I have a moody sea anemone in my kitchen, Gustav the Eighth. I also have Espen, a moody eight-year-old (though he is many other things), who is sometimes in my kitchen, too. Gustav shares the tank with two clown fish, a yellow angelfish, and two tyrannical blue damsels. Espen shares a tank – metaphorically – with a sister and brother, both of whom navigate the world with more ease and flexibility than he does. Espen requires more from me. More maintenance, more brainpower, more yoga (that I don’t do yet).
When my husband first talked about getting the anemone after a few years’ break from a salt-water tank, I tried to convince him that our tank would be complete without one, that we have enough unpredictability in our lives. In case you are not familiar with tank-bred anemones, they tend to lead short lives of misery, and it’s painful for me to watch. They don’t do anything except get cranky and act suicidal, which means that they go from looking like a bunch of swaying, puffy green worms, to resembling a pile of rotting green grits. Anemones don’t have eyes, just tentacles and a vagina-like mouth, through which they will sometimes take the shrimp that my husband carefully lowers down between his tongs.
My husband is amazingly Zen and optimistically delusional about the drama involved in keeping these creatures. Though his efforts have failed many times before, he seems to believe that he can figure out precisely what will make an anemone live as it’s meant to in its natural environment. If he tweaks and tinkers just enough, he will miraculously preserve its symbiotic relationship with the clowns in the tank. Sometimes I want to say, “Snap out of it. Don’t you get it? Don’t you see by now that you have no control here? You cannot replicate the ocean. Why would you want to keep trying?”
This is the eighth anemone my husband has brought into my life in our 16 years of marriage, and I haven’t always coped well with the ever-changing states of the poor beasts. The last one, Gustav the Seventh, seemed to be doing great. So great that it even split into two, which, according to my husband can be a really good sign. I was not fooled. They both died two weeks later, this time looking less like a pile of grits than like two mutant versions of my three-year-old’s boogers sitting on a rock, with the clown fish orphaned again, swimming around the dead Gustavs aimlessly. The time before that, the power went out, leaving Gustav the Sixth without enough oxygen, even though my husband spent hours performing some sort of life-saving measure that I can’t describe. That Gustav went off to anemone heaven a few days later.
Back in the old days, I would pass the tank and get annoyed when the anemone’s tentacles were green and shriveled up, due to some environmental issue we were not able to figure out, much less fix. Sometimes I even talked to them. “Come on. Get a grip. Is your life really that hard? Can’t you just be happy where you are? I mean, you have two servant clown fish rubbing their bodies all over you, fighting for space in you, chasing the blue tyrannical fish. You have a stubborn man feeding you real fish. Show a little gratitude.” But now I’m an old pro at dealing with the bouts of melancholy, and I rarely talk to them. I ignore the anemones when they are shriveled, expect their imminent demise, and admire them when they are beautifully wormy and swaying again. If there’s an again.
Recently, as I was standing in front of the shoe rack at his school, it occurred to me again that Espen is a bit like our anemones. Some mornings he wakes up looking as though he’s already endured a lifetime of hardship. He comes downstairs, and I can see that it’s a shriveled-up day, and I have no idea why. Sometimes I chalk it up to Asperger’s torment. But I know that some people are born with anemone-like souls. For them, environmental changes, dreams, having to wear pants or a collared shirt, can be enough to throw them into a pit of despair. Mostly, these fluctuations are a mystery to me, but like my attitude toward the Gustavs in my life, I have gotten better at coping with the rollercoaster ride. I know I shouldn’t get on that rollercoaster with Espen, or get unsettled when I see his green tentacles, or demand that he snap out of it. But I can’t help wanting my son to be seen in his full glory, for him to be open more often, rather than inward and brooding.
That day at school, I watched Espen huff and puff, and pace and stall. Mini explosions seemed to be going off in his head at the prospect of walking into his classroom, where two lovely teachers would greet him. Suddenly, I found myself talking about the anemone. The words came out of me so easily.
I held my arm around his shoulders and spoke softly, “Do you like the anemone when it’s all green and shriveled up, or when his legs are all flowy and puffy?”
“Flowy and puffy,” Espen said quietly.
I continued, “Do you think the clown fish are more likely to give him shrimp (our clown fish don’t actually share their food, so the truer wording would have been rub up against him, but you can’t say that outside a second grade classroom) if he’s all open and beautiful, or pukey green and shriveled up?”
“Open and beautiful,” Espen said, beginning to inch away from me. He didn’t look less tortured as he walked away, but he did walk away, in a straight line, to his classroom. “Choose to be the beautiful anemone!” I called after him. He looked back with a slight smile, indicating that he was at least amused by me. That was enough for me to walk to my car, believing that I had prevented a crisis that day.
On other days, I walk away from school drop-off or a social engagement, feeling as though I might be the cause of Espen’s slow demise into a world of depression and anxiety, that because of me, he’ll never return to life again. On those days, I feel that his well-being lies squarely on my shoulders, that his very survival long-term depends on my ability to say and do the right things.
If Espen is the anemone, who am I? The clown fish, swimming around looking helpful, but never actually feeding the poor anemone, just staying busy by doing all the wrong things? Am I the water, the airflow, the food? Am I the caretaker of the tank, stubbornly working to maintain a proper, sustainable environment? What if my efforts are in vain? What if my boy withers into a life of bare survival, despite all the ways I have tweaked his environment, researched, switched schools, made lists of target behaviors and emotions? Despite the friendships I’ve orchestrated, the love I give, my apologies for losing my patience, for shaking his shoulders when he was five and asking him why he had to be such a freak? Maybe all parents share this gut fear? That it’s in our power to decide whether our kids choose life, or not.
Last night at dinner, my daughter announced that the anemone was about to die. As if he’d been preparing his speech all day, my husband quickly defended Gustav. “No, he’s fine. It’s just his cycle. He’s busy absorbing everything, and then he’ll puff back up. It takes time. We just have to be patient and respect the cycle.”
I took the next bite, secretly rolling my eyes, aware that after seven dead anemones, this one may very well die, too, whether we “respect the cycle” or not. He may not cycle out of his shriveled, busy absorbing mode. The absorbing mode may one day be too much, and he’ll shrivel up; his large foot will loosen the grip that anchors him to the rock and he will float to the top of the tank.
Espen isn’t as fragile as the anemone, but he is on a more difficult journey than some kids. Like the anemone, he sometimes takes in too much sensory information to handle. He retreats, protects, processes. And during those times, I want to panic less. I want to be less angry. I don’t want to look in his tank with a furrowed brow, wondering why he can’t snap out of it, why he has to be so difficult, so moody, so sensitive. When I stand at the tank of my son’s life, I want to be more like my husband with the anemones, peering in with full admiration and patience, trusting that the environment he has created is good, that showing up day after day with his offering of care will be enough.