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Unspoken Stories of the Secret Heart

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

heartOn Saturday, we took Schuyler to see the latest Pixar film, Inside Out, It deals with the complexities and realities of our emotional development, presented in a way that I think is resonating with kids and adults both in a surprising way. I won’t get into the message of the film, largely because as I read various reviews and reactions, I see that different people are getting very different things from the film, which I think is just wonderful. A basic message, and one that I think Schuyler understood, was that happiness isn’t an always state, and it might not even be the default. “Where my sorrow goes, there I’ll be,” goes one of my favorite songs. It’s okay to be sad, yes, but beyond that, it’s a necessary thing, that sadness.

The message that our emotions and, more to the point, our brains are made up of contradictory forces is complicated, I think, by Schuyler’s disability. Her brain has an additional character, her polymicrogyria, and it throws obstacles into the mix that change the game for her entirely. She may never completely come to terms with her little monster and its multitude of fangs and tentacles and claws, and that may also be entirely appropriate. It’s never going to go away, but it doesn’t have to win, either.

It’s tricky, talking with Schuyler about her emotions, because she possesses the ability to withdraw into herself like no one else on earth when she so chooses. Schuyler has suffered her whole life from the same affliction that bedevils the main character in the film, an eleven year-old girl named Riley. They are both facing that difficult transition from a life where happiness is the dominant emotional state, and beginning to face more ornery emotions like sadness and jealousy and insecurity and anger. Riley doesn’t quite know how to deal with complex emotions, much like Max in the similarly-themed movie adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. And very much like Schuyler, too.

There’s so much that Schuyler is going to learn about her emotions, and the emotions of others. There’s so much I want to tell her, the lessons I’ve learned the very hard way in my own life. I want to explain to her that her heart is fragile, but it’s also tough, and that may not seem to make sense but one day she’ll get it, when she thinks it’s too broken to survive until she wakes the next morning and the morning after that and realizes that it perseveres. Somehow I want to tell her that she’ll have people in her life who don’t like her, and that’s just part of life, but the hits that’ll leave a mark won’t come from them. They’ll come from the people she loves, and who maybe even love her, but who won’t be careful with her heart.

But I can’t teach her these things. I can tell her, but she won’t really know until she has those experiences. And despite my foolish desire to protect her from all that, I understand that her emotions will be tested without my help. Heartbreak is the thing we all face in our most profound loneliness. And so it will be for Schuyler.

On Saturday evening, after pondering the movie for the better part of the day, Schuyler initiated an astonishing conversation. As it turned out, the thing she wanted to discuss wasn’t joy or sadness. It was fear.

“Daddy, I have three fears,” she began as we drove home from getting some dinner.

“Okay, so what are they?” I asked.

She held up one finger. “Heights.”

A second finger. “Haunted houses.” That one came from out of nowhere.

“And the third?” I asked.

“I’m afraid of losing you and Mom.”

I paused. As a parent, you never want to lie to your kids, but at the same time, you have to listen closely for what your child really needs. Comfort? Information? Validation? The truth is something I always try to give to Schuyler, but in what kind of vessel? Given that she had been thinking about this all day, and that she was in a reasonably good mood, without much in the way of melancholy, I decided she was looking for something direct. This fear was bothering her, but I got the sense that she wanted to explore it, not placate it.

“Well,” I said, “the truth is one day, you’re going to lose us both. You understand that, right? It’s really hard, but everyone loses their parents one day. My dad died a long time ago, and one day Granny will die, and I’ll be really sad. One day Grandma and Grandpa will die, and your mom is going to be really sad. But that’s the way life goes. One day, hopefully a long time from now, your mother and I will be gone, too.”

“But who’ll take care of me then?” she asked. “Jim and Kim?” She was talking about her godparents.

“Maybe,” I said. “But keep in mind, they’re not any younger than we are. So there’s no guarantee, you know?”

She nodded. She wasn’t sad, just unusually serious. “So who will take care of me?”

“Who do you think?”

She paused. “I’ll have to take care of myself.”

“Exactly.”

In our lives, our game pieces move forward, sometimes incrementally but occasionally onto spaces of significance, moves that change things in the game. I feel like Schuyler’s game piece just landed somewhere big.

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2 Comments
  1. BW aka Barbara from Boston
    June 22, 2015 | Reply

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