Camping with Rowan

This weekend, we went camping in the rain. In the morning, as the sun came out, a sister and brother wandered into our campsite and peered into our tent to say hello to our daughter.
We emerged for introductions and to play, and as the little brother followed Dan, the two girls went about the typical “I have that, too” introduction that six year olds do. The morning was going along smoothly, and as we prepared breakfast, C was happy to have two new friends. Eventually, her new friend (whom I’ll fictionally refer to as “S”), picked up my phone off the table, pushed the button, and saw the photo of C and Rowan.
S: “C has a little brother, too. Where is he?”
Me: “He died”
S: “Why?”
C: “The doctors gave him anesthesia and they weren’t supposed to”
S: “That is sad”
C: “Yeah”
S: “I share a room with my little brother”
C: “Me and Rowan shared a room, too”
S: “Let’s go play in the meadow”
C: “Okay”
They wander off, exploring, playing on logs, saving the Earth picking up trash, and taking turns pulling S’s little brother around with a bungee cord (don’t ask me why, it seemed like a fantastic idea to all three of them)
Next, they all wander to the campsite next door, and run into S’s mom.
S: “Mom, C has a little brother that died”
C: “The doctors gave him anesthesia, and they killed him”

As I overhear, I hold my breath. The world seeming to slow down around me, as so many previous scenarios swim through my mind. Will the mom say something to try to dampen or change reality? Will she pull away C’s new friend, leaving C to need comfort at another disappointment? (Yes, these things are the norm, rather than the exception)

“That’s very sad” says S’s mom. And both girls move on to the next item on their list.
A little while later, we parents meet. Parent introductions that are always more difficult than kids’. Eventually, our story gets mentioned. I slip them our card that says boldly ‘Special Needs Discrimination in Healthcare’, and I hold my breath again. She reads it, puts it in her pocket, and says “I’ll read it”. “How long ago?” she asks, followed by “Wow, that’s just yesterday”. “Yes”, I answer, “it all depends on your perspective, but it feels like yesterday to me.” And a few awkward moments of us all staring silently into the meadow.

A little more small talk, and then the conversation becomes easier. We chat about the storm, and about how we each bought our cars for camping with two kids. We chat about work, and school, and the trips we took with Rowan. They tell us how their toddler is always hungry, and C talks about how Rowan always tried to eat everyone’s food.
And it was easy.

As the day passes, each family packs up our belongings, as the kids imagine they are gazing at the stars.
And, instead of witnessing their relief at the exit, I’m handed a paper with an email address, “Let’s go camping again”.

Friends, afraid, become strangers.

And strangers, not afraid, become friends.