, so I was forced to leave to let traffic pass. As I walked away I could hear him being buckled in, and I didn’t dare look back. It would have hurt too much.
There is always next summer. And who knows, I could see Josh before then. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is having to leave someone you care about, knowing that the highlight of their year is six weeks at summer camp – knowing that you get to go places whenever you want, when your friend doesn’t have that option. I don’t understand how anyone could justify the unfairness of that. I certainly can’t. All I can say is that I can’t wait for next summer. Maybe I’ll beat him up then.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.