By Samantha Meijer
“I get knocked down, but I get up again, you're never gonna keep me down.” Chumbawamba's Tubthumping song blared through the 3500-square-foot banquet hall's speakers, while the camp coordinators danced down one of the centre tables. The guests visiting for the week joined in the excitement, as I, merely seven years old, took it all in. It was the first night at Lions Camp Dorset, a place in the Muskokas where dialysis patients and their families could vacation together. It was also the first night of an eye-opening, life-changing experience.
My mom, my two sisters, and I drove approximately four hours to get to Dorset, Ontario – thirty-eight minutes away from the town of Bracebridge, Ontario, and right on Deer Lake – where we spent the week with my mom's childhood friend and his wife – our Aunt Rose and Uncle Karl. Even though we weren't blood relatives, they considered us to be their nieces, and were therefore welcome to the camp. Many of the nurses also knew my mom because she'd worked with them during her nursing days, so we didn't have an issue getting in. My uncle, a later-stage dialysis patient, had been chosen from a list of applicants to go to the camp, for a week of relaxation and medical care.
Like many dialysis patients, my uncle couldn't go on vacations, as treatment was always a necessity. Dialysis is the only treatment for kidney disease - the deterioration and destruction of the kidneys’ filtering units, keeping the kidneys from removing waste from the blood, among other things - and is life long, unless you're able to receive a kidney transplant. This means that when he came to visit us in Ottawa – from his home in St. Catharines – we had to schedule appointments with a private clinic on Baseline, or at the Riverside hospital, giving him the chance to go farther than the Niagara region and still have his treatments. But Lions Camp Dorset caters to the needs of patients with kidney disease. The camp understands the care patients with kidney disease need and are willing to offer it as part of the relaxation process.
Lions Camp Dorset offers patients on dialysis the opportunity to “experience the great outdoors,” and get away from the stresses of life. It allows guests with kidney failure to unwind and have fun, while still maintaining their scheduled treatments. During their stay, guests and their families can spend their time at their cottages, by the water, in the rec hall playing pool and watching movies, at the park, at the tennis courts, at the indoor pool or hot-tub, or even away from the camp in either the town of Bracebridge or Santa's Village.
After the first night of camp and the first night of fun, we spent the next couple of days cramming as much as possible into the days we had with one another. In the first couple of days, we spent our time swimming and paddle boating, a pastime that saw my towel in the water more times than it was around me. We would have liked to use the indoor hot tub as well, but the tornado that ripped through the area weeks before had caused some electrical damage, and it was deemed unsafe. So while my uncle was off at his first treatment, I spent the time jumping into the deep end with my water wings on. There I'd stand at the edge of the deep end and yell “catch me” to my aunt. Then I would jump, and come back up sputtering water in her face. She didn't care though; she was enjoying the fun time, something my uncle wanted. Every time he went for treatment, we would make sure he was all right, and then go and have fun in the water, on the tennis courts, or even the putting range. It sounds awful, but we had fun, because he wanted us to have fun. He was happy if we were.
Canoeing only came because another woman at the camp was willing to take my sisters and me out. My mom and uncle couldn't manage that form of exertion because of his treatments and my mom's arthritis. This meant that my aunt was left to take us out. We only got so far before we started going in circles because none of us could figure out which way to paddle. The woman, who had been out with her grandchildren, saw our attempt and offered to take the three of us out instead. Nothing against my aunt, but her attempt was as good as ours.
The following afternoon was spent with many of the other guests, enduring the log challenge. The log challenge required you to line up on a log with other guests, and order yourselves depending on when your birthday was. The object of the challenge was to get in order, without stepping off the log. This meant we had to work together to move across the log, never touching the ground until the challenge was complete. That same afternoon, we fed the chipmunks. My uncle would give us peanuts, and we'd just hold them in our palms. The chipmunks would come right up to us, eating straight from our hand.
Later that evening, we went back to the banquet hall and played a couple of rounds of bingo with many of the other guests. This was a different kind of bingo though. Instead of winning money, guests were required to provide prizes that couldn't cost more than a toonie. This brought us to a little corner store in Dorset called Dwight Market. There, we were able to pick up our groceries, our prizes, some souvenirs, and a bonus of ice cream. We then headed back to camp, where we prepared the food for the potluck bingo night, then made our way back to the hall. Bingo was fun that night, but what I recall most was the lucky penny key chain I chose. A lucky penny seems like a weird choice, especially since pennies are no longer in existence, but it acted as a reminder of the fun I had that night.
By midweek, we left camp and headed to Santa's Village. We were able to go because we'd received family passes from the camp, and therefore spent most of the day at the village in Bracebridge. Santa's Village is a little like an amusement park with rides ranging from Santa's roller coaster and summer sled (jet boat), to a merry-go-round and miniature train.
Santa's Village is for any child who still believes in Santa Claus, but also for the young at heart. At Santa's village, I found that adults didn't have to grow up. They could spend the day experiencing fun through a younger set of eyes, and enjoy an afternoon filled with the dulcet sounds of laughter. It's unbelievably contagious, letting you escape the realities of your own life, even if it's only for a couple of hours.
One of the first things we attempted upon our arrival to the park was the reindeer roller-coaster, and I say attempt because it was a ride I was unsure of. When you're seven, a roller-coaster seems like a scary thing if you're not interested in fast rides, or if you've never been on anything other than a five cent merry-go-round in Port Dalhousie.
My aunt went with us while my mom snapped photos, and after the first ride, I was hooked. I dragged my aunt onto the ride a number of times, even though she complained she felt sick every time she went on. She went on for me though, and kept going for me because that's what made me happy.
That's also the day I gained two new grandparents. We went to see Santa and Mrs. Claus, who were happy to see us out with our mom and grandparents. Suddenly my aunt and uncle had become my mom's parents, and yet, they didn't care. They took it in good fun, and it gave us something to laugh about later on.
Meanwhile, my uncle got his treatments. The camp’s clinic looked like a space hub, where robots sat charged for use. The machines hummed, their spindly wires connecting themselves to the tissue of the human they needed to make contact with. To the imaginative mind, a dialysis clinic could appear like something more than it really is, and quite scary. People sit in chairs, tubes inserted in a vein in their neck, chest, or leg, pumping the waste out of their blood in order to help maintain a certain quality of life. However, at Lion's Camp Dorset, even though the same procedure went down three days a week, it doesn't seem that scary. To the seven-year-old mind, it's fascinating what these machines are capable of.
On the last day of my uncle's treatment, we went to the dialysis clinic – in our bathing suits – and took turns taking photos with him. There I was, a pink towel wrapped around my bathing suit, hair sticking up at all ends, smiling from ear-to-ear. My uncle sat in the chair beside where I stood, the same sort of smile spreading across his own face.
That same night, we had our own campfire. We had had one with the other guests, sharing food and drink, but this one was ours. I sat next to my aunt, close to the marshmallows, devouring as many as my stomach could handle. We sat around the fire, watching the crackling flames grow, and I could feel the heat on my arms. As I would say at the age of seven, “it was a honking big fire.” We toasted and burned the marshmallows – browned marshmallows are all right, but charred are even better.
We continued the night with singing and laughter, something that lit up the darkness that the fire's light couldn't reach. Two memorable songs are imprinted in my mind, memorized like you memorize the acronym for the planets in the solar system. The first was like a theme song for my uncle, one he always sang. The second was my aunt’s song – or one of the many she sang.
A peanut sitting on a railroad track,
His heart was all a flutter,
Along came a choo choo train,
Toot toot peanut butter.
Oh little playmate, come out and play with me,
And bring your dollies three, climb up my apple tree,
Slide down my rain-barrel, slide down my cellar door,
And we'll be jolly friends forever more.
Oh little playmate, I cannot play with you,
My dolly has the flu, boo hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo,
Haven't got no rain barrel, Haven't got no cellar door,
But we'll be jolly friends forever more.
“I get knocked down, but I get up again, you're never gonna keep me down.” The journey at Lions Camp Dorset came and went, the week of new adventures finally over. I was sad to be going home, for I felt that the adventure had only just begun. But, my visit had introduced me to new people, and new experiences, ones that would be imprinted in my mind forever. The patients at Lions Camp Dorset didn't let the disease keep them down, and it didn't keep their families down either. The lions that worked together and fought together are the true lions of Dorset, uniting in the endless battle of life.
As a young adult looking back on this experience, I've realized that strength is more than the ability to lift when others can't. It's the will to fight and to never give up on life. Two years have passed since my uncle's death, and still, there's an emptiness felt whenever a day goes by without one of his spontaneous calls. But, those lessons of strength have kept me living, keeping him alive as well.
Photo Credit: Debbie Meijer
Samantha is an avid reader and writer, who finds relaxation in the imaginary worlds she creates. Her non-fiction work has been published for the Canadian Wildlife Federation, and she has won awards for her short fiction in the annual Remembrance Day Legion contest. When she's not writing, Samantha is sketching famous or familial people.