Live From Camp Courage

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The 64-seater plane skips and hops on the high winds over the Rockies. Then suddenly all is calm as we glide down into the valley that shields Missoula, Montana. I’m going to Cancer Camp. I have the new-kid jitters, just like when I was ten. I thought cancer had turned me into a grownup. Ha.

Actually, at Camp Mak-a-Dream, not being grown-up is kind of the point. This Montana nonprofit offers free retreats in a mountain-ringed rustic lodge and cabins where survivors and families can laugh, craft, hot-tub, ride a zip line, sleep in, goof off, and drop the burden of cancer for a few days.

I’m spending this week with my own branch of the cancer tribe—women dealing with ovarian cancer. We aren’t all that common in the oncologist’s office. I’ve never been in a whole roomful of us before. I had no idea how much I’d like us.

I wish you could meet the former postal employee from the Midwest who actually went postal when an oncologist gave her the runaround. Or the class clown from the East Coast who dancercised her way to a hundred-pound weight loss after her diagnosis. Or the Southern great-grandma who’s hiking up the butte with the youngsters this morning, fractured ankle be damned.

We’ve been told that the weather in Montana can change on a dime. Our emotions seem to do the same. More than once, in the midst of a funny story, somebody cracks, quite suddenly, like a twig. Now she’s sobbing. Now she’s done. She straightens up and gets back to the punch line.

It turns out we all express-cry like this. It comes with the territory. Who knew?

One of us is going home to hospice. She’s way too young. There’s no justice in it. But she is the life of this party and we, her people, cherish her. She totes her IV stand to costume night, participates in every art project. On zip line day, a couple of caregivers help her into a harness. She yells “I love this!” as she flies.

There’s one corner of the camp I don’t visit until the last day. At the top of the hill is a small rock garden with a tile wall. This is the camp memorial.

Down below, the school bus is already loading in luggage for the trip back to the airport. As I climb, the everyday sounds recede.

On the wall, rows and rows of neat white tiles show names and dates in black. The ground along its base is covered in little painted stones— handmade tributes from campers to remember one of their own. Many kids with cancer come here, and a lot of these stones look like kids painted them. Often there’s just a heart with a name. Maria. Jason. Sam.

One stone catches my eye. There’s no name, just a symbol I know well. Yellow oval, pointy black wings. Batman.

I feel respect, not sadness. Because I’m part of this, I know: These lives were not too short to be celebrated with love.

It’s not my job to stay here now. It’s time to go back to the bus, the plane, the dogs, the mortgage. It’s my job to live and remember, and I’m ready to get started.

So long, Batman. I’ll see you later.

author

—Anne Stockwell

You can learn more about Camp Mak-a-Dream at campdream.org.

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