This is a story I shared at story slam on loss many years ago. I didn’t feel ready to publish it until now, when I realized that this is the story that comes to mind each time we read in Parashat Vayetze, as we do this week: “God was in this place, and I, I did not know.”
From 2010-2014, I was the Camp Director for Camp Kesem, which is for children whose parents have or had cancer. Even though I haven’t been to Kesem in many years, I’m still learning from it every day. I’m going to share a lesson I learned from Kesem two years after I left it – but to begin, I have to go back to Camp Kesem 2012.
It was the night of the big dance party at camp. Imagine music blasting, college-age counselors in tutus and fairy wings, sparkly leggings, rainbow headbands, and a dining hall decked out with streamers, balloons, and inflatable themed decor. Realizing I’d forgotten something in Blinn, the coordinator lodge, I left this raucous scene and headed out into the cool night.
When I walked into Blinn, I saw one of our campers, Sam, shaking and pale on a filthy brown couch. A counselor was sitting with him, her hand on his shoulder. The picture is a bit ridiculous when I think about it – a woman wearing dragon wings and neon tights sitting with an upset teenager in gold spandex. Sam’s grief was raw and palpable. His mother had died only a month before, and he hadn’t been sure if he would come to camp that year. But he wanted to try because it was going to be his last year as a camper. We tried to get Sam to respond, but he couldn’t seem to speak – just shallow breathing and extraordinary pain. He finally agreed to call his dad, who decided to come pick him up.
I left to go find the Kesem co-chairs and Sam’s unit leaders. When I came back, Sam was lying on one of the beds in the big room in Blinn, in the dark. One by one, his counselors and fellow campers entered. I left to give them some space.
When I entered the room again later with a friendship bracelet for Sam, the entire unit was there, all the counselors and campers, circled around the bed where Sam lay beneath a sleeping bag. It was silent, with the exception of a few chords here and there on a counselor’s guitar, and it was dark, except for the glow of the moon through the window. Some of them had placed their hands on Sam’s arms, his back, and his legs. Others held onto each other. All of them were sacred in that moment, holding Sam in his grief, embracing him in the depths of his pain. Every agnostic bone in my body knows that something like God was in that room that night. The love they created in the room had its own vibration, a hum like synchronized heartbeats, like the silent voice of a community joined in prayer.
When Sam’s dad came to pick him up, the counselors and coordinators all walked out with him. I walked back into Blinn, where one of my co-chairs threw her arms around me. “We’re doing this,” she whispered. “We’re really doing Kesem.”
We were thrilled when Sam decided to come back to camp at the end of the week to enjoy the closing talent show and campfire, which included a ceremony for graduating campers. At the talent show, he and the other boys in his unit sang a song they wrote called “Bromance.” At the campfire ceremony, each graduating camper had a chance to share what camp meant to them.
“This place can heal you,” Sam said, “if you let everyone in.” This, I thought, is why we Kesem. Kesem had been with Sam in the darkness of his grief, and now we were together again, at the end of a long week, crackling and glowing like sparks around the campfire.
On February 18, 2016, a counselor called to tell me that Sam had committed suicide. Kesem 2012 flooded my senses. The room, the darkness, their hands, the love, and the fire. The narrative that I had built in my mind, in which Kesem saved Sam from the depths of his grief, seemed to crumble around me. Kesem can’t always heal, even if you do let people in. The vibration of one night isn’t forever. A moment of redemption is only a moment. There’s only so much we can do for a camper, for a counselor, for anyone we love.
Two days later, I facilitated an online grief group for Sam’s fellow campers and counselors. The campers were all in college themselves, many of them working at Kesem chapters on other campuses, so most of them couldn’t fly out for the memorial. Other counselors had interacted with Sam in deeper and more consistent ways, but as the camp director, I really only had the opportunity to connect with him on the night he left and the night he returned.
I tried to move forward after that, but I still felt betrayed by my memories. In addition to grieving Sam himself, I was grieving the loss of the story I told myself all those years ago – that Kesem could heal Sam, and that for once, love really was enough.
A week later, I went to a class at Congregation Beth Shalom in Seattle, the concluding session of a course that focused on suffering and spirituality. At the start of each class, there was an opportunity for students to check in and and share anything that was on our minds before diving into the texts together.
“I’m grieving a suicide,” I said, “and I’ve been thinking a lot this week about suffering and spirituality, so I’m glad I’m here.”
They murmured “I’m sorries” and we entered the texts together. No one asked me to elaborate. We were there to study one of the sermons of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, the ultimate example of a man who managed to cleave to God in the midst of devastating spiritual, physical, and emotional tragedy.
At the end of the class, the teacher invited us to say the Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, and the words of the ancient liturgy wrapped themselves around me as we spoke them together. When several of my classmates put their hands on my shoulders, I felt my own hand wrapped around Sam’s. I remembered the hands of the campers and counselors with Sam in Blinn Lodge, touching his arms, his back, and his legs.
We didn’t know what would happen to Sam when we gathered in the room that night, but we sat with him in the depths of his pain, and we gave him what we could. By providing silent support for me in my own grief, my classmates gave me what the counselors and campers had given Sam – a reminder that we are not alone. No matter what happens in the years that follow, their love for me was enough in that moment, and our love for Sam was beautiful that night.