Sunday, August 15, 2010

And We're Off!

To Maine that is, for 2 weeks, Jessie and I. So no more posts until re return, as I will be seriously offline! I will, however, share one highlight of Jessie's time at camp aside from the cute counsellors. It was the enthusiastic response of one of her cousellors to her helpfulness and organization skills. You heard right! And I quote: Jessie was a fantastic camper. She socialized every opportunity she received. She was also extremely helpful and she always kept her things organized. (My bolding).

Wow!! Could have knocked me over with a feather. And I made sure to let her know how delighted we were! So now there is no reason for me to ever be on her case (as she is quick to point out).

She also spent alot of time with the staff and "...she interacted very will with fellow campers as well as counsellors. She made many new friends with campers and fellow staff."

So another great year and I can now honestly say that the summer wasn't a disaster. It turns out you just have to send your children away to find out what they are really capable of. I must remember this. But now its to the beach!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Famrers Markets, Puppet Festivals, and the Roller Derby

That’s how parents spend their time when their kids are away at camp, just in case you were wondering! With Jessie gone, Dan and I are alone. Seuls ensemble. In years past, we wondered whether this would be a curse (being alone together) or a blessing. We quickly learned that it was a chance to fall in love all over again, much to our surprise! And so we look forward to her time at camp almost as much as she does. There is a list, of course. A list of things we need to talk about such as: finding a work placement for her that’s near to home; figuring out what happens after school when she graduates; finding a college course for her to try; figuring out if we consider moving so we end up in a city where she can attend a college or university program such as those offered in Vancouver (Steps Forward) or Charlottetown (ACE); hiring a personal assistant/support worker, and of course, finding a place for her to live.

But we put the list aside on Saturday and just got in the car and drove. First to the market in a little town called Carp outside Ottawa. The Carp market was my friend Claire’s suggestion, after I told her that we couldn’t go to the Parkdale Market here in town because it would be bad karma. The Parkdale market is where Dan and I once had a fight and I drove away leaving him stranded in the rain with no bus fare to get home. Dan does not have fond memories of the Parkdale market.

The market in Carp was a delight of dogs and organic produce and flowers and craft stalls. We wandered and sampled and sat to soak up the sun and came away with fresh corn, a bouquet of bright zinnias, and stomachs full of home-baked goods. Feeling both sated and zenned, we slowly made our way back to the car and just kept driving down the road with the windows open and jazz humming in our ears and veins. The delight of an unplanned, unscheduled day kept us on the back roads of the Ottawa valley, leading us to nothing in particular other than our own enjoyment of each other and the day.

A turn in the road and a bridge across a river brought us to Almonte, where there was a puppet festival in full swing. We pulled over to the side of the road and wandered into the town, overcome with puppets of every shape and size. There were puppets in the bookstore and the bakery and the even hanging from the rooftops. We bought a pie, a very expensive pie, and stayed for the parade. Then wandered back into the car, ending up down the road again, at the Mill of Kintail where we paused for tea on the lawn and a short walk along the river, singing to each other to keep the bears away.
We drove home in companionable silence, a brief reprieve before the Roller Derby! Yes, friends, Ottawa has a roller derby! And we had tickets! Our languorous day ended as we watched in awe and excitement as teams of young women on what looked like their grandmother’s skates (and with names like Splat Benetar, Justine Sane, Lacy Brawler, and Platinum Bomb) raced around a flat track at breakneck speeds, jammers passing the pack to score points. (I admit I had to read the game rules to figure this out.) My sweetie even bought me a Slaughter Daughters t-shirt. Ah, true love!

It was the perfect day. A day without boundaries or schedules. A day filled with both relaxation and excitement. A day to just get out and do whatever was offered. And we were rich with it.

While work continues, Jess will return, and the car needs major repairs, we have had this day. And it was good!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

RETRO JESSIE: Her Bags Are Packed and She's Ready to Go [1998]

An earlier piece—almost 12 years ago!—about Jessie’s first camp experience.

I have fond memories of my own days at summer camp and bless my parents for sending me. I am especially grateful when my own family climbs into a canoe and I realize that I am the only one who has the faintest idea about how to avoid that rather large rock that is coming up on the right.

Looking back, I realize I learned many things at camp. How to sail, how to ride, how to belt out songs with silly lyrics, and how to giggle hilariously into the wee hours of the morning aided only by a flashlight and a few other willing bunk-mates. All things I wanted our daughter to experience.

Of course my husband, he of the mall-mentality, comes from a different background. The threat of spending a week in a cabin in the woods with other kids his age was viewed as a punishment worse than life without cable. Not that his parents ever actually sent him to camp.

So last summer, when I brought up the idea of sending our eight year old daughter to sleep-over camp, Dan was appalled. I have to admit, I had my own qualms. Our daughter Jessie had never spent many nights away from us, still woke up in the middle of the night, and was convinced that having to wipe her bum was an assault on her burgeoning independence. Add the extra chromosome that distinguishes her as a child with Down syndrome and you can understand that contemplating camp required some extra planning and support.

Somehow (praise Gitchigoomi or who ever the native camp deity is, and I know there must be one) everything fell magically into place. Camp Davern, the Y camp for girls, had an available space in the same session as 3 of her friends. It also had lots of experience including children with special needs and introduced us to Project Rainbow, an organization that could help provide the extra support needed to fully include Jessie in all the camp activities. Now all I had to do was broach the subject with Jessie.

I introduced the idea cautiously, not wanting to frighten her off. “No parents?” she asked. “No,” I said, “but…” “I’ll sleep in a cabin with friends?” she interrupted. “Yes, but..” “YAHOO!!” she yelled as she hugged me. “I want to go to sleep-over camp!” Then she paused and got that determined look. “I want the top bunk.” So much for caution.

As the departure date for Camp Davern approached Jessie got more and more excited while I tried to hide my nervousness. We practiced putting on her bathing-suit by herself, she slept in her sleeping bag, we made lists of what to pack. And then there was that sudden realization that with Jessie gone, Dan and I would be all alone. Childless. Just the two of us. The sad fact was, that since Jessie’s birth, we had never actually been alone together for longer than 12 hours. Here we had 5 full days stretching out into an unimaginable void. While this opened up endless possibilities, one of those possibilities was that we no longer had anything in common other than the newspaper, which we fought over every morning.

Nervous and scared (that’s us, not Jessie) we waved good-bye to the camp bus, watching Jessie’s familiar grin fade into the distance. I drove Dan to work and went home feeling empty. I waited for the phone call. Come pick your daughter up…she pushed a camper down those steep stairs to the waterfront…she fell out of the top bunk…she wandered off into the woods and the search and rescue team is out looking for her.

But the fear and emptiness was only a momentary pang. I sat at the computer and wrote, for 6 straight hours. I didn’t cook dinner. I didn’t do laundry. I went for a walk. I laughed. I told a joke. I slept in in the morning and met Dan for a picnic lunch. We talked about jazz and women authors and the names of trees. We didn’t talk about Disney movies or schedules or speech therapy. We went for long walks at night and we laughed. Together. At the same things.

While I missed Jessie and thought about her constantly, I found each day filled with a growing sense of delight - with myself, with my work, with my life. And by the time camp was over I felt transformed.

Jessie came back tanned and bug-bitten, with a smile on her face. Being a typical eight year old, she avoided our blatant attempts to probe and would only tell us that it was fun. I have no real idea of what Jessie did at camp, or what she learned. But I do know that this year, it’s back to Davern! It’s an experience I would never miss!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Gotta Get Me One of Them Anxiety Dogs!

Jessie headed off to camp last Thursday. Packed, clean, and excited for another year at Camp Misquah, a summer camp near Gracefield, Quebec for people with intellectual disabilities. This is her first year in the adult camp, and she was psyched. Ready to move up, and certainly ready to leave us behind! The only thing she was really concerned about packing were her notebooks for writing lyrics—Camp Misquah, in her mind, has the potential to be a Camp Rock experience. She graciously left the rest of the packing to me.

On the morning of her departure, Dan got us all up at 6 am. We showered, coffeed, breakfasted, and got the last remaining bits and pieces together in the car and drove the three blocks to the parking lot where the buses sat waiting and the clean-t-shirted counselors milled around looking for their cabin mates.

Jessie scrambled out of the car, leaving Dan and I with the luggage, to meet friends and eyeball the counselors. After checking in with the nurse—with a small bag of medication that only included chewable Advil and was nothing in comparison to some of the rigourous medication schedules that some of the other campers are on—we got her bags out of the car, tagged with her cabin number, and lined up for loading on the bus. As I grab my coffee and head back into the fray to talk with other parents, I notice two small dogs standing quietly, calmly, and tethered to two of the campers. Each of the dogs is sporting a service dog harness. I am curious, as they seem too small to be guide dogs. In fact, neither is much larger than our cat.

I introduce myself to Kate (I love name tags!) and ask if I can pet her dog. I bend down to stroke the black furry creature and am greeted with a wet puggish nose and tail wag. “So, he’s your service dog?” I ask. “What’s his name?” “Buster. He lives with me. He’s an anxiety dog.” I refrain from saying anything about the dog not looking anxious, and ask how that works. “He helps me be calm,” Kate replies patiently, as if answering the question for the umpteenth time. The other dog belongs to her roommate, who has a seizure disorder. The two young women live together with their dogs and the four of them are off to camp! I realize there is a long line behind me, waiting to greet and meet the dogs and I move off to join Dan and say goodbye to Jessie.

As the buses are boarding we find ourselves standing next to Cara’s dad (one of Jessie’s cabin mates) and introduce ourselves. Cara’s Dad is a real estate agent and recently bought a house for Cara, who is a couple of years older than Jessie. She and two other young women with intellectual disabilities live there together, with support. I had heard about what they were doing through the grapevine, and was interested to talk to him about the venture. While waiting to wave to your child (sic) going off to camp is not the best venue for a long discussion, I just wanted to introduce myself, open the doors for a longer discussion at some other point. We talk for a bit about the house and how well it is working out. We lament the lack of paid employment and living options for young people with disabilities, and he admonishes us to consider buying a house sooner rather than later.

Ah yes. Living away from home, leaving the school system, finding a job and a future and a way to be in the world. And funding it all. It’s not that I haven’t thought about. I have. Quite a bit in fact. But right now it’s all I can do to get Jessie packed up and off to camp; thinking about getting her packed up and ready for life is a whole other scenario that includes serious medication, just because of the lack of ready-made options.

When people ask about Jessie’s future I often use the line my friend Claire taught me: “We haven’t invented it yet.” But the time for serious invention is here; I can feel it breathing down my neck. And as we wave to the buses as they leave, I’m thinking that I should make an appointment with my doctor. I need her to write me a prescription for on of those anxiety dogs!