On August 18, 2002, Emma was one of 79 children who boarded buses from the Shea Stadium parking lot to Camp Mah-Kee-Nac in Lenox, Massachusetts, for the inaugural session of this most specialized of all summer camps. She had hardly met another kid who’d lost a parent on 9/11, but on the four-hour ride, Emma didn’t say a word to the girl next to her, except for a chilly “hello.” She was afraid of having to share anything about herself with anyone, even other kids in the same situation. When the bus pulled into the camp, 150 counselors in bright-red STAFF T-shirts bounded up to greet them. Soon the counselors were singing camp songs and teaching the campers to dance to them. At lunch, a sound system in the mess hall was pounding the camp’s theme song, “Reach,” the dance-pop anthem by S Club 7: “And when that rainbow’s shining over you / That’s when your dreams will all come true.”
“Your dreams will all come true?” Emma remembers thinking. Were they out of their minds?
The counselors asked her if she wanted to unpack. “No,” she snapped. They assigned her a bed next to a counselor so she could be closely watched.
Every night, listening to her bunkmates talk about their fathers (and it was almost always fathers who were lost), Emma cried. Jessica Moody, the girl Emma sat next to on the bus, lost her father, Thomas Moody, the FDNY captain of Hazmat 1, Squad 288. Meghan Brethel’s father, Daniel, was the captain of Ladder 24. Dori Freund’s father, Peter, was a firefighter with Engine 55. Kara Jerez’s stepfather was Robert Cirri Sr., an officer with the Port Authority police. And Sydney McLoughlin’s firefighter father, Gregg, didn’t die on 9/11 at all, but months earlier. (There are a small number of other campers with uniformed parents who didn’t die on 9/11, but the campers don’t seem to make a distinction.) It was the first time Emma had heard other kids like her tell their stories.
Emma’s family rarely discusses 9/11. Therapists call it “reciprocal protection.” In a 9/11 household, no one talks about 9/11 for fear of upsetting everyone else.
On the fourth day, Emma found herself in the water on a fun board, a sort of half-surfboard, half-boat. She and some of the other girls from her bunk were standing and wobbling on them, splashing into the water when they lost their balance. Something about it made her laugh. “Fun,” she said.
By the end of that first week of camp, Emma and her bunkmates had become something more than friends; they became like a universe unto themselves. Jess was the rebel, Dori the quirky one, Sydney the social butterfly, Meghan the confidante, and Kara the adorable youngest. Emma, everyone agreed, was the mom. “I guess it means that they think I care about them and I’m the one to protect them,” Emma says. Over time, the girls found that they could rely on one another, at camp and at home, whenever they needed a sympathetic ear. “We all felt the same way when our moms dated someone new,” Emma says. “We all felt the same way when teachers mentioned us in school. We all felt the same way when people singled us out. There are different bits of emotion that can’t be connected—you’re your own person—but the main emotion was the same.”
Sitting outside the mess hall at America’s Camp last month (the girls became counselors this year), I asked Emma if it ever feels peculiar to her that her strongest relationships have been formed at a place that is linked to the greatest tragedy in her life.
“Well, I don’t really think of this as my favorite place on Earth because my dad died,” she says. “It’s not like he died on purpose or anything. But now that he’s gone, was it because he wanted me to learn something? That he wanted me to learn that there’s somewhere for me?” Her voice tightens. “Where I won’t be judged. Where I will make the closest, strongest bonds with people that I’ve ever made. So I think about it that way.”