A few years ago, I received a handwritten letter in the mail from a person I didn’t know. The writer was the executive director of a summer camp. He had read my father’s obituary in the local newspaper.
My dad wasn’t famous, but he’d led a remarkable life. Born to a Scottish maid and Irish janitor in Canada, he peddled undergarments as a traveling salesman before becoming a Roman Catholic priest in New York City. There he served as a hospital chaplain and pastoral counselor, a ministry of listening.
In the early 1970s, he became one of the thousands who left the priesthood. He married my mother, earned a Ph.D. in psychology, and spent the second half of his life as a beloved family man and psychotherapist in New Jersey. He remained a committed Catholic until his death, at age 78. In our family’s summary of his life, we noted his belief that “Love is paying attention.”
The camp director wrote that he’d kept the obituary in his desk drawer. Once, when a camp counselor jokingly asked for some words of wisdom, he’d pulled the clipping out and read it aloud. Like my father, the director wrote, he aspired to “a life full of meaning.”
The letter was written on camp stationery, with a blue and green logo. I was touched by the letter, but I didn’t write back. I showed it to my family, put it in a box of treasured mementos, and all but forgot about it amid my busy everyday life, raising two young daughters on my own.
Then, a year ago in late July, I found myself in the pediatric intensive care unit of a Boston hospital with my 11-year-old daughter. We were visiting relatives in Massachusetts, and she had not been well — tired at first, then bedridden. Nurses at an urgent care sent us straight to the emergency room, where we were shocked to learn she had Type 1 diabetes.
When I Googled the word diabetes at 3 in the morning that first scary night, I was completely overwhelmed. She would die without insulin, but too much could kill her. We would have to count the carbohydrates in everything she ate and check her blood sugar constantly. My daughter is an organized, responsible kid — she can handle this, I thought — but I could not imagine a more nightmarish fit for my what-day-is-it-again? personality. I’d only recently felt the intense responsibilities of caring for young children receding like a wave; now they rushed back like a tsunami.
“I’m the only kid I know who has this,” my daughter sighed, after swearing, when she heard her diagnosis. Scrolling on my phone, I read about diabetes camps where she could meet other diabetic children. I found one near our New Jersey home and emailed the registrar that night: Could we come to your family camp Labor Day weekend? She wrote back the next morning: We have one spot left. I signed us up and told my girls we’d be ending our summer at a place called Camp Nejeda.
Nejeda. It was a few days later when it occurred to me I might have heard the camp’s funny name before. I suddenly remembered that stranger’s note about my father’s obituary. Five years had passed since my father died, and three since I’d received the letter.
I don’t believe in guardian angels, but my father did, and he would have loved to be one. A job of watchful care and gentle intercession — that was what he had offered his family, patients and parishioners: his eternal willingness to pay attention, guide when necessary, and bear witness to the small moments and grand dramas of a person’s life. The idea that he, or his presence, or simply the facts of his life had connected me and my daughter to the help we needed was so comforting that I couldn’t bring myself to look for the note when we got home. I was sure the letter would be from another camp, and I didn’t want to be disappointed.
And there was plenty else to think about once we left the hospital.
Diabetes felt like an unwanted creature tethered to my beloved child that required its own round-the-clock care. Ten times a day, we pierced my daughter’s fingers to measure her blood sugar. Before meals and bed, she filled syringes with insulin and gave herself shots. Following doctor’s orders, I set alarms for midnight and 3 a.m. to check her blood sugar: too low and she could die from a seizure or coma, but highs could eventually cause kidney failure or blindness. One night I had to shake her from a deep sleep and beg her to eat candy.
Sleep-deprived, I climbed a learning curve as steep as the first week of college. There was math at every meal. I carried a food scale and measuring cups and filled our grocery cart with diet lemonade and copies of Diabetic Living.
Just before Labor Day, I finally pulled the director’s letter from my memory box. I stared at the camp stationery and its blue and green logo. Camp Nejeda, “Where Children with Type 1 Diabetes Can Be Themselves.” When I’d first read the note, I’d had no idea why kids with diabetes might need such a place. Now I understood why the camp had 15 nurses.
That weekend at Nejeda’s family camp, I sat with the letter writer, Bill Vierbuchen, and we talked about obituaries.
It had been five weeks since my daughter’s diagnosis. At Nejeda, she played with other kids wearing high-tech continuous glucose monitors and jumped out of the pool without complaint when a whistle blew for breaks to check sugar levels and eat a snack. At home, she’d have to do that anyway; at Nejeda, she wasn’t alone.
Each family had a room in the health center dorm. Overnight, I heard blood sugar alarms going off up and down the hallway. Other parents said they still cried, and that I might not ever sleep much, but we’d be OK, and it would get easier.
Nejeda’s counselors, all former campers, reassured me about my daughter’s future with their very bodies, exuberant as they danced in the dining hall and nonchalant about the insulin pumps clipped to their back pockets and tubing looping from their waists. They spoke thoughtfully about times their parents had hovered too much or had fostered their independence, and about the burnout that sometimes came from dealing with diabetes day and night. It seemed clear that Nejeda was an antidote — that this place where others understood their feelings and daily trials, and where it was cool to take care of oneself, had made all the difference for their mental and physical health.
This summer, with camps closed because of the coronavirus, Nejeda is offering online sessions. I’m glad there’s something, but the in-person experience of camp — for kids, a community; for parents, a respite — is irreplaceable. Our weekend at Nejeda seems all the more precious.
When I think of what led Bill’s letter to my mailbox and brought us together just a few years later, I think of how uncommon it’s become to hand-write an actual letter, and how relatively rare Type 1 diabetes is. I think about how our minds store information without our realizing it, and I wonder if my brain lit up in recognition of the camp’s name that night in the hospital because Bill had taken the time to write a heartfelt note. I think of my dad, a note-writer himself who delighted in coincidences, and how much he would have loved this one.
Suzanne Travers is a writer in New Jersey.