“Let Your Freak Flag Fly”

I never really enjoyed animated movies.  I watched them with my children but I rarely paid much attention.  Every once in a while they would have a good message such as good triumphs over evil or love conquers all.  In quite a number of these movies, however, the mother is often killed in the first 10 minutes or there is some other awful tragedy that the protagonist has to overcome. The final message is usually that life goes on and that you are stronger than you think which always seemed obvious to me but now I think I actually know what they mean.

The movie Shrek is no different.  I know it was a huge hit and got rave reviews but neither of my boys had much interest in it.  We saw it of course but I never really got the message.  The movie premiered long before Sydney was born when I had a different perspective about a lot of things, including appreciating differences in people.  So when my husband said he bought tickets to see Shrek on Broadway I wouldn’t exactly say I was all that excited about it.

We went to see it in the spring of 2009, which was a few years after Sydney had been diagnosed.  I was now intimately familiar with feeling “special” and “different”, but more importantly with the feeling of being excluded.  My perspective on life had changed dramatically since Shrek was in the theaters.   I was now more than aware of the unique needs of many individuals and the profound challenges that they and their families faced.  I was also acutely aware of the painful feeling of not fitting into a mainstream lifestyle.   That being said I never imagined that I would be moved to not only tears but to the ability to embrace the word “special”.

As most of you know, and I learned that day, Shrek is about celebrating differences.  Shrek is a horrible looking individual who hides out in a cave because everyone is repulsed by his appearance.  No one ever stopped to look past his exterior and appreciate his huge heart.  In the musical,  Shrek lives with many other outcasts in the enchanted garden where they all accept each other’s “uniqueness”

As the show began I could feel this powerful message in each and every one of the numbers, but the one song that resonated with me the most was called “let your freak flag fly”.  It was an inspirational and moving piece about how you should be proud of your differences and not be afraid to hide them.  Quite frankly the message was, don’t be ashamed of who you are and in fact let the world know by waving your “Freak Flag”.

Thankfully the theater was dark because the tears came pouring down my face. At that moment I had an overwhelming urge to stop hiding behind the façade of normalcy and bravely and proudly let my freak flag fly!!

As the days, weeks, and months passed after seeing the show, my enthusiasm and confidence to let my flag fly began to dissipate.  My desire to be a “normal” family slowly crept back and I buried my freak flag in the back of my closet.

The other day I was in the car with my boys and the topic of Sydney and her special need came up.  This has happened periodically since her diagnosis, but this particular conversation was quite powerful and emotional.  It was sparked by the tantrum that Sydney had in front of Ben and Cole’s friends.  Apparently their friends had numerous questions about why Sydney hits herself and throws things when she gets upset.  They also wanted to know why her speech was so difficult to understand.  All very reasonable questions considering Sydney is 5 years old yet behaving as if she were 2 years old.

Ben and Cole began to express many of their feelings about living with Sydney and the grief, disappointment, and stress that they feel.  They struggled with their mixed emotions about it.  On one hand they love her but on the other hand they resent the accommodations they are forced to make due to her limitations.  They shared that they find her embarrassing at times and are uncomfortable with the questions that their friends ask regarding what is wrong with her.  They expressed how much they wished we could do things as a family.  Due to Sydney’s limitations, managing chaos and transitions, we tend to have to split up and go our separate ways.  Lastly they shared their concerns for her future.  They questioned if her frequent behavioral and emotional outbursts would make it difficult for her to be happy and have friends.

We talked for over an hour about Sydney and all of her strengths and weaknesses.  I was honest with them that having Sydney in our lives does make us different and that we may not always be able to do all the things that other families do.  However, I shared being different isn’t necessarily a bad thing.   That since having Sydney we have all learned patience, empathy, appreciation, and acceptance.  Clearly tough concepts for any 8 and 9 year old to comprehend, but it was a good beginning.

That conversation brought me back to the musical Shrek and the powerful message I learned that day.  After the boys went to bed that night I went into my closet and pulled out my Freak Flag.  I let it fly high that night and felt proud doing it.  It is clear that my family is different than other families and we periodically struggle with trying to fit in.  Hopefully in time Ben and Cole will be comfortable flying their freak flag and will soon appreciate like I did that what makes us truly special is our differences and the life changing lessons that we learn from them.