Iraq and Finding Nemo

This is an excerpt from “I Blame Lucas” an upcoming movie memior of how the movies I saw shaped my thinking.

Finding Nemo was the first movie my daughter saw in the theater. Josh had arrived home from a five month deployment toIraq not long before we ventured out to see our first movie as a new family.

I was truly worried Kami would talk through the whole movie. Something I don’t mind in kid’s movies but this time I’d be, not the random movie-goer, but the parent of a talkative nine-month old. We let Kami choose where we’d sit; she went for the very top row. To our relief only a handful of people filled the rest of the theater for our mid-day showing. I was nervous if she would like the movie, if anything would scare her, if it would be too dark, if it would be too loud, if she would sit still – I was a wreak. I wanted so badly for her to enjoy going to the theater, after all movies is what brought her mommy and daddy together. If it wasn’t for movies, Kami would have never been born.

I kept all my nervousness inside until the lights went down in the movie house and a wave of calm came over me.

I think the first words I heard were from Kami. “Wow” she said. The colors were breathtaking. So vibrant and rich. You’re immediately drawn into another magical world, a world that you can’t help but want to live in.

Then reality set in, the ocean, just as on land, is a dangerous place. A barracuda hunts down hundreds of clown fish eggs tucked away in the reef. A mother, willing do anything to protect her children, sacrifices herself.

After surviving five months of my husband being in a war zone, fearful if he’d ever come back home, I knew only too well about protecting children from the dangers of the world and at times feeling powerless to stop it but I knew as a mother I had to try.

One egg, although damaged by the barracuda attack is all new daddy Marlin has to hold onto. He names his offspring Nemo, a name his mate liked. Cradling the eggs and covering over its wound he says, “I won’t let anything happen to you.” How many times did I utter those same words to Kami? How tight did I hold onto Kami while Josh was away? Was I being as over protective as Marlin? Would I ever be able to let go? I remember thinking this movie is going to be hard to watch but I need to see it.

Periodically I’d look over to Kami seeing if she was enjoying the movie. She was soaking it all in. She seemed more mesmerized by Finding Nemo than Sesame Street and Teletubbies. Then I noticed how closely she was snuggling close to her daddy and I realized I wasn’t the only one who needed to see this movie.

Two weeks after Josh left forIraq, Kami said her first word. She was five-months old. I had just gotten off the phone with Josh. The war hadn’t started yet and time on the phone was short, but he was able to say that he was okay and I was able to tell him I loved and missed him. Kami played in her bouncer and I took a moment to lie down on the floor in front of her. I closed my eyes for a brief second to take in the fact he was safe when…

“Da-da?”

“What did you say?”

Kami’s eyes grew wide. “Da-da!”

I must have looked like a crazy person running around flipping over couch cushions and looking under magazines to try to find the tape recorder. “Your first word! You said your first word!” At last I found the tape recorder Josh found for me. I rushed over to Kami thinking there was no way she’d say it again. “Kami can you say ‘da-da?’ Say ‘da-da’ sweetie.”

Just as I pressed the record button, “Da-da.”

After an amazing amount of praise and pride, the reality set in – Josh wasn’t there to hear it.

I feared that Kami would use her new word to identify anything she saw, a ball, “da-da” a bottle, “da-da” but I was very much wrong. Kami knew exactly what her new word meant. It started at the commissary on base. A solider would walk past and oh so softly I’d hear “da-da?” We’d visit the hospital for her checkups, her eyes searching, catching sight of camouflage and then “da-da?” For five long months my daughter was looking for her daddy and now her first movie is about a father trying to find his son.

Finding Nemo quickly became my daughter’s favorite movie. I’ve watched it countless times and I swear each time I learn something new. I love how Sandy Plankton knew everything about everything (we all have that person in our life). I loved how Nemo a “damaged” fish learns strength from Gil who suffered the same disability but doesn’t let it diminish his hope of freedom.

Crush was my favorite. He’s the type of parent I want to be. When his son Squirt slips out of the current and for a brief second and is separated from the family, Marlin freaks out and Crush calmly says “Let’s see what Squirt does flying solo.” He’s there as a parent but knows he can’t fight every fight. Marlin (very much like me) struggles with how to know when you’re child is ready to be on their own. Crush in almost a surfer-koan form says, “Well, you never really know, but when they know, you know, you know?”

Marlin continues to struggle with letting go when it comes to his traveling companion Dory too. When both of them are trapped in the mouth of a whale, Dory tells Marlin that it’s time to physically let go of the whale’s tongue. “How do you know something bad isn’t going to happen?”

Josh made it home. He was one of the lucky ones. I had my family back. I didn’t have to cry asleep at night anymore that had scent has left his pillow. But was it time for me to let go? How did I know that something bad wasn’t still going to happen to my family? Then a fish with no short term memory summed it all up for me…

“How do you know something bad isn’t going to happen?” Marlin asks.

“I don’t” says Dory.

You simply can’t know if something bad is going to happen. You raise your children to the best of your ability. You balance protecting them and letting them find our just how dicey the water are. Then one day you come to realize that you don’t know how your future will be laid out and you surrender to the power of not knowing but always having hope that things will turn out they way they should be.

After finally being reunited with his son, Marlin steps out of his comfort zone and lets Nemo try to save a school of silver fish caught in a fisherman’s net. After swimming an entire ocean to find his son, Marlin now has to risk loosing him so that Nemo can save others. Risky thing for a parent, but really isn’t that what it’s all about, raising your children so that they in turn can make a difference in the lives of others?

After spending months trying to find her daddy, looking closely at every face in uniform, the day finally arrived that Kami’s daddy came home. Kami and I sat in the empty Army airport hanger for what felt like a life time. As the bus pulled up and the soldiers exited, I got to see my husband’s warn, weary but smiling face. When I went to lift Kami out of her stroller for a better view – she was asleep. Thinking back on it, I really wouldn’t have had it any other way because the first words she heard when she woke up were, “Daddy’s here.” The same exact words Marlin said to Nemo after being knocked unconscious trying to save the silver fish.

Kami and Josh have a special bond I deeply admire. Five months apart with a big ocean between them. Luckily they both instinctively knew to “just keep swimming” and “never give up.”

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