Movies A child's light brown hands hover over a LEGO model of the Titanic

Published on July 7th, 2022 | by Cheryl Klein

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Iceberg, Right Ahead and Right Behind

Sometime between the Delta wave of the pandemic and our fourth failed attempt to adopt a baby, my son fell in love with Titanic. 

Dash, age seven, watched a LEGO version of the movie first. LEGO remakes are a kind of gateway drug: all the adventure with the realism extracted. Deadly waves are made of blue plastic discs. He made a joke about the sinking ship, and C.C., my partner, admonished him: It was a real event; real people died. To drive her point home, she showed him the 1997 movie with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Which is, you know, also not real.

Not every parent would make that call, but she grew up with a full cable package and very little parental supervision in the media department. Watching anything and everything shaped her into a person who relates to the world through story, not unlike me, who was only allowed to watch PBS. Our study of two is proof to me that parenting is 72% arbitrary.

Soon, Dash was hooked on Titanic. Over and over, I heard the creak and moan of iceberg on hull in our living room. After the first viewing, he fast-forwarded through the flirtation and class warfare and the Billy Zane parts. He loved the collision. He loved the frenzied spinning of the wooden helm, the initial elation when everyone thinks they’ve escaped disaster, and a gaggle of young guys plays soccer with chunks of ice sliding across the deck.

He loved the part where it becomes clear they haven’t escaped disaster after all: the water gushing through busted steel plates, boatmen narrowly shimmying through hatches as doors seal behind them, Rose punching a man who stands between her and Jack, who is handcuffed in boat jail for allegedly stealing her Heart of the Ocean necklace. 

Black and white photo of people crowded into a lifeboat, oars extended into lightly choppy water
Wikimedia

Over and over, we watched the broken ship, symbol of Industrial Era hubris, crack and tilt toward the starry sky. The mother who puts her children to bed knowing they won’t wake up. The mother who assures her child that they’ll be able to board the lifeboats very soon, right after the first-class passengers. 

How many kids died? Dash wanted to know.

About five, C.C. said very solemnly. 

In fact it was 53, 52 of whom were traveling in steerage. How do you ease your child into reality? Do you wade in, one downplayed tragedy at a time?

How cold was the water? Dash wanted to know. 

We talked about arctic seas and hypothermia. At our local ice cream shop, he touched the chilled glass case. Cold, he declared, but probably not as cold as Titanic water. 

At home, he donned the airplane pilot hat from his preschool Halloween costume and turned a couch pillow into a wheel. He stood at the window, steering as fast as he could, gazing through the bushes in our yard into an imagined ocean.

Grinning 7-year-old boy with brown hair and light brown skin, wearing a pajama shirt with a seersucker blazer

His first grade class had a Dress As What You Want To Be When You Grow Up Day. Amid firefighters and doctors and at least one superhero, there was my kid, in the pilot hat and a seersucker blazer, as the captain of the Titanic. #LifeGoals, amirite?

Over the course of the day, he hedged his aspiration. He wasn’t the Titanic captain per se, just a ship captain, he announced. His ship would have lifeboats for everyone, and impenetrable siding. He would use sonar to avoid icebergs. We had assured him, several times, that modern ships use sonar to avoid icebergs. 

It can’t happen now. It can’t happen to us. That was our message.

Things that have happened in his lifetime: a global pandemic, the caging of immigrant children, the slaughter of 19 children in their third grade classroom, a war in Ukraine, and, closer to home, the death of his great aunt, the death of two cats, the disappearance from his life of his birth mother, and the ghostly loss of four babies who might have been siblings, but weren’t. 

I want to be careful not to project my own feelings about all of the above onto him. He only met his great aunt once. He sometimes says, of our two living cats, “When they die, can we get a bunny?” But of course he feels my feelings, which tend to run too big, too high, too tearful, even when I try to keep an even keel in front of him. He has to wonder: What if he could right the ship? 

I think about all the babies we didn’t adopt and think, What if failure was more acceptable? I’m accepting it because I have to, paddling my lifeboat (and thankfully I have one) as fast as I can away from the wreck of our attempt to grow our family. What if I didn’t feel like a fool and a loser, but instead took a stance of, Hell yes, I captained the Titanic. 

Dash also took an interest in Mt. Everest, though he only made it through a few windy, shivering scenes of the 2015 Jake Gyllenhaal movie, Everest. It was slow and sad, and he self-censored. He has a sense of what he can handle and not. I admire this about him. 

A 7-year-old boy with shaggy dark brown hair and light brown skin points to a treed vista

Still, he used the mountain as a measuring stick for his own world. The steep hill around the corner from us, which we trek on our way to the Gold Line station: not as high as Mt. Everest, right? He did not want to climb Mt. Everest, he declared, but he would like to climb the San Gabriel Mountains that surround Los Angeles someday. Depending where we stood, he thought they looked easy, or daunting. 

He considered the risks. He made his calculations. He played it safe, but not too safe. Just like we did with every attempted adoption: What was the likelihood the mother would change her mind? How much would it cost? 

After the year we had, I have a sense of tragedy narrowly averted. That may not make sense to anyone outside my own head. Since all of the adoptions failed, and we’re not pursuing it anymore, couldn’t you say that the tragedy happened? Or, conversely, couldn’t you say that no one died, and several mothers are happily raising their biological children, so no real loss has occurred? But C.C. and Dash and I have been swimming in turbulent waters, reacting to each situation and its fallout, bouncing off each other’s feelings, trying to keep the rest of our lives afloat. So far, we’ve survived.

Now I feel like I’m climbing out of the water, drenched, catching my breath and appreciating the feeling of solid ground beneath my feet. Grateful and traumatized.

At some point, while we were on the topic of shipwrecks, I told Dash a family story: The paternal grandmother I never met, his great-grandmother, was a young child during World War I, when her parents decided to move from a London suburb to Southern California. They were going to set sail for the U.S. on the RMS Lusitania, which, like the Titanic later, held the title of world’s biggest passenger ship for a time. But they heard rumors that German U-boats had been spotted in the area and decided to hold off. 

Black and white photo of a large ship in the distance. Handwritten caption says "S.S. Lusitania."
Wikimedia

On May 7, 1915, a U-boat sunk the ship off the coast of Ireland, killing 1,198 passengers and crew. 

My grandmother and her parents came later, on a ship no one can name, and rode out that war and the next one in sunny Redondo Beach.

Dash has asked me to tell the story several times. I say “your great-grandmother” and “your ancestor” with confidence, but sometimes I wonder to what extent these dead English people are his family—this adopted child who shares more genetics with the Native Americans he also asks about frequently. Of course, they are all his ancestors. Horrific loss and random luck thread us all, the latter-generation survivors of war and genocide, together. 

When Dash puts on Titanic, he often starts in the spot where Rose tells Jack she’s getting off the ship with him. 

“This is crazy,” he says. 

She smiles, having let herself imagine freedom for the first time. “I know. It doesn’t make any sense. That’s why I trust it.”

When Dash steers his imaginary ship through inky waters and deadly obstacles, he is processing loss and playing at the control none of us have. Yes. All those developmental, human things. But I think it’s more than that. It’s the thing that makes people want to climb a mountain or adopt a child in the first place—a sense of the sublime, that place where awe and magic and terror meet. It’s a way to tap into the bigness of the world. It doesn’t make any sense. That’s why I trust it. Or at least I’m trying.

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About the Author

Cheryl Klein’s column, “Hold it Lightly,” appears monthly(ish) in MUTHA. She is the author of Crybaby (out in 2022 from Brown Paper Press), a memoir about wanting a baby and getting cancer instead. She also wrote a story collection, The Commuters (City Works Press) and a novel, Lilac Mines (Manic D Press). Her stories and essays have appeared in Blunderbuss, The Normal School, Razorcake, Literary Mama, and several anthologies. Her work has been honored by the MacDowell Colony and the Center for Cultural Innovation. She blogs about the intersection of art, life and carbohydrates at breadandbread.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter: @cherylekleinla.



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