Letters from the heart led me back to camp


A few months into my grief counseling, it became obvious that the idea of going to camp alone terrified me. So my counselor gave me an assignment: Write a letter from my perspective to my husband Jim, who died of pancreatic cancer in December 2010, about going to camp for the first time without him; and then, write an answering letter back to myself from Jim’s perspective.

I looked at her skeptically, but promised I would give it a try. So on my 52nd birthday, just five months after Jim’s death, I sat down and did just that.

Join me next week, and I will tell you what the exercise meant to me.

Here they are:

May 22, 2011

My Dearest Jim,

As you know better than both of us, camping season is upon us. This usually is a very joyous occasion in our household, as we have been preparing for it since we closed up last fall.

By now, you would be making last-minute plans for getting the boat and trailer ready, registering the camper, making lists of items we need to buy and others that need to be taken from home to the camper.

You would be on the phone with different friends of ours from The County every couple of days, checking on the weather, the condition of the campground, the condition of the camper, the condition of the dock bumper where we dock our boat, the fishing at the lake, the exact opening date for the campground, who plans to be there on opening weekend, and many of the other details that were so all-consuming to us this time of year.

And we would do the things on the lists, pack everything and head north on the appointed weekend. There would always be so many things to do at first up there; clean the inside of the camper, put groceries away, put the boat in the water, hook up the camper, all while we drank our first cold beer of the season, which we had carefully packed in the ice chest to bring north with us.

And reunite with friends we haven’t seen for a long winter.

Jim with our beloved Brittany Rosie fishing in our boat. Rosie, who died in 2006, loved fishing with us.

Jim with our beloved Brittany Rosie fishing in our boat. Rosie, who died in 2006, loved fishing with us.

That’s how things have been for 15 years. Until this year that is. This year, the silence is deafening. I don’t hear you on the phone talking to our friends. The dinner conversation isn’t about preparations for camp. There’s no major discussion about logistics and how many vehicles we must take and who is going when and whether [your daughter] Cheryl will be there and what we want for meals.

This year, I will pack clothes for only one person, and pack food for one person, and only be able to take one vehicle.This year, Eddie [our friend] said he would show me how to hook up the camper at the beginning of the season. And Judy [our friend and Eddie’s wife] plans to have a beer ready for me. And I will miss opening weekend because of a dog event.

But I will go up on Wednesday and open the camper and I may spend the night there before I have to do it with an audience. Cheryl and her aunt will be there opening weekend to clean out Cheryl’s camper. She’s selling. It will be back to just us again, only it will be just me because cancer stole half of my life between the seasons.

My stepdaughter Cheryl and I at camp.

My stepdaughter Cheryl (left) and I at camp.

Jim, I don’t know if I am strong enough to do this, yet I know I will do it because I wouldn’t want to disappoint you. I don’t want to treat this part of our life as if it wasn’t important to both of us; as if it isn’t still important to me.

I know I will find you there, just as you have been every season, only I can’t see you and I can’t touch you and I will be fishing alone and there will be no one to play cribbage or Uno or backgammon with.

And on rainy days and the weekdays when everyone is working, I will feel the emptiness and hear the silence between the raindrops. I will fear the wind during storms for the damage it can do to the camper, and I will feel my vulnerability where I have always felt safe in your care.

I will have to take a picture of you to be able to gaze at your face. I know I can always find you in my mind’s eye; or in my heart. I will look out at the picnic table where the men often gather to talk and share a drink or a smoke, and feel the hole in their midst.

I will miss your laugh, and the mischief in your eyes when you are about to tell people a new joke. I will miss you at the campfire and at washer tournaments; and at night when everyone goes into the safety of their private lives and with their mates, I will face the emptiness of our camper; of the bed where I had to crawl over you in the night in order to get to the bathroom; of the mornings, when you would rise early and get your paper and make us tea and take care of the dogs so I could sleep in.

It was your kingdom; our sanctuary. Now it’s a living memory.

Sassy and Bullet came into the camper  bedroom to hang out with me while I got my eyes open for the day.

Sassy and Bullet came into the camper bedroom to hang out with me while I got my eyes open for the day.

On Wednesday, I will take Sassy and Bullet and go to camp. I will open the camper we quickly and methodically closed for the season, and I will make myself face its memories. And I know I will feel close to you there. I know I will; if I can get past the hurt. If I can feel something other than torment for my soul.

Mom told me she hopes I can find the peace there that I am seeking. I don’t expect it to come easily, but I appreciate what she’s telling me. And I think it may be possible I will find it there eventually.

This is not the life we had planned. I was supposed to retire in three more years and we were going to upgrade our camper to one with a slide-out and spend our summers on the lake together. We were looking forward to it and talked about it constantly.

We had plans. … Now I have none.

I am not looking at the future because I cannot imagine its reality. Right now, my reality is that I cannot eliminate camp from my life because that would be another piece of you I have lost. I couldn’t bear it. We used to talk about what we would do with the camper as individuals if one of us died. I have learned you don’t know until you’re in the situation.

I always thought I would not go to camp without you, but you encouraged me to stay. Now I can’t imagine doing anything but what I am doing.

I have to admit I have been dreading camp since January. But in recent days, I have stopped dreading it quite so much and have come to the conclusion I may feel closer to you there. You spent most of last summer there and loved it so much. It was such a huge part of your life, and I can still experience that place and feel you there.

No matter where I am, I carry you with me in my heart and I miss you so much … words cannot express. But we — you and I and the dogs — are going to camp.

Love always and forever,

Julie

Jim's daughter Cheryl got him a new tackle box and Jim carefully transferred his treasures from the old to the new.

Jim’s daughter Cheryl got him a new tackle box and Jim carefully transferred his treasures from the old to the new.

May 22, 2011

My Wife,

I am glad you are planning to go to camp. You enjoy it there and it would be too bad for you to give it up until you have given it a chance.

The dogs like camp too, and we have a good setup there. I’m sure any of the guys would help you if you needed some help with the camper. I’m glad you’re planning to take the boat. You might as well enjoy it. 

Check the trailer wheel bearings before you go with it, and check them a couple times while you’re traveling. If they get hot, you may have to wait for them to cool. Don’t forget to strap the boat down for traveling, and take a phone or a two-way radio out on the lake with you and make sure someone else in the campground knows where you are.

I don’t want anything to happen to you.

Bullet likes to hang out on the seat behind me when I am driving the boat.

Bullet likes to hang out on the seat behind me when I am driving the boat.

Don’t forget to turn off the hot water heater at home before you leave for vacation, and close the valve on the hot water heater in the camper before you turn the water on for the season. Not surprised Eddie plans to help you. Loved that man.

I know this is hard for you, but you’re young and smart and you’ll be OK. I will be there with you. And the dogs will watch out for you.

You’re my strong wife. You can do this. I loved our life together and I wish I could be with you at camp the way we used to, and I wish we could still do our retirement plans. But you have to go and enjoy it for both of us.

I want you to live your life, and Rosie [our beloved Brittany dog that died in 2006] and I will be waiting for you when it’s done.

I love you.

XOXOXOXOXOXOX

Jim

Sassy and Bullet loved fishing with Jim. I think it was a mutual situation.

Sassy and Bullet loved fishing with Jim. I think it was a mutual situation.

 

JULIE HARRIS

About JULIE HARRIS

As a longtime employee of Bangor Daily News, I have served many roles over the years, but I now have a dream job as Community Editor. I live in Hermon with my four Brittany dogs: Sassy, Bullet, Thistle and Quincy, who keep me busy in various dog sports. I was widowed at age 51 when my husband, Jim, died of pancreatic cancer.