August 21

December 20, 2009
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“I’ve failed.”

I ran into my mother’s room, wailing, tears streaming down my face. I had finally reached the bottom of the never-ending pit of my neurosis.

“What?” she whispered, concerned, yet annoyed that I had woken her up.

“I’ve failed, Mom. I’ve wasted this summer,” I made out between sobs.

“Sam, I don’t understand.” She rolled over and shoved her face into her pillow, trying as hard as she could to conceal her irritation.

We’ve had this conversation before. I was about to enter my junior year of high school, and I had planned out my entire summer in the weeks of June so I would have something impressive to put on my college applications; I was going to go to Spain, get a job, become involved in various community service projects, and ultimately become the most well-rounded student any admissions officer had ever witnessed.

Then, Grandpa got sick. It wasn’t just a little sick, either. Grandpa had thyroid cancer, and needed to undergo a high risk operation to get it out. So many things could have gone wrong – his heart could have stopped on the operating table, he could have gotten a tracheotomy and not be able to talk for the rest of his life.

But he had gotten lucky - all the cancer was removed, and Grandpa was whining and cursing like always. My family had never been happier to hear him say, “I don’t care if I have diabetes, get me a damn milkshake.”

But that meant I had to spend most of my summer traveling back and forth with my mom and sister between my house and the hospital up in New York. Which meant I didn’t really have time to beef up my resumé. My plans had to wait.

“I should have gotten a job, Mom. A job in Grandpa’s hospital! Then I could have had a job and helped Grandpa!”

“Sam, don’t be ridiculous.”

“I should have gone to some fancy camp! A girl at my school went to law camp at Harvard for two weeks. Harvard!”

“We looked at camps, Sam. I couldn’t afford to spend thousands of dollars on a camp with Grandpa being sick.”

“Well, I should have done something!” I concluded, breaking down into another fit of sobs and irrationality.

We sat there, practically silent aside from my obnoxious sniffling. I didn’t know what I wanted her to tell me, but I stayed there waiting for her to say something. Maybe I wanted to hear that, by some force of magic, I hadn’t wasted my summer, and I really had six weeks left to do incredible things! Perhaps I wanted her to say that there was no way the other kids in my school could have had such amazing summers, that they were obviously lying.

It’s possible I just wanted attention.

She finally lifted her head off her pillow, and no longer made an effort to hide exactly how frustrated I made her. Her face was now searing red, her mouth pinched so tight I could bounce my troubles off of her cheeks.

“I think that’s quite enough,” she said with an eerie calmness.

Nope, that’s not what I wanted to hear. I continued crying.

“That is absolutely enough!” she said, losing all motherly self-restraint.

I jerked my head up and looked at her, tears still streaming down my face.

“You’ve learned more this summer than any stupid camp could have taught you,” she proclaimed. “You learned sacrifice. You learned selflessness. You learned what being a family really means!” She ticked these things off her fingers as she said them, like checking off an imaginary to-do list.

She paused for a second, and then continued. “Why can’t you look at the great things you did do this summer instead of complaining about the things you didn’t?”

I didn’t know what to say. Instead, I thought.

I had learned sacrifice, hadn’t I? Indeed, I had made sacrifices to help Grandpa. I sacrificed a lot of time to help him in the hospital. I sacrificed those precious moments that could have been spent working and earning credentials or community service hours. I even sacrificed my money to buy him McFlurrys when he demanded it was the only thing that would make him better. Petty things, but they add up.

And through everything that had happened, I had never felt so close to my family. We were constantly calling to find out news about surgeries and appointments and, in the meantime, taught each other what I meant to love someone unconditionally and be prepared to put your life on hold and run to their side at a moment’s notice.

As for selflessness…I thought back in shame to the last few minutes I had spent complaining about having to give up my summer. Maybe I had a little more to learn about that.

I had definitely stopped crying, but now I was overwhelmed with guilt. I glanced up at my mother, considerably more calm and now laying back down with her eyes shut. I crawled over and lay down beside her, trying to thank her without words, but with the bliss of my silent understanding.

“You know, Sam,” she said jokingly, “I haven’t gone to any fancy camps this summer, either.”

I smiled and snuggled closer. My beautiful, powerful mother. She sacrificed more than anyone; there wasn’t a selfish bone in her body. And she knew more about being a family than I ever will.

“Well, if I turn out like you, I think I’ll be alright.”

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