How I Spent My Summer Vacation

I recently volunteered to be a counselor at the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s summer camp for kids. This post details some of that experience. Some names have been changed.dw-camp-3a.jpg

It’s about 2:30 in the morning on Saturday, and it has only been about an hour since having fallen asleep when a voice wakes me. “I gotta go pee,” it says in pathetic desperation.

For a moment I think it must be part of a dream, but a few moments later I hear the voice in the dark, louder, more desperate, and by matter of course even more pathetic. “Jack, help me, I gotta go pee,” says the voice.

The voice belongs to Teddy, a 14 year-old kid with Duchene muscular dystrophy (DMD). Through the sort of seemingly random events that define life, I’ve learned a bit about DMD over the last eight months—probably more than the average person would ever care to know. I know that it is the number one genetic killer of children in the world, and that if he is very lucky—and I do mean very lucky—Teddy might live to see 30. I also know there’s a good chance DMD will kill Teddy before he’s 20. As it stands, it has robbed him of his ability to walk and paralyzed much of his body, leaving him, from as near as I can tell, a quadriplegic. Which is why, at 2:30 in the morning, Teddy is calling out for someone to help him take a piss.

Teddy is one of just over 100 campers at the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s summer camp for kids. I’m one of the more than 100 counselors who have volunteered to spend a week in the woods with Teddy and the others. I’m sharing a small cabin that smells like funky feet and urine with five other guys, including Teddy and his counselor, Jack. This isn’t the first time Teddy has called out to Jack at some ridiculous hour, and as the kid’s pleas become louder and more desperate, I wonder how the hell Jack can sleep through all the noise.

I open my eyes in the dark cabin, which thankfully has just a splash of illumination provided by a puny nightlight. The nightlight is there to give the campers some sense of comfort, but it helps the counselors keep from stumbling around in the dark as we help kids do the simple things in life, like go to the bathroom. I look to see if Jack is awake, or if I’m going to have to climb down off my top bunk to wake him. As a rule, campers either sleep on the bottom bunk, or in special hospital beds, leaving counselors like myself to toss and turn uncomfortably on the top bunk.

I’m hoping Teddy’s cries for help have woken Jack, because I really don’t want to climb off the bunk and wake him like I did a few mornings earlier. I’m having trouble maneuvering down and off the bunk—in part because of my fat ass and in part because of the bunk’s awkward construction—which has twice caused me to fall. I’m hoping to avoid a third incident because I don’t want to fall off the ladder, smash my toes, or wrench my neck and shoulder while trying to keep from landing face-first on a floor covered with tracked-in dirt and the crushed carcasses of dead insects.

From my vantage point I can see that Jack is not in the cabin. Jack is a good kid, a soon-to-be-a-senior in high school which frighteningly makes him old enough to be my son, and for the most part he’s been a good counselor to Teddy. But Jack, like many teenage boys, has a perpetual raging boner, which appears to have driven him from the cabin in pursuit of one of the nubile, female jailbait counselors that for the past week have left me feeling like a lecherous old man. And while I respect Jack’s quest to get some summer time poontang in the woods, his first priority is to ensure that I don’t have to haul my ass off the top bunk to help his camper take a piss. But sadly, Jack is failing in his duties, and as I see that he is not in the cabin, Teddy’s pleading becomes louder and louder. “Jack, I need you! Help me! I gotta pee!”

I close my eyes tight and attempt to force myself back to sleep so I don’t have to deal with this. Teddy can’t see that I’m awake, and I’m sure his desperate cries will wake someone else that can help. Of course, the problem is that the only “someone else that can help” in the cabin is Mike, the other counselor, and he’s sound asleep.

I don’t want to climb off the top bunk and help Teddy. It’s not my job. I’m not his counselor. And besides, who cares? I’m sure the kid has had to lie in his own urine before. Who hasn’t? So what if he has to do it again? It’s not my problem and not my concern. As he continues to call out for help, I remind myself that when I was in college, laying in a pool of your own waste was a passage of manhood. I tell myself, “Fuck it. Let him piss all over himself, it’ll make him a man”

And then I think for a moment: “What would it be like to be in Teddy’s position?” What would it be like to be stuck, flat on your back, unable to move anything but your head and part of one arm, your bladder throbbing and burning, as a stream of piss pushed itself out of the head of your dick, threatening to leave you soaking wet and laying in a puddle of your own urine? How helpless would that feel? How humiliating would that be? This kid is at camp, trying to have a good time. This is his week. And now he’s about to piss himself because of some genetic defect. He’s not going to remember all the fun he had throughout the rest of the week, he’s going to remember that he went to summer camp and pissed all over himself.

“Someone, please help me! I gotta go to the bathroom!”

“Hold on, Teddy, “ I tell him as climb out of the bunk with new-found grace, “let me wake up Mike, and we’ll take care of you.”

It takes Mike and I nearly ten minutes just to get Teddy into a position where he can pee into the portable, handheld urinal, and I hate myself for having waited so long to get out of bed, and for not wanting to get out of bed, and for being mad at Teddy for being so fucking helpless that he can’t even get his penis into the urinal. And then all the hate just kind of subsides into a lingering disdain as Teddy fills the urinal. Unfortunately, he only gets about half of what he’s been holding into the urinal, the other half is on him or his sheets, which means me and Mike are going to have to deal with that as well. Except Mike is wearing the last pair of rubber gloves in the cabin, which means I need to go outside, in the dark, and down the trail to the restroom to get some more gloves.

Nearly thirty minutes later, me and Mike are sitting outside the cabin beside a fire I managed to build with the help of some dying embers. Teddy is relieved (urinationally speaking), cleaned up, and asleep. I’m wondering what the fuck I’m doing at muscular dystrophy camp.

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We all need some perspective in our lives. If you believe in any sort of spiritual/religious/cosmic balance—some sort of state-of-being where you understand both your importance and simultaneous insignificance within the universe—the only way to achieve that state is through perspective. But knowing, acknowledging and understanding the need for perspective, and actually having it are two completely different things. It’s a lot like the difference between reading about driving a car, and actually driving a car. Intellectually it can be fairly easy to understand the importance of maintaining perspective. But working towards it—honestly struggling to find a true level of perspective—is something else altogether.

There were a lot of things that went into making my decision of volunteer to be a counselor the MDA summer camp. At one point I even convinced myself I was doing it to meet some hot female counselor who would see my volunteering as such a major turn-on it would be all she could do to get her wheelchair-bound camper to bed so she could sneak off for a late-night hump under the stars with me. But that was just one of several reasons I fabricated to avoid the very real reason for my decision, which really came down to nothing more than me looking to find a tiny sliver of perspective. I’m talking about true perspective, not the mouth-flapping lip service we all pay at one point or another, to some thing or another.

As I packed my bags and headed out for my first camping trip since 1978, I knew in the back of my mind that a very large part of the reason I was doing this thing was that I needed to be somewhere removed from my comfort zones. There was this vague notion that what I needed was this thing called “perspective,” which, contrary to popular belief, is not writing a check to whatever charitable cause pulls at your heartstrings while you are channel surfing. Likewise, perspective is not passing someone in a wheelchair and counting the blessings of you and your family. I’ve done all those things and more, but that was not fixing whatever has been wrong with me.

Part of what has been wrong with me—and this is the part that all of you regular readers have been waiting for, where I rock out with my cock out—is that I don’t feel like a human being. Now, don’t get me wrong, because I’m not one of those people who has read Chariots of the Gods and is convinced he’s the product of extraterrestrial experiments, or the descendant of ancient Lumerians, and I’m not waiting for the mothership to come take me away. It’s just that I have never really felt like I have belonged, and my overwhelming sense of alienation has long been one of the few constants that I could even get the most aching of comforts from.

What I am trying to say is that I often feel disconnected from humanity, which is what makes us human beings. And it is easy to become disconnected, living in a capitalistic society where super-sized fast food and jiffy lubes drive a culture that relies on cell phones and text messages as a viable form of communication—championing digital disconnect over human interaction. And in choosing to succumb to convenience and speed, by having friends we don’t actually know, on cyber-social networks that are really just another advertising platform, we are giving our humanity away. It is happening to me, and since I’m always one of those motherfuckers slow to adopt new trends or concepts, this whole “losing humanity” thing must be something that’s been going on for a while. At least that’s one train of thought, and perhaps the easiest to embrace when trying to explain what seems to be a pervasive lack of humanity.

The other train of thought is that humanity is not something we are born with, but rather something we must struggle to attain. There is, within all homo sapiens, the capacity to have humanity—a state of mind and spirit that allows us to connect and care for others, even though we have no vested interest in these other people. It is easy to connect and care with someone close to you—parents, siblings or others whose close proximity breeds familiarity—but these relationships and the ability to sympathize and empathize with these people is not necessarily a sign of humanity.

Human beings are social animals, and like all social animals we generally remain connected with our tribe/herd/pack/clan. This is a part of our genetic encoding that allows us to survive. In other words, all human beings are born with the instincts needed to allow the species to continue and survive. But how does the human species do more than survive? How do we, as just another breed of animal, evolve into a better, more advanced species? We have gone from cave-dwelling to condos, from communicating with grunts and gestures to written language to cyber communication. At times it seems that all human beings have ever done is eat, shit, fuck, and die, and the only thing that changes is the technology we distract ourselves with when we are not eating, shitting, fucking and dying.

What I find problematic and disheartening is that I see so little humanity on a day-to-day basis, that I truly believe it is something we must grow in to. We are born with the brain capacity to walk and talk, but we must grow into those actions. Maybe being better people is something we must grow into as well. And the more I have thought about that, the more I have become convinced that perspective is a key element in building the bridge that connects human beings with being human. That is why I was at MDA summer camp.

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Nearly everyone I talked to told me that camp would change my life. From the moment I arrived and began swatting at the mosquitoes and recoiling from the spiders, I wondered how this change would manifest itself. Would I save some kid from drowning, or perhaps fend off a grizzly bear attack with nothing more than the well-honed fighting techniques I have learned from watching countless kung fu movies?

Sadly, nothing like that ever happened. I never really made it to the pool, and the grizzly bears seemed to have taken the week off. Instead I helped change the diapers of a 16 year-old kid who lacked the physical ability to feed himself.

The hours seemed to drag on forever out there in the woods, removed from things like cell phones and the Internet. As I waited for life to change forever, I began to wonder if this was all some sort of cosmic joke. Was I destined to be the only counselor in the history of MDA summer camp to not come away with something from the experience?

On the third day of camp, during lunch, I was sitting outside the main lodge when I saw a little girl, no more than six years-old, sitting alone on a chair as she tried to balance her plate of food and her drink at the same time. I didn’t know what was wrong with her, but I could tell by her movements that something was affecting her motor skills. I wondered where her counselor was, and how come she wasn’t helping her with the food. At the very least she should have been sitting at a table. That’s when the little girl spilled her drink all over herself, and started to cry. A waited a moment for someone to come to her aid, because the last thing this kid needed was a scary-looking man like me rushing up to her. But no one came, and she needed someone, so I walked over to her and said, “I spill stuff on myself all the time. Let me help you clean that up.”

She looked up at me from behind these huge glasses that seemed to be half the size of her head. Her eyes were filled tears and she stared at me like she had no idea what to make of me. I used the napkin I had been holding to try and dry her clothes. “Here, you use this to dry yourself,” I said as I handed her the napkin, “and I’ll go get you something else to drink.”

I came back with another drink, handed it to the girl, and watched once again as she tried to balance her plate of food on her tiny lap while clumsily holding her drink in one hand and some food in the other. It was inevitable she was going to spill again. “You know what I think? I think it might be easier if you sat at a table,” I told her. “Why don’t we move you to a table? That way we can put your plate on a table, and you won’t have to work so hard to eat. Eating shouldn’t be hard work, should it?”

As I carried the girl’s plate and drink to a nearby table, her counselor finally decided to show up and do something. “She was having trouble and had a bit of an accident,” I explained. “It will be easier for her if she’s at a table.”

“Oh, I can help her with that,” said the counselor.

“I’ve got it,” I said. But what I was thinking was, “Where were you in the first place?”

Here we were three days into camp and this counselor (who could not have been more that 18 years-old) was so self-absorbed that she was clueless about what her campers needs were. Even I, after three days had a grasp on what my camper wanted, which was why I was hanging back and leaving him alone. But he wasn’t a little girl who was fumbling with a plate of food. The little girl sat down to eat her lunch, looking up at me with a curious stare as I walked off. The next day I saw her again, and she smiled at me and waved.

A few days later, as I lay on my bunk, listening to Teddy cry out for someone to help him go pee, all I could do was think about how I didn’t want to be the one to get up and help him, and that someone else should be the one to do the dirty work. Honestly, I didn’t want to help the little girl either. That was the responsibility of her counselor, just as it was the responsibility to Teddy’s counselor to help him go to the bathroom. So why did I do both, when I could have easily ignored both situations?

The truth of the matter is that I did not want to go to MDA summer camp any more than I wanted to help some kid who spilled their drink or another who was about to piss himself. I didn’t want to have to help change diapers or deal with temper tantrums from children in desperate need of sedation. I didn’t want to do any of the things I did during my week at camp. But the other truth of the matter is that I needed to do all of those things. Just as the body has a way of letting you know what it needs to survive—food, sleep, a movement of the bowels— your soul has a way of telling you what it needs to survive. But because the soul communicates in a way different than the body, it can be hard to understand what it is demanding of you. When your stomach rumbles, it is your body telling you that you need to eat. But how does the soul let you know that it is time to feed your humanity?

I don’t know if going to MDA summer camp changed my life, because I don’t really know how you measure something like that. What I do know is that I’m planning on going again next summer. Not because I had that great of a time, because I honestly didn’t have that great of a time. But when push comes to shove, this ain’t my party. The people who are supposed to have a great time are the campers who, for one week out of the year, get to be “normal”—whatever that means. MDA summer camp is place where children who have genetically been dealt a bad hand get to cut loose. No one makes fun of them because they are in a wheelchair, or wonders why they are on a ventilator, or teases them because of the way their bodies have become twisted.

In order for these kids to have a good time, someone needs to help them when they spill things, and clean them up when they soil themselves. Honestly, I don’t know if I will ever want to be that person. But if by being that person, even for one week out of the year, I can make someone else’s life just a little better, I will climb down off that top bunk, smash my toe if need be, and help change that diaper. It is the least a human being can do.

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3 Responses to “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”

  1. Pnut7661 Says:

    Mr. Walker, I am as proud as I am touched by your ability to truthfully examine and participate in this universe. From Teddy to Darius and Charlie, to myself and the 200 lives you’ve now entered, thank you. -Kat

    “Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.” -Carl Jung

  2. bssmalley Says:

    Great job, David. Refreshingly honest. And you know what? Even though you say this experience didn’t really change your life, just by realizing that it was all about the campers (and not you) and by announcing that you intend to go back next year, I see evidence that it HAS changed your life. At the very least, I hope you gained a small slice of that “perspective” you were searching for.

    From my perspective, I’m still trying to imagine you sleeping comfortably on the top of a bunk bed. Hilarious!

  3. L13 Says:

    as always ,candid ,honest and inspiring.
    you are a good man in spite of yourself and your smashed up big toe.
    its tough having a big brain and being a sensitive sentient human being
    misplaced,surviving somewhere outside of what folks consider “normal”.
    yeah ,whatever that means ,looks like you found some perspective if not a hot young counselor to romp with …under the stars and on top of the crushed insect carcasses/spiders and mosquitos
    respect

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