What watching Frankenweenie with my daughter taught me about being human
This season, my daughter, Rory, and I have watched a number of Halloween movies. We’ve watched Corpse Bride, Monster House, Hocus Pocus, and Coraline among others. What I’m getting at is, she’s seen some pretty spooky stuff (for a four-year-old), and she’s been totally fine.
Let’s watch another Halloween movie, Dad…
She can’t get enough of them.
So, yesterday, being another rainy day in Chicago, I grabbed a digital rental of Frankenweenie.
A few years ago, my wife and I saw it when it was in theaters. And we loved it. Being that Rory loves dogs (like, obsessively so), I figured she’d enjoy it too.
Little did I know what I was in store for…
See, I kinda forgot that (warning: here’s your spoiler alert for this entire post) the dog gets killed twice in that movie.
So we’re sitting there watching and all is going great until BAM, Sparky gets nailed by a car. Dead.
I felt Rory shudder.
She scooted closer and gripped my arm.
The movie moves pretty quickly through the scene where Victor (the little boy/mindfully mad scientist who owns Sparky) reanimates him from the grave using an attic full of scientific contraptions and harnessing the electricity from the ensuing lightning storm.
Yay! Sparky is back, Rory! I said to ease her fears.
But all I got was silence.
Her little blue eyes remained glued to the screen as if she’d just seen her own dog get hit by a car and, moments later, brought back to life.
Fast-forward to the scene where zombie-Sparky, who’d been stitched back together and patched up since his death, gets loose and runs away.
Rory still wasn’t talking.
Was she breathing?
(I had to actually check.)
Sparky was in danger. Again.
Victor, the little boy, was violently distraught. All the signals were there. Was Sparky going to die? Again?!
That was the breaking point.
Suddenly, Rory bursted into tears.
Much like Eskimos having fifty words for different types of snow, when you become a parent, you learn what each of the fifty types of different cries means.
This wasn’t an I’m-scared kind of cry that comes from the throat. It was the I’m-absolutely-devastated kind of cry. It’s a cry that comes, not from the throat, but from the bottom of the gut. Her entire little body convulsed with each sob before expelling giant crocodile tears.
Daddy — I don’t want Sparky to break again!!!
Did you get that? “To break again.” Oh, the imagery kids use.
She put her hands over her face and buried them in my chest. She was devastated.
In typical intermediate-level parent fashion, the first thing that struck me was how horrible of a father I am.
Ohhh, Rory, do you want me to turn it off?
I grabbed the remote to push the kill switch, but she seized my hand.
No! I want to see it.
She didn’t want to give up on Sparky… My motion to hit the emotional eject button was blocked.
We continued watching. She was on my lap now.
Sparky actually lives in that scene. But then, towards the end, he gets in another pickle fighting with a demonic bat-kitten in a burning windmill. He puts up a valiant fight, but eventually disappears amidst the flames.
When the smoke settles, a firefighter carries Sparky’s lifeless body out of the rubble. I saw Rory’s bottom lip flair out and eyes get a little glassy. But she fought them off just long enough to get to the part where the town folk literally jump start Sparky with jumper cables hooked up to their cars, resurrecting him again!
Towards the end of that movie, as has been happening consistently since she was born, I found myself spellbound by what that little girl showed me about what it means to be human.
I kept rewinding the tape in my head…
When she saw Sparky die, get resurrected, and then find himself in another pickle, she absolutely lost it. Seeing Sparky go through so much pain in such little time was devastating.
As she sobbed uncontrollably, I gave her the option to turn it off. And she insisted I not. What does that mean?
It means she was fully fine with her pain — as intense as it was. It was me, the adult in the room, who wanted away from it.
Which brings me to lesson #459 since becoming a father (that’s an approximate number — I’ve lost count, actually):
When you can be okay in your pain, you can weather the storm and be fulfilled in doing so.
Strong emotion, embodied and not shied away from, is a divine gift in the human journey. Right there, in the deepest valley of that little girl’s pain came a pivotal moment in her development. Would she be ushered away from this gift, or left free to dance with it?
The dad in me wanted to turn it off. It wanted to shelter her from it.
But she was fine with it. She wanted to see Sparky through. Being a new human, she hasn’t lost contact with the part of herself that knows that pain isn’t something to be avoided at all costs. It’s actually a beautiful thing to embrace.
And embrace it, she did. All the way through to the ending. Which was happy, after all.
Can we watch another Halloween movie, Dad?