Friday, March 23, 2007
Watching my daughter Watch Dumbo
My daughter C. is autistic. People often ask me if she's high functioning or low functioning, and there is no easy answer to that. She's a mixed bag. On the one hand she can do high-level math -- geometry, algebra -- quicker and better than I can do it. But on the other hand, she has a hard time talking and often behaves like a five-foot tall toddler. Recently, when checking on her in her room late one evening I found her, looking like Braveheart's daughter, smeared from head to toe in blue paint. I don't know how she found paint. I didn't even know there was paint anywhere on the second floor. But it was there and she found it and it was 11:30 PM and boy was I tired and irritated. Which is to say she's perplexingly mixed-function. A specialist once said to me, "Even among the special population C. is special," meaning she's complicated and hard to sort out, hard to figure out how to help. That's my girl. We don't do anything by halves.
Her favorite movie lately is Dumbo. For a while now, she's been asking to watch it every day. Usually I take her TV time as time I can safely (and without guilt) ignore her for a bit. But the other day I sat and watched it with her. You remember the story -- Mr. Stork brings the long yearned-for baby. The world is thrilled until, "gootchi gootchi goo!" he sneezes and his freakish ears are revealed. He's separated from his mother (she's thrown in bad-elephant jail for defending him) and is alone and unloved until a little mouse befriends him.
The parallels to our life were striking to me. My uterus brought us our much-longed for baby. The world was thrilled until ("why isn't she talking? Why isn't she talking?") her diagnosis. Then (and here Dumbo's mom comes off better than me) she too was separated from her mother, not because i went to bad-elephant jail, but because I had a nervous breakdown and couldn't function for a while.
From there Dumbo and the mouse get drunk on clown champagne, engage in Flying Under the Influence, and end up blacked out at the top of a tree. And Dumbo learns that it is the very ears that make him a freak that give him the ability to fly. He becomes the star of the circus and everybody loves him.
As C. and I watched, I began to understand what the movie meant to her. C. waits and dreams, as her father and I do, of the day when her amazing inner life and abilities will break through the shell of her disabilities and fly free for all to see. And people will no longer stare at her, shun her. Little kids at the playground will no longer point to her and ask, "What's wrong with her?" They will love her for who she truly is inside and she'll finally be our hero.
My baby girl dreams of flying, and I want it for her too. But she works so hard, struggles every minute of every day, trying to learn to do the things that come effortlessly to the rest of the world. Every stride she makes is a mini miracle. Not many can see it, hidden as it is behind the camoflage of difference and disability, but that struggle itself makes her, already, a hero. And I believe one day I'll see her fly.