A hand to hold on to

In the summer of 1980, shortly after Mount St. Helens erupted in Washington State and I turned 14, I spent six weeks at a camp for overweight girls in Olympia, Washington—kind of a single-gender “Biggest Loser” experience but far kinder. We worked out a lot and took classes in exercise physiology and proper nutrition, among other things, and my time there set the foundation of whatever healthy habits I still practice today.

The director of the camp, whose name is Diane, was an especially kind woman who was firm, fair and fun in equal measure. She and her handpicked staff of counselors were good to us campers, and insofar as insecure teens and adult mentors can be friends, I became friends with her and a few others. I kept in touch with them for a few years, but after college, all my correspondences fell away. I never forgot her, but I didn’t know how to find her and just figured that I was one of her many, many former campers and students whom she had long since forgotten.

So imagine my surprise when I received a message from her on Facebook this past June, asking if I had attended that camp so long ago. We refriended one another on FB and I learned she had moved to a small town within two hours’ drive of my parents’ house. Since I am visiting them this week, I decided to take the afternoon and go see her today.

It’s funny how with certain people, the years apart don’t just fall away when you see each other again, but rather they seem never to have passed at all. So it was for us, or at least for me, to sit and talk with her again just as if we’d seen each other last week. Our memories of 1980 and after are blurred now, of course, but some parts still stand clear, and we talked about those. I told her that I’ve spent more than 30 years thinking that I would never see her again, yet there she was. And there I was.

One story I did not remind her about was a long phone call we had a couple of years after camp, when I was in high school and having a hard time. I was not standing on a high bridge over a fast-moving river, by any means, but I was emotionally on the brink just the same and I needed someone to talk me down, so I called her. I don’t remember anything else she said to me that night during the hour-plus that we talked, but I will always remember that she told me this: “You are brighter than the average bear, and you can work this out.”

It is almost a banal observation, but the fact that she saw me as intelligent and capable of solving my problems made me believe it for the first time in my life. In that moment, her hand reached out to me through the long-distance line, steadied me on my own two feet, and pulled me gently back from that abyss over which I swayed. And I’ve been holding on to that hand, that single sentence, ever since. Brighter than the average bear. It has gotten me through more struggles than you might expect. The help we need sometimes comes from the most unlikely places.

I spent about five hours visiting with Diane and her husband before I had to get back this evening. I wonder when or if we will see each other again. Until we do, I want her to know how much she’s meant to me all these years, and how dearly I hold not only the words she said to me on a very dark night, but also the faith she had in me and the bright circle of light within which she held—and still holds—me as a worthy human being with great potential. It made such a difference to me then. It still does.

Don't let her stature fool you. She's a giant of a woman at heart.

Don’t let her stature fool you. She’s a giant of a woman at heart.

Thanks, Di, for everything.

 

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