It turns out my parents had the right idea, but it took me a full week to realize it. It was a church camp, but it wasn't a Bible-thumping camp. (It's hard to thump bibles in the UCC, one of the more left-leaning denominations we got around here.) We learned there was a higher power up there all right, named God for lack of better definition, and that God was pretty awesome because look at all the great stuff he or she or it created. And God created everything out of love. And we were loved, for who we were, no matter what. So we praised God, and we sang songs to show God just how great we thought it was to be loved like that, and we gathered in groups to talk about how we could best make use of this world that God gave us so that we could enjoy it, and to help others enjoy it as well. I'm aware I'm explaining a very simple philosophy here, but that's what it was at its core and you can't convince me otherwise.
I also learned that the kids and staff at camp, regardless of where they came from or what they were doing with their lives, strove to uphold this philosophy, and from that came one of the most caring and supportive communities I've ever known. My parents didn't have to drag me back the next year; I wanted to go. I ended up attending for four whole years until I graduated high school. My camp friends, all of whom were from Massachusetts yet on the other side of the state from me (with several key exceptions) shared this desire to return. "To recharge our spiritual batteries", we said. That and to hang out for a full week in a nice wooded area where we could go watch the Perseids at three in the morning or rehash Saturday Night Live skits in the yearly talent show or just sit under a tree making friendship bracelets for someone. Anyone. Anyone who looked like they could use a friendship bracelet. And eventually I returned as a counselor for three more years, trying to give back to the kids the same lessons I learned there.
I'm getting ahead of myself here.
Camp had its share of traditions, as any good summer camp does. We learned to beware the Green Gizmo, a special "present" surreptitiously planted on you during lunch or dinner time. If you discovered the Green Gizmo in the hiding spot announced--under your plate, or on the back of your chair--you had to get up and do whatever it was the counselors had in mind. It wasn't always a bad thing. Sometimes the recipients had to lead everyone in a silly dance. Sometimes they'd be serenaded by another group of kids. Or they'd get stationed by the door to receive hugs from everyone as they filed out. Or maybe you took the biggest, most notorious Green Gizmo challenge of them all: the Egg Drop. You learned to appreciate a good aim when you're lying down face-up on a table, clutching a glass to your forehead, while someone stands above you and cracks an egg into the glass. But it was all in fun, and after you'd had your turn with egg on your face, you would watch and laugh as someone else had to try and drink a cup of maple syrup upside down or stuff marshmallows in their mouth and attempt to say "Chubby Bunny".
Then there was the Secret Buddy game. Much like a Secret Santa, you pulled the name of another camper early on in the week. From then on, that person was your Secret Buddy, and it was your goal to do as many good things for them as you could without them catching on. At the end of the week, during the last vespers service, you would reveal yourself to your secret buddy and give them one final gift.
This got to be a great game. One of the more popular things to do, besides mysteriously bestow gift certificates from the camp snack bar, was to have a friend feed your secret buddy at dinner. As a Secret Buddy Feeder, I often got carried away. One time I took a forkful of green beans and ran a lap around the dining hall hollering "HERE COMES THE AIRPLANE, NEEEEEERRRRRRRRRRRRROWWWWW" before coming back and making a perfect landing into the Secret Buddy's mouth.
After recovering from a near-fatal attack of the giggles, the recipient complained that the beans were cold.
I returned to camp after my sophomore year excited. No longer was I an awkward newcomer. I'd made friends from that last year, close friends, even a girlfriend, and as far as I was concerned, camp was the greatest place to be all summer. You weren't a reject like you were in high school. You were free from the scorn and cliques. You were in a group of kids who took you for who you were, and you had fun.
My secret buddy that year turned out to be a freshman girl named Amy. I had no idea who she was. One of the counselors had to point her out to me. She was blonde, red-faced, and even though she was in the same precarious 9th grade newbie situation I had been in the previous year, she smiled and laughed a lot. I didn't know how to even begin a Secret Buddy relationship (either we hadn't done it my first year or I've forgotten it entirely) but I hit upon a great plan. It was a super cunning plan! I would approach her myself! How clever! And I did so with a snack bar gift certificate.
"Um, are you Amy?" I asked.
"Yeah," she said. I handed over the little piece of paper.
"Um, your secret buddy told me to give you this and said welcome to camp."
Her eyes went wide and she beamed. Then she gave me a hug. "Tell my secret buddy I said thank you!"
This was so ingenious I was surprised nobody had ever tried this before, ever. I must have been the first genius kid to ever cloak themselves so cunningly. I hung out with Amy every now and then, and we got to be friends. And every now and then her secret buddy would give her something cool that he -- or she, I can't say who! -- had made. Sometimes the Secret Buddy would ask a friend to give her a hug. But I wasn't always the deliverer. That would have given it away.
I drove her crazy that week but in a good way. Her secret buddy started leaving messages in code, all of which pretty much said the same thing: "You'll never guess who I am!" Keeping in spirit of the Secret Buddy rules, which said to do only nice and good things, it never got mean or creepy. The goal was to make them feel special, knowing that someone out there was thinking about them and endeavoring to make 'em happy. I also wanted to make sure she had fun with it, and not feel worried as I would've been my first year out. Thankfully she enjoyed every note as much as I enjoyed watching her trying to unravel the mystery.
Then came the last vespers service and with it, the final admission. You could play it up if you wanted and I sure as heck did, walking around the circle a few times going "hmmmm..." before zeroing in on the person next to her and then swerving over at the last second. Victory! A complete surprise. She threw her arms around me. I gave her a signed copy of the comic book me and my best friend Noah were publishing in high school -- a little on the self-promotional side, perhaps, but it was something I had made. And I wanted to share it with her.
And a month or so later, after camp was well and duly over, she wrote us our very first fan letter.
That was Amy. She was a very positive force. We wrote back and forth for a while, as camp friends do. She encouraged my drawing and I encouraged her creativity as well. It was nice to chat with a kindred spirit in that regard. You know?
Move ahead now to 2006. Over ten years had passed since we'd all graduated. I suddenly found a bunch of camp friends living nearby -- Pete, Molly, Mike -- and after hanging out several times we decided that if anyone was to hold a camp reunion, it should be us. We set a date in the spring and I volunteered my house for the party, blissfully unaware that nearly fifty people would show up and crowd the place to the rafters. Even so, it was a smash. Campers and counselors alike showed up, the Green Gizmo made an appearance at the restaurant we gathered at, and there was even a marriage that resulted from two old friends meeting again. You can't get better than that.
Amy was one of the first people to show up for the reunion weekend. Life had taken her to Key West, and in our emails back and forth she said she was enjoying the beach life and working as a freelance photographer for the local paper. Pete and I went down to meet her at the airport and even though a decade had passed, we all hugged and grinned like friends who'd only just been apart for a while. We had a free day, so Pete and I decided to show Amy around Boston. At one point we ended up at The Littlest Bar ("You gotta see this," I said. "It really is the littlest bar you've ever seen" and it was) where we made the acquaintance of a former prizefighter, or so he claimed. We all went out for dinner -- me, Pete, Amy, and I believe Molly showed up too.
In talking Amy painted a wonderful picture of the Florida Keys, the life she led on the beach, and the people she knew and had befriended. I had a feeling the former prizefighter at the Littlest would join her album of people stories. She had a lot of them. Then we got to talking about camp, and how wonderful it was to have a place that accepted us no matter how messed up we felt in real life. We all remembered each other's problems. Then Amy said it.
"You do realize?" she asked at a quiet point. "It was a camp for problem kids. We were the problem kids. We all had serious problems. And our parents sent us there to fix us."
It was a revelation that didn't hit you from out of nowhere, it came up from the depths of your memory and refused to be shoved back. I mean, I knew full well the problems I'd faced as a teenager, some of which were your ordinary teen problems but some more profound and more difficult to deal with. Some I don't want to talk about even today. But I'd never before considered myself a problem kid, but the truth was out. Each and every one of us at that camp had serious problems and we knew it; it was what we often talked about in our small Living Groups. Broken homes. Broken kids. Broken spirits. And we all went to camp to heal. Maybe we couldn't admit it in full to ourselves for so long but there it was. There was no use denying it any further.
But there was no use in feeling ashamed enough to deny it, either. Amy pointed out how far we'd all come in those twelve or thirteen years, and how camp had lifted us all up. It gave us something to look forward to in those bleak high school months, it gave us friends in the same place as we were, it gave us hope. And it then gave us what we needed to go beyond, and so we did. And we came out fine.
This was what Amy did. She could put things into perspective and make you feel glad for it. She felt such positivity, such enthusiasm, such gratefulness for life itself, and she wanted you to feel it, too. She did. She was making the best use she could of the world God made and the life she'd been given. She set a darn good example.
Amy isn't here anymore.
I got the news she was very ill last weekend while I was in Washington. I had no idea. It came from nowhere. Truth be told we hadn't kept in much contact since the reunion, even though she had given me a standing invitation any time I came out to the Keys that she'd show me around, much like Pete and I had shown her Boston. I have no doubt she'd have honored that invitation no matter what. Still. People come and go from your life. They show up at the darndest times. And often when they show up it's not for the best of reasons.
I heard bits and pieces from camp friends on Facebook, and I tried spreading the news as much as I could to anyone I didn't see on the original CC list. I am glad others picked up that job as well. I knew where she was hospitalized, I knew things weren't looking very good, but I knew we were all thinking of her no matter how long it had been.
Came home tonight and saw the postings on her wall. Those "Farewell, I will miss you, rest in peace" postings on the profile. Didn't even need to see an official announcement. Those postings are all the announcement you need. Messages of farewell, profundities and platitudes borne from the lack of anything else to say, posted to a profile which now feels so empty and desolate. It's official. She's gone. We write these messages in the second person, saying goodbye for one last time, but she'll never log in to see them, to change her profile, to do anything. Yet it just feels right to do so. To still speak to her as if she's here to read. In this situation one's profile turns into a makeshift memorial, and that's what it is right now over on Amy Jennifer Bressem's page. I guess it's a good thing to have, so that those of us from far, far away can express our grief and share our memories. But I had more to write than could fit on a wall entry. This is it.
I'll forego the rest -- how I wish we could have hung out more, all that. You don't need me to tell you she's gone far too soon and that it's just not fair dammit. And everybody wishes they could have had more time. You can't go back and fix that. Instead, you share, you reminisce, and you miss. I miss her a lot.
Be at peace, Secret Buddy.