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.


Claire said...

That movie broke my heart everytime I watched it with the kids. Nice picture of her.

Anonymous said...

ye you go for it elizebeth
like all of us all you long for is for your daughter to be normal

i know i lady from church whos 12 year old daughter is autistic
she acts like she is 4 she stuffs whole toilet rolls down the loo,puts things in the electric fire and cries and paddies when she cant have her own way

so you go for it and i hope your daughter keeps fighting through it

Elizabeth said...

Thank you so much for your kind note! Seems like you can either keep going or give up, and I'd never give up on any of my kids. Autism can be tough to handle. We've been lucky to have a lot of good guidance and our daughter's behavior problems are pretty minor now. I hope your friend and her daughter can hang in there and work it out.
Best, E

Anonymous said...

what a beautiful story! I love that you took the time to paint all the moving details; the photo is beautiful too. My son loves Dumbo too; I think that feeling of being an outsider is universal.

veganrampage2 said...

She will fly, no matter what, with a mother like you. O the guilt, the GD guilt, that society lays at the door of the isolated mother, stuck in our unnatural nuclear families, in the patriarchy, without the extended family's much needed help and burden sharing of the mind-blowing task of raising children. You need and deserve time to recharge your batteries. Isn't it funny, generally speaking, how mothers who do almost all the child-rearing tasks, still feel guilty while fathers are not usually bothered by this troublesome emotion? (I am not talking about your family situation, of which I know nothing about) Don't get me started. Your daughter won the mother lottery when she got you. I can see that from where I am sitiing; New York.

Elizabeth said...

Zelly - Thanks so much for your very kind words. I tell all my kids that, while I'm not perfect, I love them perfectly and always will. That's perhaps the best we can do in this imperfect world, isn't it? Love wholeheartedly wherever we can.

Yes, we women do take on the guilt and responsibility for our children's problems. At times, it can be annoying to have a partner who, because of the norms of gender and society, feels less responsible for the challenges and successes of the children. But, in our case, my husband's basic optimism and good cheer held us all together when I lost hope. We balance each other out well.

Margaret Benbow said...

For me, the most unforgettable scene in Dumbo is the one where, although the mother has been chained and imprisoned for defending him, her baby finds her and she rocks him in her trunk to comfort him. Their love is perfect, and that's the important thing. Elizabeth, I'd bet your daughter knows she can always count on your love. That's what matters.