Recently, the Lad and I watched the film Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. We hadn’t planned on it being just the two of us, but one by one other family members dropped out, citing work, sleep, or just something more generally FUN. In hindsight, I don’t blame them, but Finn and I were compelled – me because I loved the book. Him because, well, I don’t really know.
It was a strange movie to watch with my son, because it is so much about the power of a good father-son relationship. Thomas Schell, played by Tom Hanks, sends his quirky son on elaborate adventures, designed to teach Oskar how to be brave and to experience more of the world than he would have chosen for himself. With patience and creativity, Thomas Schell embraces his son for who he is: intelligent and curious, but also compulsive and fearful.
That dynamic alone made it an interesting movie for me to watch with my son. I kept sneaking peeks at him to see what he thought. My husband Tim only has fuzzy memories of his own father, who died when he was 10. I know that a large part of Tim’s “fathering” is a result of the absence, not the presence of, a loving and involved father. While Thomas and Oskar interacted on screen, I would look at Finn and wonder, “How will he remember his dad? Is Tim making him brave? Is he making him kind? What kinds of things is Finn learning, beyond a killer ping pong serve and a sweet jump shot?” Deep down, I know the answers to those questions. Tim and Finn interact very much like Thomas and Oskar. They are cut from the same cloth, from broad shoulders to tender hearts and a wicked sense of humor.
But while I got lost in my reverie, the movie was passing me by. When I tuned back in, it was 9/11 and Thomas Schell is in the World Trade Center and then he is gone and it is Oskar and his mother who are left to pick up the pieces. In the beginning of the story, the mother is the observer in the family who admires and appreciates the connection between father and son, without needing to be a part of it. She knew her husband had Oskar, in all his weirdness, covered.
And then he doesn’t.
And although she does her best, it is nowhere near good enough for Oskar, who in his grief and anger and guilt screams, “I wish it were you that day,” to which she sadly replies, “I know. I do too, buddy.”
She knows her husband would have done it better. She knows she is failing Oskar in some crucial way and yet in that moment, in her own grief, it is beyond her ability to do better.
Again, I had to look at my son, who made sure he never looked at me during that scene.
What would he say, I wondered, if he had to choose? I know it’s a morbid question, but I am glad that it wasn’t immediately obvious to me who he prefers. I don’t actually know what any of our children would say.
I am the caretaker. Of that, there is no doubt. They love my cooking and the way clean clothes land miraculously on their bed every few days. They count on me to help them with their homework and projects and I am the only one who can rub their backs just right before they go to bed at night.
Tim is the player of all sports and card games, the Dairy Queen-on-a-school-night kind of parent. Grades don’t matter much to him; it’s all about whether they learned something, or not. He may feed them cereal every night when I am gone, but at least they get fed.
Between the two of us, we make a home and though it is unimaginable that we could do it alone, this movie gives me hope.
I don’t want to give away too many details here, but ultimately, the mother moves past her own grief and discovers a way to help Oskar heal. When he recognizes the sacrifices his mother has made for him, the love she has shown, he says through cathartic tears, “I thought only Dad could think like me.” (Which for a head person like Oskar – and myself – is the ultimate compliment.)
Linda Schell had thought so too, until she actually tried. Her willingness to embrace Oskar for who he is allowed him to reframe his story – the one he’d been telling himself his whole life, and especially since his father’s death – that his dad was the only one who loved him, the only who could love him. It turns out, that wasn’t true at all.
I immediately thought, Look, Finn, Love Wins.
It isn’t easy. It’s bound to be messy. It certainly requires more of us than we think we’re capable of, and frequently more than we want to give. But if we don’t give up, if we open our hearts, if we keep doing what Love asks of us, even when it seems impossible, then we can change our lives. We can change the lives of those we love. Heck, we just might be able to change the world. In the midst of tragedy, Linda Schell did it, and although she is a fictional character, there are thousands of people like her in real life that do it all the time.
And as the film ended and Linda held her son close, I gathered my own little man, who is growing quite big, in my arms as well. I kissed his forehead and rubbed the top of his ¼” crew cut and hoped I could remember forever how his freckled face looked as it turned towards my own. He is 13-years-old and before I know it, he may not be compelled for any reason to watch movies with his mom on a Saturday morning. Very soon, the Lad may have other plans, thank you very much.
But until that day, I will savor these moments. I will cherish each and every time I get to curl up on a couch with him, share a blanket and a bowl of popcorn. I will stand watch as he processes the vagaries of life on the silver screen, the pages of a novel, the columns of the morning sports page, and especially in his daily routine. And I will remind him every chance I get that Love Wins if we have the courage to choose it.