On fairy tales

When I was a child, I had an insatiable appetite for fairy tales. Rumpelstiltskin, Jack and the Beanstalk, the Elves and the Shoemaker, Three Billy Goats Gruff. I mean, their fantastical aspects aside, fairy tales are a lot like life: an unprepared person enters a chaotic, upside-down world, and tries to survive. Resourcefulness is necessary, perhaps even treachery and guile.

As a child, I knew that topsy-turvy world always simmered beneath the surface, the place where witches roamed and nameless dreadful torments might ambush any defenseless human. My parents were obsessed with the appearance of things but I knew that this surface they set so much store by was not reality. Fairy tales validated me and gave me hope; they made me look upon my life as an adventurous quest with freedom at the end of it and not a hopeless toil down a dimly lit hallway toward some pointless end.  

In fairy tales, the sidekicks are more often than not of questionable virtue and morality; they are often tricksters who help the worthy—but beware if you fail to keep to the letter of the bargain.

When my daughter was born with multiple disabilities, that was another topsy-turvy world of fairy tale. I was familiar with the emotional chaos but it was the first time I was ever able to do anything about it.

In times of uncertainty and stress, people like to quote Mister Rogers: “Look for the helpers,” they say and that’s great advice if you’re six years old. But say you’re not, say you’re twenty-three or fifty-five. Your job is to be the helper.

As much as I wished it were different, it was my daughter’s job to go on this quest, not mine. She was the one who would have dare the dragons and come of age; it was my fate to be the sidekick.

I am and have been a trickster figure in my daughter’s life. I love and adore her and would do anything for her, but I am also the one who held her down while the doctors performed their brutal if necessary cruelties to her. She loves me but is suspicious of me; when she makes a promise to me, she hems it in with conditions and if-then clauses, a little like I possess otherworldly powers that must be reined in.

It was fairy tales that assured me that life is not pretty and nor should it be; what kind of fool would think it might be otherwise? It requires resourcefulness and perhaps a little treachery and guile.

When I say our lives are like a fairy tale, I mean this part, the part with ogres and trolls and secret passwords that you have to bleed to obtain.

There is the other part, too, the happily-ever-after, which unlike the fairy tales we are learning to have right in the middle of the spooky forest, just around the corner from the gingerbread house.