“Rick, you’re going and that’s that.” My dad stood at my bedroom door and looked firmly at me.
I didn’t look up at him. “I don’t want to. Why are you making me do this?”
“You’re just going.”
“That’s fair.” The sarcasm was intentional; I was always sarcastic. Sarcasm kept away the pain. I refused to acknowledge him standing there, and as I deliberately turned a page in my comic book he turned around and went into the living room.
Where I was going was MDA Summer Camp. I was born with Muscular Dystrophy, and I just knew the entire world was against me. I fell down a lot, I couldn’t run well, and I felt stupid and useless whenever I was with those who could. So I stayed in the house a lot, closed up in my room where I could read comic books and pretend I was someone else. I didn’t want to go to any camp, much less MDA Camp; I wanted to stay at home and be left alone.
The whole next week I spent moping around, putting together what I thought I would need at the camp: some clothes, some books, a hand-held video game, my journal. I had started writing a journal that year and writing poetry; writing gave me an outlet for my misery. I tried a couple times to show my dad and mom how much they needed me to be at home, but they were rigid: I was going to summer camp. So I resigned myself to it and decided that I would make everyone else as miserable as I was.
The drive out to Lake Wales was interminable. My dad tried to get me to talk on the 90-minute journey, but I just read my book and tuned him out. We finally arrived at the camp and went to the Mess Hall to register, and everywhere I looked was the decay of humanity. The other kids were all in wheelchairs. Some of them were sitting up straight, smiling; others were twisted into Dali shapes, drooling on a towel. It was horrifying. Why was my father making me go to camp with these inhuman beasts? Is this what my parents thought of me, that I was a misshapen abomination? I felt ill. I felt betrayed. I felt alone. Again.
My father and mother left. I was introduced to Bobby, who was to be my personal counselor for the week. The look in his eye was pure disappointment when he saw me, and I didn’t understand until much later that he had expected to have a wheelchair-ridden camper to care for. All I knew then was that he looked uncomfortable when he looked at me. But I was used to people looking at me as if I were a disappointment, so I resolved to make things especially difficult for him in any way I could.
I discovered that one of the rules was that the counselor had to stay with his camper at all times. Each camper was assigned to a counselor, and groups of these pairs slept in a cabin filled with bunk beds. When I discovered that he was supposed to stay with me, I waited until his head was turned and then I ran away. I was only going back to the cabin, but he didn’t know I had left until I was halfway there. I did this many times, getting away from him and doing what I wanted to do. We finally reached an understanding that he would not bother me as long as he knew where I was and stayed where I was supposed to be.
Bobby was a good guy; I knew that. He passed my test when he talked to me as if I mattered; I don’t think I had felt that before. So I lightened up on him. I tried to take part in the activities they held at camp so that he would feel as if he were doing his job. But once again I was out of place. Unlike home, I was too athletic to take part in most of the games. Baseball, for example, consisted of the campers being pushed by their counselors to home plate, where the counselors held a bat in their hands and hit a whiffle ball which was lobbed at them. The counselor would then push the chair around the bases as other counselors pushed their kids to the ball and tried to throw them out. Not me, however. When I got to the plate, I walloped the ball hard, and it hit a quadriplegic camper in the face. I decided not to play baseball anymore.
I spent a lot of time looking at people there. I found myself wishing that I were a part of this group, of any group. And in that observing time, I discovered that all of these campers were individual people. I couldn’t group them up as “the cripples.” There was Angie, who was almost completely quadriplegic; there was Donny, who knew he would only be able to walk until next year, when he was seven; there was Sherry, who was paraplegic and could move her arms and had the sweetest smile. There was Mike, who had no legs and always knew a new dirty joke; there was Susan, who could only gurgle and was little more than curved bones covered with flesh; and there was Fred, who liked to sing.
Fred sang at the talent show. I had played the piano, a gift that I have since lost. Fred was the last act of the evening and was singing a song he had written while the music teacher played the piano. Fred never got more than three lines into the song and then broke down crying. We all started crying. I didn’t stop crying that night until I was asleep, many hours later. Fred’s words seemed to sum up the sadness of my soul:
“You never talk to me, it’s such a sight to see
I sit here unable to run to you
And you look at me as if I am less than a man…”
Less than a man. That’s what I had been feeling, what I had been unwilling to say to myself. Was I less of a person because I was handicapped? That night I was sad, I was sorry, I was hateful, I was murderous, I was suicidal…and I was cleansed. The tears I cried that night carried with them the doubts I had about myself, and I knew the truth: No matter what other people thought, no matter how they treated me, now matter how I could or could not play with them, no matter whether I had friends and girlfriends or if I was alone forever, I was going to survive. I was going to survive because I was a man. I was a human being, and I had a reason to live: I would show the world that you cannot keep a man down when he has decided to overcome his problems.
My father came to get me two days later. I hugged Bobby and dozens of people in wheelchairs, telling them every time to be strong and survive. When I got into the truck, I hugged my dad and I told him that I loved him. He was surprised, but I needed to tell him that. He had made me come so that I could see that I was not all alone in the world and that other people were worse off than I. He didn’t realize what I would learn there, that the only person in the world who was against me was me, and that others could love me only when I started to love myself.