Back at the end of March, G was lucky enough to attend the amazing Over The Wall sibling camp and had the experience of a lifetime. I knew just how much of a success that week away from home had been almost the minute she stepped off the bus as she asked with fervour if we could apply for her to go again next year. The last few weeks have been filled with a mix of emotions as M was thrilled to learn that he had been offered a place on the OTW Health Challenges camp this August, but the ongoing drama with his broken leg left us questioning whether he’d actually be able to go (of course he would, it’s a camp for kids with health challenges after all), and take part (well as best as his leg and determination would allow), and get from it as much as his sister had (we could only hope). Fortunately, the final fracture clinic appointment that saw M being given the all-clear and discharged from the care of the orthopaedic team fell on the Friday before he was due to head off to camp on the Monday and the assurance of the consultant that his leg was at long last fully healed gave M the confidence he needed that he could fully participate in all the activities on offer during the week.
It was a major event in our household. It’s the first time that M has been able to go away from home without being with family; he’s never even had a sleepover because of his bowel problems and sleep issues and so it was unsurprising that our car journey to Dorset was eerily quiet as he struggled to get his anxieties under some semblance of control. It was a very pensive boy who clung to my hand as we found our way to the welcome desk to sign him in, although by the time I left around 2 hours later, with medicines handed over to the Beach Hut medical team and clothes unpacked and safely put away, he was starting to warm a little to his surroundings and had already enjoyed a hysterical couple of games of Guess Who? with 2 of the volunteers. Seeing the other children chatting and laughing as they arrived on-site, it was easy, even for me, to forget that these are children living with serious illnesses. Illnesses which are sometimes life-limiting and are always life-impacting. My child was one of them. And when M commented on how comfortable his bed was compared to the ones in hospital I could see the volunteers in the room with us, both of whom were new this year, take a deep breath, unexpectedly shaken just a little by this vivid reminder that every child there is facing a chronic illness that is not always obvious at first glance. I was not immune to the pathos of that situation and my heart broke a little that this was his first thought, his opening response to this new experience.
Knowing he was settled and in safe hands meant that I could leave the site almost without a backwards glance. I could see he was torn between wanting to give me a hug and kiss goodbye and not wanting to show affection in front of his new room-mates, so I offered a quick hug and a kiss on the head before heading back to my car, not giving him opportunity to wobble. Despite concerns to the contrary from other people, this Mummy was fine with leaving her boy there because I had absolute confidence that they would take care of him and support him and make sure he had a week where the medical implications of his everyday world were not at the forefront of his mind. The lack of communication during the week could easily have worried me senseless, but instead I knew that it really was a case of “no news is good news” as camp would only get in touch if things were going wrong. I was also confident that they were more than able to meet his dietary requirements and would make the effort to give him meals that were more than just simple rice and chicken. Not long after the end of G’s sibling camp, I had been sent a draft menu for M that one of the camp chefs had devised based on his safe foods at the time and we were all drooling at the sound of some of the dishes. In the 2 weeks leading up to camp, OTW contacted me again to check whether there had been any changes to his diet and to reassure me that they were prepared for the challenge of feeding him whilst he was there.
I can’t even begin to describe how I felt when I picked him up the following Saturday. G joined me for the drive to Dorset and was able to share so many precious memories of her own as we went through the gates and along the drive towards the house. We pulled up to the grassed area which was ablaze with colour as the various groups gathered to wave goodbye to all the campers as they started their journey home. M was the last Orange Boy standing and the farewell given to him by the team volunteers saw more than one of us with tears in our eyes. Seeing this group of wonderful adults, who had become his family for the week, surround him and sing “M, we love you, deep down in our hearts…deep down….” to him with genuine affection brought a definite lump to my throat, not least because M was equally overcome by his emotions and obviously struggling not to give into them in public.
As they lined up outside the car and waved us off, the atmosphere inside was in stark contrast to when we arrived as M sat smiling bravely, with tears rolling down his cheeks because he wasn’t ready to leave camp and go back home. He was emotionally and physically exhausted, but refused to let sleep overcome him, instead spending the entirety of our homeward journey sharing every tiny aspect of the week he’d just enjoyed. As M told us about camp, he was worried that he would hurt my feelings when he said that the chef cooked some delicious meals that were, in the most part, “..even better than yours Mummy!”, but I didn’t mind a bit. His close new friendship with one of the other boys in his team, who also had food allergies, meant that neither of them felt isolated as they sat next to each other as their food was served at each meal. And my heart swelled when he said he hadn’t really missed us or thought of us that much because he had been having such a good time as I understand that that was so much more than I could ever have wanted for his first experience away from home.
It’s hard to encapsulate just why this week was such a significant one for M, but it really has been an incredible and life-changing experience. For once he felt normal and not the exception in the group, and that alone is priceless to me. M’s confidence has soared as he pushed himself, and his body, to the limit and tried new activities that would have scared him before and his honesty impressed me as he relayed just how terrifying some of those new experiences had been until he had a go and conquered those fears. He has developed more independence and an even greater awareness of other people that reflects more maturity than he had before. Yesterday he took responsibility for making his own breakfast and even asked G and me what we wanted to eat so he could make our breakfasts too. That may seem like nothing much, but for a child where the world really has revolved around his needs over the last decade, it was a huge shift in attitude.
My words cannot do justice to the time he had at OTW camp, but I know how fantastic it was as he is already asking if he can go back again – not just next year, but every year until he’s too old to be a camper any more. What’s more, his aim is to become a volunteer at camp eventually if he can. M expressed it best when he told me it had been the Best. Week. Ever.