Sunday, September 16, 2012

Finding Amber

When I first saw the ads for Finding Nemo nine years ago, I thought to myself that Pixar had made a giant misstep.  After all, the monsters in Monster's Inc. were cute and had wonderful personalities, but a movie about fish without a mermaid - really?!  I was not sure that I could get close to Nemo no matter how cute his animated face looked.  But I took seven year old Amber and three year old Daniel to see a movie about fish because everyone else told me how good the movie was.   As we settled in and heard the voice of Albert Brooks as Marlin, I still had my doubts.   Then, after a playful scene with Marlin's wife Coral, you see his life changed forever after a barracuda presumably kills her and the hundreds of eggs she's laid except for one that has a small crack in it. That egg eventually becomes Nemo - a special needs fish with a "lucky" fin that is smaller than the other.  He is disabled so it takes him longer to swim then the other fish.   Because he had lost almost everything in the attack, Marlin becomes a recluse with Nemo, living in an anemone (a plant that stings) to keep bad things from happening.   He tells his son that the ocean is a dangerous place and refuses to let him out of his sight.   Nemo ends up resenting his father and rebelling which leads to them being separated - the quest to be reunited is the thrust of the movie. 

As I watched the story unfold in 2003,  I wondered if I as the mother of a daughter who has autism if I was like Marlin.   Although I had never experienced that sort of loss, I too thought the world was a dangerous place for my baby girl.   I was very protective because Amber's way of processing information was different than most kids.   Amber is on the mild spectrum of autism but it still meant that she was different than most kids.  She would repeat things and had a hard time making eye contact which also made it difficult for her to make friends outside of her school group.   When Marlin would step in and try to manage things for a very capable Nemo, I could see myself doing the same thing.   I would answer for her if someone asked a question.   I tried to not expect too much out of her or expect her to do things most kids did like clean her room, wash dishes or put her clothes away.  I did all that for Amber because she was special and I wanted to make her life as easy as possible.   She didn't rebel like Nemo - at seven why should she?  Mom was doing everything for her.  I worried because she could be talked into things so easily and I felt like her way of comprehending danger was not like most kids.   But then how many seven year olds actually understand that not every adult is nice like your parents or teachers?   I tried to never let her out of my sight when she was not at school.  When Marlin's worst nightmare comes true and Nemo is taken away, I held back tears because that is every parent's worst nightmare.  I sat in that dark movie theater and watched how Marlin handled seeing his child abducted, and he didn't give up.  He constantly went out of his comfort zone with Dory (voice by the incredible Ellen DeGeneras), a blue fish with short term memory loss.   I knew, like most parents in the theater, that I would stop at nothing to find my child.   This all sounds plenty scary and very un-Disney.  If it the story had a human family dealing with all this loss, it would have been sad and awful, but the brilliant people at Pixar were smart enough to make the protagonists fish so you could have a connection but not feel like it was too much like real life.

When Nemo is  captured by a well meaning dentist who thought that he was helpless in the big ocean, he puts him in a fish tank where he'll be safe.  Nemo meets a wide group of fish who are happy being confined to a glass ocean.   They get fed, there are no predators and life is predictable.   He meets Gil, a fish with a broken fin and scars on his face and body who wants more than a safe existence - a stark contrast to Nemo's father Marlin.   Gil doesn't see Nemo as a kid with special needs, he sees a kid who wants to be treated like everyone else and can do things that the other fish can't.   There is an urgency to get Nemo out of the tank before the dentist's niece Darla comes to see him since she has a reputation for killing the fish her uncle gives her.  So begins Nemo's quest to get back to his father and the ocean - a sojourn that he's up for because despite his father being overbearing - he still loves and needs his daddy. 

Marlin's quest has him battling not one but three sharks, a mine field, jelly fish and East Australian current and the belly of a whale.   He meets these challenges head on and realizes that he was wrong to stay so reclusive with his son.   That's an instinct that parents who have kids with a disability have to fight - the need to keep them home and safe is admirable, but flat out it's not living.   They'll never know how to fend for themselves if you don't push them and yourself out of that comfort zone.  They'll never get where they need to be as a human.   Dory's advice is simple, "Just keep swimming,"  or just keep moving forward no matter how hard it gets.   It's been tough for me to see kids not want to play with Amber when she was smaller.  I had to fight the urge to intervene, but she eventually learned what to do and what not to do to engage other kids in play.   She can now talk about things that interest them and not repeat herself too much or get obsessed on one subject.   Sometimes the kids on the playground would walk away and she would "keep on swimming" or playing until another group came by and played.  It always fascinated me how the ebb and flow of a playground worked, very much like an ocean - kids would flow in, kids would flow out.  If they wanted to play with Amber, great - if not - then she was happy to play on her own - for her it wasn't personal.   So little by little, we would go shopping, out to lunch, then dinner, then to the movies, then to places that actually had waiters - each time it was a baby step to establishing what was normal and what was to be expected, but my eagle eye was always on her.   

Being overprotective is something I was always afraid of being yet I couldn't help it because my daughter seemed to need me so much - and truth be told I liked being needed.   But I always wondered if I was crossing a line of demarcation in which my stepping in could be keeping her from making friends with other kids because I was afraid they would make fun or her or take advantage of her.   I got where Marlin was coming from - even trying to make Nemo's shorter fin disability seem like a good thing - a lucky fin.  When the other kids point out that he's different, Marlin tries to protect Nemo's feelings.   Subsequently his need to protect his son from everything backfires in a big way and he's somewhat responsible for Nemo being captured.   His guilt as a parent is a palpable.  Marlin's exchange with the spacey but wise Dory really hit home:

Marlin: I promised I'd never let anything happen to him.
Dory: Hmm. That's a funny thing to promise.
Marlin: What?
Dory: Well, you can't never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.

That was my "Ah-Ha" moment - little Amber had to figure out things on her own.   Good lord was this movie more for kids or for their parents?  Again the amazing magic of Pixar is that their movies are generally at such a high spiritual level that you can peel the layers away and still find more universal truths.   Giving a child the self confidence to try new things or figure out how to solve their own problems is an invaluable skill.  When Amber has felt the sting of peer pressure, we've talked about how to handle it knowing that Max and I can't be at her side all the time.   Some of my proudest moments as a parent has been having her teachers tell me that she stood up for what she believed in even if it was unpopular and surprise, surprise - her friends still liked her.    Protecting her and telling her not to be who she is because it's easier to be accepted would have been terrible advice, but that would have been the easy route.  

Underestimating a child with special needs can be a big mistake.  Not allowing them to try something they want to do because you see failure at the door is not moving them forward - they have to learn from it and pick themselves up.  When Dory and Marlin are swallowed by a whale,  Marlin has a hard time believing that his ding-bat companion can actually understand what the whale is saying and that this mammoth mammal would actually want to help him.   In his frustration, he yells at Dory and makes a telling Freudian slip: 

Marlin: No, no more whale! You can't speak whale!

Dory: Yes I can!
Marlin: No, you can't! You think you can do these things, but you can't, Nemo!

He's so hard wired to say "no" and "you can't" that he doesn't realize that Nemo is trying just as hard to get back to him and not sitting passively waiting for his dad to show up.   Nemo is learning so much from Gil who doesn't see him as crippled that he is able to take the situation in hand and take control which he eventually does to save the day and Dory.   How many times, I wondered had I shut Amber down because I honestly didn't think she was up to the task, even though she had asked to try to do something new?    I came close to turning down a free trip to Six Flags over Georgia to ride Goliath and the Georgia Scorcher because I was pretty sure she would not be able to handle it (and because frankly I was afraid of heights and roller coasters).   But like Marlin, I faced my fears and had a wonderful time.  We had a blast riding seven roller coasters in six hours and we both come away from the experience closer because we tried something new that scared us.  

Later in the movie, when he and Dory must make a life or death decision, he asks:

Marlin: What if something bad happens?
Dory:  You have to let go and find out.

For me that one line sums up the whole movie. I'll have to let go one day and found out just what my little girlie bear is capable of.  I know that someday Amber will have to learn how to drive and the idea of that frankly scares the crap out of me (but then to be fair, doesn't it for most parents?)   But she's going to need to be independent and she can't do that expecting me to drive her everywhere.   Even taking busses will require her to pay attention and learn which ones will get her home and which ones won't.   She's going to have to take responsibility for that to get to work on-time.

So as I sat in the movie theater in 2012 with my 16 year old daughter next to me, I realized that while I hadn't completely let go, I had eased up on her.   She has her own blog on Fan which is pretty popular and she gets good feedback.   She's gone on church outings with other teens without my eagle eye because she just needs to be a teen without Mom around all the time.    We're looking at her being able to volunteer on her own at an animal shelter.  Like Nemo, she'll learn how to put her skills to work and have a productive life - I just have to let it happen.   Ironically, she's always wanted to be a background animator for Pixar, those Czars of awesome who can take the tale of a little fish and make it something everyone can relate to.    Between 2003 when I first saw this amazing movie and 2012, a lot of things have happened some good and bad: my girlie bear has gone from elementary school to high school, I've lost a job, found one, lost one, found another one, fought depression, had animals pass away, etc .  But if I've learning anything from Finding Nemo, it's that you always have to keep on swimming. 

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