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The Sunshine in my Life
I was five years old on September 11, 2001. I was five years old when my daddy was taken from me. I’ve seen therapists, and I’ve been to support groups all my life, but nothing has made as strong a mark in my memory as Camp Sunshine. If you were to look up the camp, you’ll find that it is a camp for families—in which the whole family attends— who have children suffering from cancer, mental or physical disabilities, and various other diseases. For a few years, they invited families affected by 9/11 to attend for a week in July, and the memories I have from my time at the camp are ones that will never leave my mind.
I can remember a particularly gloomy day when my age group (6-8) was spending time at the lake on the edge of the camp grounds. The clouds were thick in the sky and a cool breeze made it unbearably cold. You would think that nobody would be swimming, but there were plenty of kids in the ice cold waters. I wouldn’t have dared to even put my feet in, but, hey, it’s their choice if they wanted to get hypothermia. Mike, a counselor, motioned for me to go over to him. This gesture sent my stomach flipping, for I had a puppy-dog crush on him—I tended to crush on ‘older men’ when I was young.
“Hey, want to do me a huge favor?” he asked.
“Sure,” I answered, secretly melting inside.
“You know Michelle?” he asked, and I nodded in response. “Well, you should go push her into the lake with all her clothes on.” Now, as a child, I was quite the little devil and the thought of doing such a thing made my blood pulse with excitement. A plan immediately entered my mind: I’d ask Michelle to come sit on the dock with me, and when we she sat down at the edge, I’d shove her in. Unfortunately, as I tried with all my strength to push her, she gripped the dock to keep from falling into the water. My devious plan had failed, so I walked back to the beach with my head hung, ashamed that I had let down Mike.
“Jenna!” Mike called to me. I walked over, dragging my feet. “You should go push Christine in instead,” he said. My spirits lifted because I knew just had to fix the flaws in my plan. I asked Christine to come sit with me on the dock, but this time I didn’t let her sit down. Instead, as we were still walking along, I gave her a forceful shove. She teetered on the edge, almost catching her balance, but she fell in with a screech and a splash. Mike ran over and gave me a high-five. Then, as if I had just hit the game-winning homerun in the World Series, he lifted me up into the air, shouting out that I was his hero.
Imagine when you were a little kid and had those puppy-dog crushes. Mike was simply calling me his hero, but this was enough to convince me that he liked me. It was enough to convince my imaginative brain that we were going to get married and live happily ever after. Obviously, those aren’t realistic thoughts, but that didn’t occur to me at the time. No, all I was thinking about was how happy I was in that very moment, and looking back on it, I can still remember that happiness, that immense joy. Being deemed Mike’s hero is just one of so many memories that I can recollect in order to bring a smile to my face. Camp Sunshine left me with memories that will always be there in my mind to think about when I’m feeling down, but the importance of the camp to me expands further still.
This time, I recall a particularly sunny day when the only clouds in the sky were those fluffy white ones that you wish you could sleep on. Henry—a counselor and now a lifelong friend of mine—took out his guitar case and asked me to join him by the sports field. Some construction was going on, leaving a smooth log, perfect for sitting on. Seated, he began to tune his guitar as I studied the lyrics to “Margaritaville” by Jimmy Buffett. This had been one of the artists my dad enjoyed listening to. It is for this reason that it meant so much to me to be singing “Margaritaville” with Henry, on a log. Henry brought Jimmy Buffett’s music back into my life, and I don’t think I would have ever listened to Buffett’s music if he hadn’t reminded me that he existed. Without knowing it, Henry had allowed me to get back this connection to my father that had been hidden deep within my brain, waiting to be brought to the surface.
Henry began to play the song, as I sang along. I personally thought that I had the most beautiful voice to have ever been heard, and a small crowd gathered to listen, further convincing me of the wonder that was my talented vocal cords. Looking back, I feel bad for damaging their innocent ears with my horrendous voice. Nevertheless, the song ended and everyone clapped for me. I closed my eyes hoping that my daddy was proud that I was singing a song that he adored, and that he was clapping for me up in heaven. I figured he most certainly was, considering I sang it with such an angelic voice, so I told Henry to play it again. Still, those poor people allowed their ears to be painfully tortured as they listened to a little girl singing to her daddy in heaven.
I sometimes wonder: would I have completely forgotten about Jimmy Buffett if it weren’t for Henry? I can almost positively say that yes, I wouldn’t have ever listened to his music again, but luckily, Henry did remind me. For a few years I have gone to see Jimmy Buffett in concert, and I always think about how much my dad would’ve liked to be able to see him play live with my mom and me. It may seem strange to others, but I accredit Camp Sunshine with giving me back not only Buffett’s music but various other connections to my father that were nearly lost, let alone allowing me to believe that I could still talk to my dad even though he’s physically gone.
It’s difficult to explain to a child that through prayer, you can communicate to those who have passed on, but Camp Sunshine gave us a physical means to relay our messages, which is much easier for a child to understand. They gave us balloons and markers, making it simple for a child’s imagination to figure that the balloons would float right up to heaven to be read.
I recall walking down to the lake one year, and it began to pour. It was like the clouds were spilling buckets down onto us. All of us at the camp carried our balloons with our messages written on them, excited to release them into the sky. As we reached the lake, the rain only came down harder. The tears of the heavens mixed with our own, and before long, we were all completely soaked.
Trying to speed along the process, the camp director quickly grabbed her megaphone and blared out, “1, 2, 3, go!”
We watched the balloons float away, believing that our messages were being carried up to our loved ones to be read. The balloons fought hard against the rain, but then it suddenly stopped. Relieved, we continued to watch until our balloons were just colored specks in the sky. I let the tears fall from my eyes, but I stayed quiet, ashamed for showing my emotions, ashamed for allowing myself to cry. I told myself that I wasn’t supposed to cry, I was supposed to be strong in order to hide the hurt I felt—the hurt I kept a secret from everyone but my stuffed animals and myself—but I couldn’t.
I heard gasps all around me and quickly wiped the tears from my face. I saw people pointing across the lake in awe. Looking up, I saw a beautiful double rainbow. There was even a faint third arch stretching across the sky. The colors were so vivid, as if someone had painted them there using the sky as their canvas. I took a moment to etch the beauty of this image into my mind, so as to never forget this rare wonder that my eyes were viewing.
It was if our loved ones had answered us, telling us they received our messages. They were saying, “Don’t cry now, smile.” I again wiped the tears from my eyes, but these were tears of joy. I smiled, filled with an extensive warmth that was beaming from within all of our hearts.
My memories of Camp Sunshine are some of my best, and I tried here to convey its importance in my life to you, but these words—just ink on paper—don’t even begin to explain it. In fact, I sometimes have difficulties understanding it myself.