Listening to the Silence

Little girl looking out over water

Losing my childhood innocence and security in the world shattered part of me.

I wrote this personal essay for school and wanted to share it with you. Hopefully, it will make you think about your first memory and the loss of childhood. This experience still haunts me at times.

Childlike, haunting music repeating endlessly – that’s the first thing that I remember. I was two years old, snuggled into my bed. Warm, safe blankets with loving, present parents in the next room, I understood the world as a child does: concrete, simplistic, beautiful, self-focused. Yet on that one night, one song motivated the cackling Greek fates to unwind the darkened portion of my life’s ball of yarn.  

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            Those days before and after were filled with searching for arrowheads in knee-high grass, splashing on the shores of Big Sandy Lake, and collecting neon beads at the Craft Building. From the age of two until five, I was the princess of CYC – Catholic Youth Camp. Counselors and campers knew me as the director’s oldest daughter. I was the pixie-spirited blonde who ballet danced on fallen trees, crawled under cabins to find raccoons, and scaled the Red Pines to wave carefree at nervous adults on the ground.

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            Hearing music was not all that strange at CYC. During the day or evening, I often heard a counselor whistling a praise song or group of campers shouting out meal grace to the tune of Gilligan’s Island. However, in my first memory, the music I heard had a soulful, deep sound – one that was either mournful or threatening. Perhaps that song, my song, was both.

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            When not adventuring alone in the woods, I spent time with the teenagers and their college-age counselors: inhaling campfire smoke while sitting on a log, wiggling on a bench in the dining hall between two of my favorite staff members, attempting to lift the canoe paddle up in order to help the “big kids.” My parents rarely enter the memories of my first five years as more than a loving presence; other people from the camp are watermarks in my memories, their faces blurred but catch phrases, raised voices, and eager smiles still vivid.

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The haunting music outside my window was a children’s counting song: “Sally the Camel.” The words became etched into my nightmares, dripping red upon a wall or lurking in shadows. “Sally the camel had ten humps. Sally the Camel had ten humps. Sally the Camel had ten humps. Ride, Sally, ride. Ba-du-du-du.” Those last noises, supposed to be humorous, transformed into a tribal call for attack, a demonic summoning.

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One regular activity I loved was the closing ceremony to bid the campers goodbye. Counselors dressed as clowns with colorfully painted faces to mime a dramatization of Jesus’ death and resurrection. This ended each camp week. Pale, white faces of death mourned the Savior’s passing. Red dot noses, purple swirling cheeks, and blue eyelids all hinted, however, at the joy that came at the end of the skit. This color spread to the audience as the actors spread some of their makeup onto each campers’ face, making us part of the clown troupe. This symbol of the Lord’s love and giving of Himself expressed the many bonds of love: the counselors and me, the campers and me, nature and me. Simply put, life loved me as much as I loved it.

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My initial response, as a two-year-old lying in bed was recalling the clowns’ painted heart, the belief of love. Therefore, the voice singing “Sally the Camel Had Ten Humps” was obviously one of my friends. Counselor, camper, family friend on vacation – the exact name didn’t matter. Someone was here to say a final goodnight, a farewell to camp director’s daughter as I said goodbye to forgetfulness, naivety, security.

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The innocence of a child sees the world as fairy tale. She is the princess with others as the friendly dwarves, helpful birds, or charming princes. The conniving witches, stifling step-mothers, and threatening wolves – these villains hide in the years to come, ready to pop out to huff, puff, and blow out the light of hopeful dreams.

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            My two-year-old dreams still intact, I raced over to the window. Balanced on tiptoe to peer out, I listened. Nightly noises greeted me. Crickets chirping. Frogs croaking. Faraway voices squealing. And the voice, the deep voice continued to sing “Sally the Camel.” I looked up and down, left and right, squinting my eyes before rounding them like a fish’s unblinking glass gaze.

No one.

What would be your most terrifying vision? Close your eyes and imagine. A pale ghost with black holes for eyes, a dead body immersed in a puddle of blood and guts, or a three-foot spider with fangs as long as its legs?

Now imagine nothing. No one. Emptiness. No creature or image is more horrifying than that.

My next response and final memory of that night is standing open-mouthed, a scream emerging from my lungs, soul, and mind. Never again did I feel such terror. Never again could I be a child.

My mother recounts the remainder of that night with a still-present ragged exhaustion in her eyes. After several hours, she finally calmed my quivering body and stopped my hyperventilating sobs. I lay back in bed, curled in a ball as in the womb. The innocence disappeared; the witches, stepmothers, and wolves had broken into my story. Never again would the princess be safe.

“She’s going to need therapy for this when she is older,” my mother prophesized to my father as they too tried to sleep.

At least a ghost might have disappeared. Something never present cannot even vanish. It simply remains to play on and on and on and on. “Sally the Camel” became my haunting lullaby, the song that guided me into nightmares each evening, the invisible tormentor who followed my every step into adolescence.

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            At five years old, I moved with my family to the city. Goodbye to arrowhead searches, tree climbs, and neon beads. Farewell to leech-ridden water, campfire skits, and American flag ceremonies. So long to counselor, camper, and forest friends.

Only “Sally” traveled away with me. My nightmare became my last fragment of the shattered joy of youth. Nothing else remained. No one, only emptiness.

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            Counselors and even the campers scrubbed the clown makeup off their faces before appearing in public, washing rainbows down the faucet. I never understood wanting to erase the mark of love, the symbol of faith. Even seeing clowns as an adult reminds me of Jesus instead of silly tricks or frightening stories.

Before my family left camp, the clowns painted one last heart on my face. I wanted to keep it on forever, but my mother made me wash my face that night.



2 thoughts on “Listening to the Silence

  1. Man I feel your pain in my own way. I had a moment like that around four years old. In Alaska trying to find my parents but only finding strangers and with tears in my eyes recalling the violence upon my mom and the horror of that moment

    So I feel that kind of emptiness and pray for you….

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