“Alejandro, do you know what cancer is?”
The social worker had just walked into my hospital room and sat down on the edge of my bed.
She explained I had just been diagnosed with leukemia.
As a 9-year-old, I wasn’t too aware of what “having cancer” meant. To me it was just something that adults got. And to be fully honest, I thought everyone who got cancer died from it. I was scared. I was trying to make sense of all her words. I just knew that I wanted to feel healthy again.
I had no idea this was only the beginning of a 2½-year battle.
After about a month in the hospital, I was allowed to go home and begin outpatient treatment. I would return to the hospital once a week for chemotherapy, and it was during one of those visits that I was told about a place that would change my life.
It was a summer camp for kids who were going through, or had gone through, the same things as me: Seany’s Camp Reach for the Sky. It is for children with cancer and their siblings, in the mountains of Julian, Calif.
To this day, it is unlike any other place I’ve ever been.
Sure, it has some of the typical summer camp activities, such as hiking, talent shows and archery. But what makes CR4TS stand out is the people.
That camp taught me so much about myself. I learned how to talk about my feelings and listen to others do the same. I learned how to empathize. And, above all, I learned the true meaning of love.
I always tell people that camp is the way I wish the rest of the world could be.
When you are a kid with cancer, and you make friends with other kids who have cancer, losing friends to cancer is not uncommon. Throughout the years, I’ve lost so many of my friends. But the memories we made at camp allow us to keep alive the memories of those who have passed.
After I was in remission, and then declared cancer-free, I became old enough that I “graduated” from camp. But I would still return year after year — as a counselor.
In mid-2012, I was preparing to move from Oceanside to Los Angeles to attend a graduate program in teaching at UCLA. But first, I had camp. I arrived to find I had been assigned to the teen group.
And I noticed we had a few new volunteers.
At camp we go by nicknames, mine being “Mr. T.”
Her name was “Periwinkle.”
“Periwinkle” was a nursing student at San Diego State University who had volunteered to be a counselor after learning about camp through one of her classes.
We became friends that week and began hanging out as soon as we returned home.
On our first date, we went to the Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego. We ate dinner, had ice cream and spent the night talking while we looked out at the bay from Seaport Village. I remember thinking how beautiful she was that night and how easy she was to talk to. I knew she was someone special.
After just a few dates, it was time for me to make the move to Los Angeles. It was hard being so far apart, even though we spoke on the phone daily. We would also take turns making the drive to see each other on weekends.
When it was my turn to drive, I couldn’t wait to get to her. I would wake up extra early to make the two-hour drive. Each time, it seemed like the visit would go by so fast that, before I knew it, it was time for me to get on the freeway back to L.A.
By the time Periwinkle graduated, we knew our lives were destined to be together. She looked for nursing positions in the L.A. area and found something right away. We decided to move in together.
I think I knew from the day I met her that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. But it took me about six years from the day I met her to finally pop the question. I guess I just wanted it to be perfect.
Periwinkle is a huge Disney fan. And Disneyland and California Adventure are among our favorite places to spend time together. As her birthday approached — I figured it would be best to ask her on her birthday — I bought an engagement ring. And I enlisted her sister, Linda.
During the car ride to the park that day, I was super nervous. I kept feeling my pocket to make sure the ring box hadn’t fallen out. Once we got inside the park, I secretly texted her sister, who had gotten there about an hour earlier to get into position with her camera.
When we got to Pixar Pier at California Adventure, I told Periwinkle I wanted to give her her birthday present.
And I got down on one knee.
Periwinkle — I guess I can just tell you now that her name is Christina — is still a pediatric oncology nurse in the Los Angeles area. I am a high school teacher in El Sereno. I am in remission and living a relatively healthy life.
We’re getting married today. Camp will be front and center at our ceremony: Aside from family, fellow campers will make up the biggest group of guests.
One of our close camp friends — his camp nickname is “Yoda” — will officiate.
I can’t help but think that cancer — this horrible disease — is what brought us together. Shortly after we started dating, she shared with me that she believed pediatric oncology was a calling for her.
It’s been almost seven years since we met at camp. We’ve returned as counselors every year and will again, but now as husband and wife.
The author is a counselor at Seany’s Camp Reach for the Sky, theseanyfoundation.org
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