I had long suspected that Chloe’s indirect exposure to death and tragedy over the years had left her bizarrely unaffected. Are most six-year olds this unfeeling when it comes to the notion of mortality or injury or separation – not knowing how to express sympathy, let alone empathy? Am I asking too much of her – is she simply too young to fully grasp such difficult concepts?
Chloe knows about my father, who died a year before she was born. In fact, she’s been a regular visitor to his grave, and often asks my mother and me about what he was like. Some of her friends have lost close relatives in the last couple of years and her great-grandmother has recently experienced an endless list of serious health problems.
The revelation happened a few weeks ago, and was totally unexpected. Chloe and I sat down to watch “A Little Princess,” a charming movie by Alfonso Cuaron (filmed long before his success as director of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkeban”). Based on a book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, it’s the story of a young British girl, Sara, who is sent to boarding school in New York City while her father fights during World War I. She enchants most of the girls at the school with her marvelous stories, but falls quickly from grace and into poverty after the headmistress is told that her father died in battle. The headmistress forces Sara into servitude, yet, despite her reversal of fortune, the little girl continues to delight the other children with her magical fairy tales. As it turns out, the father did not die, but is slowly recovering from a severe head injury that left him suffering from amnesia. Sara and her daddy are eventually reunited, and the evil headmistress gets her just deserts.
Now that I’ve sufficiently plugged the film, let me return to the point of my story. Chloe and I were greatly enjoying the movie together. The protagonist, Sara, is kind and smart, and the story was extremely engaging. Cue to the end of the film. Sara is inadvertently reunited with her father. Daddy, however, doesn’t immediately recognize his daughter, and she is crushed. She starts pleading with her father, begging him to remember, distraught that he is so physically close to her, yet so very far away.
I turned to look at Chloe during this scene, and tears were streaming down her beautiful face. She was crying in silence. When I asked her what was wrong, she couldn’t articulate it very well, and started to sob. There are two possible reasons for this reaction, I thought: (1) the acting was so manipulative that Chloe simply experienced her first tearjerker; (2) she was putting herself in the fictional girl’s shoes by imagining the sadness and despair she would feel if her father didn’t recognize her after a long absence. Of course, I prefer to latch onto the second explanation. I somewhat sheepishly admit, however, that knowing she’s not immune to a good weepy movie isn’t such a bad thing, either.
In any case, Chloe’s reaction was so endearing and so surprising that it caught me totally off-guard. But in those couple of minutes, my connection to her was as strong as it’s ever been. And I loved her more than ever.