Camp Widow…not exactly the kind of camp I thought I’d find myself in this summer, but after having my husband attend Cancer Camp last summer, some may not be surprised…think again.
Frank didn’t die from cancer, he survived it. He THRIVED it.
Frank died from an unexpected heart attack just over a month after his final post-cancer check-up.
He was fine, until he wasn’t.
Same for me.
After he died in January, a dear friend gently insisted I go to Camp Widow. She had heard about it from a friend of a friend and said it sounded amazing. “WTF, hell no” was my first response, and then…a resigned ok. What do I know, this is a whole new world. Worst case scenario, I’m down in San Diego at a fancy hotel and we hang by the pool all day. This Camp Widow also had a kids camp, so Lena could go…
I decided we’d make a vacation out of it and road-trip down to Venice Beach in LA, spend some time doing city things, then head to San Diego and visit Frank’s family, the zoo…then the camp and Hearst Castle on the way home. Very worst case we’d have some quality time together.
As time approached Lena and I talked about it more. We were nervous, excited, “nervicited” as Lena would say. We hoped we would make a friend. We hoped it wouldn’t be “so bad.” Our transition from vacation to the hotel was intense. I lashed out at Lena when she was moving to slow to actually help me…she broke down in tears and hid in the closet. I sat with her there, apologizing as we shared some tears, remembering Frank, remembering what brought us to this place…
Never ever could I have dreamed of the best case scenario.
That’d I’d find my people, in this new landscape. That widows are fucking awesome, and their kids are too. That there are so many of us, grieving, laughing, crying, sharing our stories, living and THRIVING even though our before life is no more. What a magical fucking world, what a crazy fucking ride.
I walked in and cried in the back of the room the first day, each session…it didn’t matter, it was too much. The collective grief, the reason each one of us was there…thinking about the kids upstairs who lost their fathers, mothers, stepparent…it was too much. Thinking of Frank and all the memories we will never get to have, the life we didn’t get to finish.
Someone, a volunteer, moved her chair and sat next to me. She handed me tissue, and let me have my space, but also let me know I was being held, in an energetic hug…that it would be ok, that she had been there too.
By day 2 something had flipped, changed, emulsified if you will. I wasn’t separated from my grief, it was part of me, and it was beautiful. I was normalized in my anger, in my grief. Normalized in thinking about dating, normalized in speaking openly and laughing at what seems unlaughable.
Lena was having a good time in camp too…she made friends, worked on crafts, exchanged numbers and willingly went back each day. That felt like a huge win.
I attended sessions about surviving the first year, writing your grief, about being widowed with children, faith and spirituality after profound loss, about how to navigate grief, sex, dating and new relationships, how to create a life you love and then a fantastic laugh-until-you- nearly-pee-your-pants comedy routine by a fellow widow.
It was everything.
Saturday night there was a banquet..Old Hollywood style ball-gown-if-you-wish type of deal. I brought a dress I already owned, a smashing number if I do say so myself, and danced gleefully on the floor. We paid tribute to our people…said and wrote their names, lit a candle, and announced what they were being remembered for (my person, Frank James Menhams, was remembered for being a Life Long Learner and Full of Love).
And you know what? I even flirted a little bit. I danced with an elderly gentleman on the dancefloor...I two-stepped with a younger man, and I got down with the ladies. We had a blast.
I met up with that volunteer who befriended me my first day and we talked about teaching a workshop on Neurodiversity and grieving…turns she’s an autism specialist! Perfect… I hope we get selected to present together next year.
I walked away feeling whole, complete, like I had found my tribe. I FOUND MY TRIBE. No questions asked, these people fucking GET IT. We’re hearty..forever changed, vulnerable and raw. There’s no time to waste, seize the moment because that’s what we’ve got.
On my way out Sunday, a Comi-Con convention was starting. A woman who saw my Camp Widow badge called me by name “Oh Cynthia! You’re in the wrong convention! This one is way more fun.” Nah, it’s okay, I said… We Widows know how to party! And we do. And you know why? Because we know what we’ve lost, and we know what we might find.
And it’s beautiful, and painful, all at once. And isn’t that the invitation we have in life, to embrace it fully? Who knows how to do that better than someone who just lost their person…who’s been rocked off of center, thrown for a spin, blasted to pieces…certainly not someone who thinks a Comi-Con convention is better than Camp Widow.