Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Finding Coral

"Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same"
-Gerard Manley Hopkins

I think it was only about the 30th time we'd seen Isaac's favorite movie, when it hit him.

"Mommy, where Coy-al?"

"What, sweetie?"

"What happen Nemo's mommy, Coyal?"


He did say what I thought he just said. Right?


Sure, I'd worried a bit-- okay, more than a bit-- the first couple of times I watched Finding Nemo on DVD with my son, that the sudden disappearance of Nemo's mother Coral (along with, let us not forget, over 399 of Nemo's unhatched brothers and sisters) after the arrival of a menacing, razor-toothed barracuda might, uh, you know, disturb a small child, especially one as discerning, and one as anxious, as Isaac.

But after several viewings of the film with no reaction at all on his part to the tragedy at the beginning, I relaxed. Come on, now. He's just a baby, I thought. He likes to watch the pretty fish swim in the pretty water by the pretty coral reef. He's not analyzing things. He'll probably thinks Nemo's mommy went off to work, or took the eggs to see Grandma, or something, assuming he even thinks about it at all.

After all, he doesn't even know what death is.

So, when, after we'd had the DVD for a couple of months, the question came, I was caught off guard. I panicked. What should I do? What should I say? Should I lie? Should I tell him the truth? How can one possibly explain death, of a PARENT, to a child who is still learning to talk?

In the seconds I had to decide, I settled on evasive half-truth plus diversion.

"Oh, Isaac, that mean fish took Nemo's mommy Coral away. But look! There's Nemo's daddy! Nemo's daddy, Marlin! He just found Nemo in his egg! And what is he saying? He says, 'It's okay. Daddy's got you.' He's going to take good care of Nemo, right?"

"S'okay. Daddy got you," Isaac crooned absently, seeming now unperturbed, transfixed by the pretty colors once more.

I sighed with relief.

But the next time we watched the movie, it happened again:

"Where Coyal?"

"Um . . . "

I repeated my previous performance. Half-truth, diversion. It worked.

It became a ritual, over the next few weeks, every time we watched the movie (which, in case you're wondering, was pretty much once a day, as he almost invariably chose it for his limited daily TV time). He asked, I evaded, he lost interest.

Eventually, he stopped asking. But every time he watched the scene where Marlin finds Nemo alive in the last remaining egg, Isaac chanted, in a queer, sad, empathetic voice, "S'okay. S'okay. Daddy's got you." Occasionally he insisted that I stay near him for the first ten minutes of the film, holding his hand.

It bothered me. I didn't like to see him even upset by something he'd seen on TV, not even this slightly. But still, he loved the movie. I loved the movie, the first time I saw it all the way through (which was with him, at home), enough that I could still tolerate having it on after seeing it a kajillion times (I could even, actually, still laugh at about three of the jokes).

More weeks passed. He fell in love with other, newer DVDs. But these were passing infatuations. Whenever he'd had a bad day, he still wanted Nemo.

And then one day, he seemed particularly agitated as it came on. "Mommy. STAY. HERE!" he commanded quite imperiously when I started to take some dishes into the kitchen. He wrapped his little hand painfully tightly around mine. "Watch," he demanded.

The barracuda came. My tiny son looked me in the eye.

"What happen Nemo's mommy Coyal?" he barked, his gaze penetrating.

"I . . . oh . . . that big mean fish . . .that big fish ate, her, sweetie! He ate her! She's gone! She's dead."

I'd said it. I'd just admitted to my baby boy that mothers can die. They can die, and never come back.

What in the name of all that is innocent had I done?

He paused for a moment, contemplating, maintaining his iron grip on my hand.

Then, "Find Coyal?" he asked, tentatively.

"I don't think Marlin can find Coral, Isaac. You see, she's--"

"Find Coyal."

This time, it was a statement of fact.

"Go look for her," he continued. "Keep looking. Will find Coyal. Look. Maybe look far. Look up in the sky."

(Up in the sky?

Yes, he really said that.

Did I mention we're heathen heaven-doubters, over here?)

And ever since then, my son has been on a quest to find Coral.

When he plays with his Nemo and Dory bath toys, he tells me they're going to find Coral.

When he plays with his Thomas the Tank Engine trains, when they're not helping "Sir Happy Hat," of course, they're off to find Coral.

The Hot Wheels cars, the Little People, and an entire zoo of stuffed animals have been recruited for the search.

"Find Coral," he says, in a hopeful, commanding voice, just tinged with a hint of sadness.

"Oh honey," I said one day in response, "We're all trying to find her. Everyone in the world."


Jaelithe said...

In case you were wondering, yes, this is the post I've been talking about the last couple of days, and now do you see why I had so much trouble writing it? *sigh*

Raquita said...

my kid loves Nemo and to avoid the moment you speak of - we use that nifty feature scene select and ass far as cammy knows Nemo starts with "time for school, time for school!!"
I knew we wouldn't, rather lest be hoonest I wouldn't be quite able to handle that chit chat just then, Why when we watched Narnia - which by the way - she loves, she was VERY upset with the death of the 'lion king' (all lions are the lion king by the way) she never really seemed too upset by the actual death in the actual movie lion king but the one time we watched Nemo from teh begining she did a very clingy - not letting go of mommy thing, which I assume contributes to teh can't let mommy out of her sight thing I am still dealing wiht.


she was a bit upset by the fox and the hound cause of the big bear. Bambi's mom, Simba's Dad, both of Mogli's parents, Milo's father from Atlantis, The guys dad in Mulan, I swear, classic disney films are just teeming with Mommy/parent death or absence.

You handled that well. I hope I have the strength to be that honest when she asks me, or even better before.

Anonymous said...

I am with Queue, our Nemo DVD starts at exactly that same spot :)

What does Isaac think about Monsters Inc? Julius can't stand the beginning and always asks if we can change to Lilo and Stitch.

I keep marveling at Isaac's verbal skills! Envy!

Jaelithe said...

Ah, you guys are much smarter than I am! Heh.

Actually, if I had seen the movie before I watched it with him, I would probably have skipped that part, too. I ought to have watched it alone before I let him see it, but I'd been told by so many parents what a wonderful movie it was, and how much kids loved it, that I assumed it wouldn't be too scary, and I thought if it got violent, I could just skip whatever seemed to be scaring him the first time. But of course you never actually see Coral's death; it happens so fast. And once he'd seen it once there was no way he was going to let me skip a second of it without a fight.

Queue, I swear Disney must be out to give children a complex about losing their parents so that the kids try to drown their insecurity in consumerism! Although to be honest I don't think Nemo would be half as good if the mom didn't die at the start. And The Lion King IS based on Hamlet, where EVERYONE dies, so I suppose they actually toned the violence down a bit . . .

We don't have Monster's Inc. yet, but it's on our list (that one I did see in the theatre, so I know what to expect).

Her Bad Mother said...

Oh, man. I can totally see why you'd have trouble writing it. It was heartwrenching to read. But also warming - you tackled the unavoidable so sweetly.

Our children are going to want to know about death, sooner or later. I get all messy just thinking about it. But (and I'm no big fan of Disney) this is what may be useful about Nemo and Bambi and Dumbo and many fairy tales... they give us the opportunity to begin talking about death and loss before it happens in real life. Most children will lose someone that they know, or know someone who will face such a loss, during their childhood. Maybe having had the experience of 'looking for Cowal' would make the *real* experience of loss easier to understand and bear.

Andrea said...

I had some practice with this when I babysat when one of the twin girls I watched asked me where Ariel's mommy was. Since there's no scene depicting her death, I made something up about her being in another part of the huge ocean and ruling on high where she was. But it got me thinking about all that stuff pretty early.

I think as a kid, I was too young to understand when I saw Bambi, but the first movie I remember that dealt with death was E.T. (though they all ended up surviving). My parents just explained that it's what happens.

I've come to realize it's not just Disney, but all movies. Look at Harry Potter. Erin Brockovich. The Patriot. There's parental death/absence in them all. I don't know why that is, but it makes for some tough questions.

Bea said...

I read this post the first time a few hours ago, and then I was interrupted so I had to run, suppressing my sobs, and I've only just now returned to comment.

This was worth the wait. It's been haunting me all morning. Beautiful post - and what a beautiful, lovely little boy you have.

Dawn said...

J, That is one of the first HARD parenting discussions. The knowledge that we are..human. Even Moms. And as we can be born, so can we die.

Emily had that moment in Lion King, when Simba noses around his fathers now dead body, trying to get him to respond.

I think that we rob children of something when we shield them from too much. Yes...parents die. Children die. With Emily I always tell her that I plan on living as long as I can...and that I will always be with her...inside her body, even if I am not WITH her.

There is a fascinating ( albeit long and scholarly) book called "The Many Uses of Enchantment" by Bruno Bettelheim, in which he looks at the uses of violence and death in fairy tales...why they are so universal and what children are getting from them - in bite sized pieces.

I would also suggest "Under Deadman's Skin" by Jane Katch, which was her exploration of a game in her classroom called "suicide" -and what the children were using the game to work out. She studied with Bettelheim.

Reminds us that we are fallible - mortal. And Moms don't like to feel that way, especially with our babies

Girl con Queso said...

Just so you know, we're right there with you. We're joining to Coy-al search. All hands on deck.

Unknown said...

This is such a sweet and sad post. I'm glad you made the effort to write it down.

Now, to those who skip the part at the beginning I am humorously reminded of the episode of Friends where Phoebe realizes that Old Yeller dies. Her mom never wanted her to see the sad parts of movies so she always turned them off before the sad part came.

Unknown said...

P.S. Found this post via Bub and Pie's recommendation.

Ruth Dynamite said...

Wowzers! How did I miss this? Wonderful. You have an amazing child, you know?

Anonymous said...

That was a lovely post, and you did indeed handle the situation very well.

Living on a farm is wonderfull in many ways, but some are mixed blessings. My children have all had to acknowledge death very early on. We have come through the experiences intact emotionally, but it has not been easy. I can very much empathize with your difficulty.

Anonymous said...

coral hid w/eggs and left when big fish left. she was not killed-she seperated.she did not realize marlin was alive because after the big fis left she simply took her eggs-save1-and went someplace safer. after all, she never liked her new place.


Anonymous said...

All of us have to find Coral, one way or another.

I second the motion of reading Bettelheim. Children work things out through fiction, as do we all. My 10-year-old son has faced various challenges in his life (who doesn't?), and when we last watched Finding Nemo together he told me that the lesson of the film was that you have to let go, live your life, and not let fear keep you trapped.

Many fairy tales and other stories begin with the death of one or more parents. Why? Sometimes it's to set up the basic conflict, but sometimes it's to make possible the wild adventures that could never happen under a parents' protective gaze. In my opinion, Finding Nemo uses this for both purposes.

I also see Finding Nemo as a fine piece of post-9/11 commentary; the Collateral Damage blog has a piece about this that's worth a look.