I’m just going to warn everyone in advance that I am about to get all kinds of sentimental up in here. If you have a low tolerance for that kind of thing, probably best to move right along.
So I have already made reference at least once to the place I love best in the world. In truth, it wasn’t a particular place, but rather a collection of people who would gather every year for a specific purpose. During the years I was associated with it, it was actually held in three different locations.
It was a camp.
Specifically, it was a camp for children and families affected by HIV/AIDS. The only requirement for attendance (which was free) was that someone in the family had to be affected in some way by the disease. Perhaps it was a parent. Perhaps it was an uninfected child whose parents had died of the disease, now living with aunts or uncles. The details varied a lot. But whatever the way the family was affected, everyone within that family was welcome to come along.
The families almost all came from the New York City metro area. I started volunteering during residency. (At that time, my residency program supplied two residents per camp session. Over the years, that association lapsed.) The beginning of my time there was right on the cusp of when HIV was an invariably fatal diagnosis and when it became a manageable chronic condition. It was my job as part of the medical staff to administer medications to the kids during the week. For that week, at least, the parents or caregivers could relax and know that their children’s medications were being taken care of by medical professionals. They could all be campers, just like at any other summer camp.
I loved it immediately.
Irrespective of the somber reason everyone was there, it was easily the most joyful place I had (or have) ever been. The whole point of being there was to give a group of people who often faced terrible struggles for 51 weeks one week of pure, unadulterated fun and love. Many of the families lived in isolation and fear, daring to tell nobody their diagnosis. For one week they were surrounded by people who knew what their lives were like, in a place where they could share their stories without judgment. (It was in that setting, with social workers and mental health professionals on hand, that many parents opted to disclose to their children for the first time that they themselves were HIV positive.)
It was the best week of my life, year after year. For a handful of days I could be as nutty and loud and ridiculous as I wanted, all in the service of joy. For a handful of days, I was surrounded by people whose sole concern was the happiness of others. Like any human endeavor, there were flaws and conflicts and problems here and there, but they were dwarfed by the good will and compassion that informed the entire enterprise.
I loved it so much that, before signing contracts for two different jobs I took after residency, I stipulated that I needed that summer week off guaranteed.
And then life happened, and one year it just simply wasn’t possible to go. To say that I was deeply bummed out when camp week rolled around would be an understatement. But I survived, and was able to go back again the next year. But then life kept happening, and a couple of years ago the Better Half (who had begun to join me and formed a bond with the camp in his own right) and I decided we could no longer work camp into our summers.
But still we gave financial support, and still our love for the place endured. As did so many of the friendships we had formed there, with people we had come to love like family.
Yesterday an email was sent out to volunteers and supporters of the camp that it would no longer go forward. Funding has been harder and harder to come by, and it is simply no longer a sustainable program. The camp won’t be happening again this summer, or ever after that.
I cannot say that I was surprised by the news. It has been a long time in coming.
But still, it was something wonderful that I loved, and now it is gone. Like a magical city in a glass, I would have loved to somehow preserve all that made it lovely and special and precious forever. But that is not how life goes, and so it remains for us who loved it to preserve it as best we can in memory. If there is some kind of afterlife in which I am allowed to bring a few cherished glimmers of the one I have lived, I will wrap that place in the tissue paper of my soul and hold onto it for eternity.
In all the world, it was the place I loved best.
So, tell me about somewhere beautiful.