Disney-Pixar’s “Finding Dory” hits theaters this weekend, which gives me an excuse to write anew about its predecessor: “Finding Nemo,” the greatest Father’s Day movie of all time.
My daughter was quickly closing in on 3 years old when “Nemo” came out on DVD in November 2003. Over the next few years – by rough estimates – I saw either parts or all of that movie 792 times.
And anytime I wound up catching the ending, I’d also catch myself with a lump in my throat.
You probably know the scene: Worry-wart clownfish Marlin (voiced by comedian Albert Brooks, who probably deserved an Oscar nomination) has just watched his son Nemo successfully help a school of fish free themselves from a fishing net, but the kid’s been knocked unconscious in the escape and is lying at the bottom of the ocean.
Marlin panics – as usual – and rushes to his side.
“Nemo? … Nemo?” his voice is soft, cracking, fearful.
He briefly flashes back to the film’s opening, when he gently cradled his still-in-the-egg son, the only family member to survive a barracuda attack.
Then father comforts child: “It’s OK. Daddy’s here. Daddy’s got you.”
This is usually the point at which my daughter would look up from the mess she’d made of her applesauce and beg me to run it back to the part where Dory pronounces the word “escape” as “ess-CAH-payyyyyy.” To which I’d reply, “Hang on, sweetheart – Daddy’s got something stuck in his eye … ”
The overarching message of this movie is pretty simple and straightforward: Be prepared to do anything for your child, but know when you’re holding them back.
But that one scene, for me, has always captured the essence of what it feels like to be a parent: No matter how old your child gets, no matter how independent they want to be from us, our natural instinct is to be there to comfort them when they’re in need of comfort.
Anyway, as time passed, “Finding Nemo” found its way into our DVD player less and less often, yielding first to “Shrek” and “Harry Potter,” then to “The Twilight Saga” and “The Hunger Games.”
She’s 15 now, into horror movies and hip-hop and Snapchat and makeup and designer coffee. She has a debit card and her learner’s permit. She’s starting to think about college, and she’s happy to help out with the cooking and cleaning. (OK, that last part is a lie; but … we’re working on it.)
Bottom line, she doesn’t seem like a little kid anymore.
Except for when she does.
She’s a pretty happy teenager, but not too long ago, I found myself trying to console her at a time when she was feeling unusually distraught. Though the girl hasn’t touched a stuffed animal in years, and neither have I, something compelled me to go fetch a couple out of our guest-room closet.
I offered them to her, and said – I’m paraphrasing here, but – It’s OK. Daddy’s here. Daddy’s got you.
Then I briefly flashed back to that time she survived a barracuda attack. Kidding! (Sorry, just trying not to drown in the sentimentality here …)
But honestly: In that moment, I couldn’t help but well up with nostalgia, for the days when she was small enough to fit in my arms, for those times when her father’s embrace and a teddy bear could instantly solve every problem in her world.
So when she took the stuffed animals from me and held them tightly – as a makeup-wearing, designer-coffee-drinking 15-year-old – a lump formed in my throat, and something got stuck in my eye.
And that, to me, is the essence of what it feels like to be a dad.
Happy Father’s Day.