July 13, 2008

Amazing Grace: Epilogue

Day One
Day Two
Day Three
Day Four
Day Five

It took seventeen hours for Abe and me to get to Boise for Ben’s graduation from camp. I won’t bore you with a litany of woes—you’ve seen it all before. But watching Abe deal with testy airline employees to get what he wanted was an educational experience. He never stopped smiling and complimenting them on their hard work on his behalf. No wonder he’s so good in his job; people can’t wait to meet his expectations. We arrived with our luggage intact and two vouchers for future travel. And it was early evening, so we could get a good night’s sleep.

We drove down the next morning in a caravan of parents to the base camp, where once again we dressed for the desert. The parents were trucked to the meadow camp and we set up folding chairs in the fire pit to talk while we awaited our children’s arrival. Someone pointed to the distance and said, “There they are!” The kids were hiking in across the meadow from base camp. We all jumped up and started toward them. This wasn’t the slow-motion meeting in the meadow you always see in the movies; we slammed into the kids, laughing and hugging and chattering.

Back to the meadow

Families were sorted out to sleep in tents or the field. The usual desert lunch was offered—pita bread with peanut butter, apricots, honey and spices—but this time there were extras. Chips! Cookies! Powdered drink mixes! The kids went nuts. Ben had a pita with the following piled on top: peanut butter, honey, hot sauce, crumbled chocolate chip cookies, and curry powder. Yeah, you read right. And he was moaning in gastronomic delight with every bite. This is the kid who two months ago wouldn’t eat any two items combined unless one of them was bread. And spices? Forget it.

In response to my slackjawed stare, Ben extended his pita to me with a smile. “Want a bite?”

“Thank you, no. But finish it yourself, by all means. Please.”

He laughed and wolfed it down, chased with chips and fruit punch.

After lunch, the families separated for a talk with their individual field therapists. Abe, Ben and I grabbed some folding chairs and walked through the sage to some trees and shade. (It was over 100°.) During the final three weeks, Ben’s emotional growth was so rapid that the therapist’s recommendations for aftercare changed three times. We talked about the changes he’d been through and how that might translate to activities at home. The therapist pointed out that the number one threat for relapse was the peer group at home. We would need to talk at home about Ben’s strategies for avoiding a backslide in the face of temptation and peer pressure.

Ben would need a break from the home environment to assess his strategies and progress, so the therapist arranged with another camp’s director for him to enroll in a whitewater kayaking program in the North Carolina mountains. It was felt that he could adapt and prosper in this less restrictive atmosphere that would take him away from his peer group for a couple of weeks.

We finished up our talk and walked back to the meadow, feeling a sense of purpose tinged with a bit of hopeful anticipation for what will happen in the future. We were brought back “in the moment” by the director, who told us it was time for the “Eagle’s Perch” ceremony. The entire group went back to base, where the ropes course beckoned.

This activity called for a victim to be harnessed to slack belaying ropes and climb a 25-foot wood pole and stand on the top. Then said victim must take a “leap of faith” from the top, shouting out a word that represents what he wants to take from this experience. All of the students were told to step up and be fitted with harnesses and helmets. Parents were invited to participate as well. Ben turned to me with expectation; he and I share a taste for adventure. But this?

All the excuses flowed through my mind: I’m old, I’m not at all flexible; etc. I hemmed and hawed. But to share this with Ben outweighed all of it. “Okay, I’m in.” Ben smiled.

Now let’s get this clear: this wasn’t just a pole. At the top was a small disk of plywood held by a long bolt driven into the pole. But the disk had washers above and below that made it wobble and turn. We were to step from large steel staples on the pole to this tiny unstable platform, turn with itty-bitty steps as the pole swayed to face the opposite direction, and jump (“In a swan dive!” said the director), trusting those ropes to catch you before you hit the ground. Right.

We split into two groups to handle two of the belaying lines. The director called for his first victimteer. After everyone looked at each other for a minute, the director pointed to one of the students and said, “You’re up.” The next couple of students were pulled from the crowd; one of the mothers did it. Few were volunteering yet.

I looked at Ben while we held a rope. Maybe he needed a push.

“I’ll go right after you do.”

His hand shot up. “I’ll go!” he shouted. Then he grinned at my bug-eyed face. Nice.

Ben (in white) and I (in red) climb the Eagle's Perch

Ben does not like heights, but he did it, calling out, “Overcome!” as he dropped and bounced (off the ropes, not the ground). The director had to remind me to “Breathe!” when I was contemplating that first step from the staple to the disk. When I was shaking and trying to balance on that tiny thing I had a few other choice words in mind besides the one I had selected; but I jumped and shouted, “Trust!”

We concluded our stay the next morning with showers for the kids (yes!) and graduation, an exchange of handshakes with diplomas. Ben was asked by his therapist to consider returning as a mentor in the future; what a declaration of trust and confidence that was for him.

We hugged the staff and the parents whom we knew from Family Camp. When I hugged Ben’s therapist, the man who guided his experiences in the desert, I whispered, “Thank you for giving me back my son.”

It was time to leave. We drove down the gravel roads, slowly moving toward civilization again. We would wrap up our stay in Idaho by visiting Sun Valley that afternoon and the Birds of Prey Center in Boise the next morning. We had a quiet and uneventful flight home.

I think about all the things that happened to bring us to this point, and I must conclude that God’s hand was in this. Being the oblivious person that I can be, it usually takes hindsight to see the “coincidences” that had to be more. This time, in asking for help wherever we turned, it was easy to see the grace, truly amazing grace, that we found in places we did not expect. Strangers ended up being the key to our son’s future, and they stepped up gladly with outstretched hands.

I owe a debt to all who supported us and continue to do so. I cannot repay that obligation to all of you, so know that it will be given forward to others to the best of my ability and whenever possible. God bless you all.

The silver sheen of sage made velvet mountains.


Anonymous said...

You are a good egg, Birdie. And an even better writer. Your son is lucky to have you and you are lucky to have him. I wish you all nothing but good things!

tornwordo said...

I hope the transformative experience has stuck. To all of you. Is this super recent, or last year?

Birdie said...

Torn: Ben came home last week. We leave for the new camp in ten days. So far, so good.

Greg said...

Oh, SO cool!!! This is not a happy ending (fictional!) but this is such a good start!

What, no photo of you actually flinging yourself into the void?

Happy days, Birdie! We must never stop learning about ourselves and the world around us.

Father Tony of the Farmboyz said...

Got a feeling everything will work out swell.

Me Online said...

Not only do you write beautifully, but you stood on that little disk???? Yikes! You are certainly brave.

So happy for the hope that your family feels. Tell Ben that people from all over are pulling for him. Thanks for sharing.

bigislandjeepguy said...

i can (again) only echo everyone else's sentiments.

the "thank you for giving me back my son?" oh. my. god. i felt the tears well up in my eyes.

i'm so happy for you, and hope things continue to progress as well. big alohas to you, birdie, as always!

David said...

Thankfully I'm typing this, as the lump in my throat would probably hinder communication otherwise.

I don't know what else to say but thank you for sharing this most personal experience with us.