As I begin this week’s column about my son who has autism, I find myself thinking about an Oscar-caliber film about a marooned man who was forced find a way to survive, alone, for years. It helps that the man was played by perhaps our most popular 44-year-old actor, you know? (I’m 44.)
No, not The Martian. I mean Cast Away. Nothing against Ridley Scott and Matt Damon’s latest, but I’ve always been fascinated by the man-volleyball relationship that the film explores. Why do some people need a little imaginary friend? What does that need say about us, and what does it say if we don’t have it?
Dar never seemed to care about stuffed animals. We filled his room with them, and he ignored them. Instead, he fingered objects that were hard and bendy, like action figures, but also like spoons and lego-hinges and tinkertoy-hinges. I’d like to tell you that he was thrilled when we bought him six-inch figures of Spider-Man and Captain America and Iron Man and Thor, but Dar succeeded where Doctor Doom failed, working and torturing these heroes so hard that the arms and legs came off, whereupon he abandoned them.
By the time we had child #2, wifey didn’t seem to think there was much point in making sure that the baby had a stuffie nearby in the crib, but I knew better. Sure enough, Dar’s brother, now almost 4 years old, is still dependent on his plushy Elmo and Zebra (from his beloved Aunt Maureen). Hasn’t impeded his development; he’s reading Dr. Seuss books like he’s a 2nd-grader.
And now, Dar has cottoned to his own icon of cotton. It’s possible that, as in other cases, he’s imitating his brother. But it’s also possible that he’s been influenced by his kindergarten class. Not the kids, but the “bear cave” full of stuffed bears that his teacher made into the class’s “break room” – Dar may have just learned another way to ask for a break. In any event, these days Dar is cuddling a standard-sized teddy bear and walking around the house saying “bea,” “bea,” “bea,” “bea.” Sounds like “bay” with a little less “a.” At first I was skeptical, and so I waited until he was onto something else, then asked him, “What is this?” while pointing to the bear. He knows it, for sure.
On the one hand, I’m excited that Dar can learn a new word and demonstrate it expressively and reflexively. On the other hand, what would you think of your 6-year-old if he was walking around the house holding a teddy bear saying “teddy bear,” “teddy bear,” “teddy bear,” “teddy bear”? Kind of puts to rest the idea that he’s mute like Holly Hunter in The Piano, but he’s secretly curing cancer back there? Or as I put it to Dar’s speech therapist today, “I’m not sure I want a child who” stims like that. Her deadpan response: “You didn’t get the child you wanted.” Okay, hearing that was about as fun as a fish coming out of a river to slap my face.
Maybe it’s the season of the bear. We do live in the home of the Cal Bears, but that’s neither here nor Bears. I can’t remember where I read it, but some bit of Native American folk wisdom holds that the bear exists to remind people that there are things they cannot control. Perhaps my children constantly asking for bear-shaped teddy grahams somehow didn’t register. Perhaps I needed to hear my out-of-anyone’s-control child say “bea,” “bea,” “bea,” “bea.”
Speaking of the Oscars, there’s a film that will be competing with The Martian for this year’s Best Picture prize called The Revenant – perhaps you’ve heard of it. Jonah Hill tried to make jokes about it at Sunday’s Golden Globes – and failed miserably. The scene where the bear attacks Leonardo DiCaprio has officially become the most talked-about onscreen moment of the Oscar race – with some ridiculous site (which gets millions of hits every day; I know it, but I’m not going to dignify it by naming it) claiming that DiCaprio was raped by the bear. Uh, the bear was CGI, guys. The bear was made up.
And yet, sometimes we need to believe things that aren’t true when we look at a relationship between a cute boy and an imaginary bear. I know I do.