Our son Frankie rarely seems to acknowledge the intense emotional dramas that sometime swirl around him. He does generally recognize that something is going on. But like Max, who witnesses both a big family fight and a big family wedding in this episode, he treats the event more like a television show or movie he has watched and not as an event with intense emotions and possible serious interpersonal consequences. It's difficult for him to grasp the emotions someone else is feeling. He just sees "the facts."
My mother was recently diagnosed with dementia. She has spent time with us and we've all had a great time, but it's clear she is losing her ability to remember things and to do the things that she has always done. She's not the self-possessed, very competent person she has always been. This has been difficult for all of us, including her. Our typical son, McCrae, worries for his grandmother and grandfather. He worries about his changing relationship with his grandmother, who has always been his favorite confidante and co-conspirator.
Frankie has noticed the changes, too, but he hasn't understood the emotions behind what her dementia diagnosis might mean for her or the family. He knows that she's not the same. But for him, her behavior and difficulties are simply there. They are "troubles" in the same way that he has "troubles." He is very matter-of-fact about her struggles, and he simply does what he can to help her. He has stated on more than one occasion, "I will take care of Grandma," meaning he will watch her and make sure she doesn't turn on the stove or wander out of the house. He will do whatever needs to be done, practically speaking, that he can do himself. He isn't encumbered by the emotions.
Other examples of how he handles intense emotions include how he handles death. A very good friend of the family, Robin, passed away not too long ago. Frankie had particularly enjoyed being around him. When Frankie heard that Robin died, he simply said, "Robin died. He was a good friend." He then asked, "Why did he die?" We explained it the best we knew how. All Frankie said was, "I will miss him."
In some ways, I envy Frankie's ability to disengage from the emotional components of such difficult situations. I believe this has helped him to persevere in situations in which I would have given up. Not always reading the emotional contexts and nuances of everything has allowed him the courage to be himself.
I wish I could be as courageous. This past year, Frankie has begun playing football at our local public high school. He needs lots of assistance, but he tries and tries and never notices the odd looks he gets at times from other players or coaches or fans. He's out there to play, and for the thrill of the game. For these attributes, he has been praised by his coach and has gained the admiration of many of his peers.
Similarly, for Max in this episode, it really isn't about who's right or wrong. He isn't overwhelmed by the emotions of the situation. He simply sees the situation as a fight that his dad was or wasn't winning. There are lessons there for all of us to learn about not taking our own or other's emotional difficulties too seriously. I know for me that Frankie's and Max's very no-nonsense takes on the world make a lot of sense some days!
Written by: Roy Q. Sanders, M.D.