Grafitti is a bad thing…Right?
Then why does it ache as it fades?
(I wish it would never go away…)
Halloween was two weeks before Adam died. Johnny and some friends had party plans the weekend before, which (of course) entailed bloody costumes and (of course) spray paint. I don’t know what it is with the Xy chromosome and spray paint and graffiti, but my boys have always had affinities for both. I can recall a prolonged period when the youngest (it was either Jude or Adam) were little enough to still have a limited vocabulary, yet a common excited scream in the car being, “Look Mom! Graffiti!!” Years before a regional “artist” had left a signature watermelon slice all over Westchester, and at the time, JohnPaul had been obsessed by the sightings. For Johnny and the watermelons, I think it was the combination of difficult to get to locations and the creativity. He’s always had an eye and appreciation for design and is physically daring. He’s gone through phases in both clothing and residential design, likes to draw, can actually sew, works with architecture software, does backflips when he cliff dives, and once climbed out a third story window during a nor’easter. For Jude or Adam (it would be the same for either) the two or three-year-old fascination was likely an admiration for the nerve and rebelliousness it takes to spray-paint on public property.
This particular Saturday before Halloween, Johnny had three or four friends over with old clothes and a can of red spray paint. A recipe for disaster, yes, and it probably crossed my mind. Sometimes though, especially on a Saturday after my week at work and running a house of eight, ready for a break myself, I’d be prone to mother in a ‘path of least resistance’ style. This particular Saturday afternoon that path was not a trip to the garage with the appropriate command, “Boys! No!” but a pop out to meet a friend for lunch and afternoon drinks. Their creativity progressed undisturbed.
The Monday morning after was actually Halloween, but the weekend’s paint and parties were over. Adam took an early morning lifeguarding class at school, and I drove him those mornings on my way to work. I have a habit of always beating my kids to the car. Go figure. I am a bit type A with time, with an internal clock that runs three minutes early. Contrasted by my teenage boys’ clocks that run behind, or are just broken, I found myself that Monday sitting in the front seat waiting for Adam. I was startled as I got in and turned on the car by loud, blaring, abrasive, explicit rap music, owing to the different tastes and volume levels my boys enjoyed when they borrowed my car and disconnected my phone to play theirs. I turned it all off, reconnected my phone to the car electronic system, and, with everything back in order, took a deep relaxing breath, leaving behind all of the associated chaos of an early Monday morning departure. I was just looking out the front window as Adam got into the car, but instead of being welcomed by Mom Zen, he was greeted with my instinctually blurted out, “WTF!” (spelled out).
There is a sizable boulder at the end of our driveway, large enough that you can’t move it. It’s a big smooth rock, offering a natural complement to a grass and firepit area surrounded by untamed forsythia bushes, right when you pull in our driveway. It’s a lovely setting, a first welcoming introduction to our home and pleasant family life there. There on the rock, in red spray paint, in a horrible wild and messy graffiti-like font (if you can refer to such gross defacement by a ten-year-old with spray paint in standard terms like “font”) it said, “JUDE.”
Adam, alarmed by my outburst, asked me what was wrong.
I screamed, “Look!!!!” and motioned to it.
Unfazed, he calmly responded, “Mom, jeeeeeze, relax! Washable paint.”
“Oh my God, really??” I had never heard of washable paint, but it made more sense now, seeing how the boys had so liberally used it on their clothes and each other.
“Yes! Maaaan! You need to relax!”
“Oh, phew. Thank God!” We drove to school calmly, and I went on with my day. Washable paint. Adam was right. I needed to chill. Why did I let myself get worked up so easily? Washable paint.
I never noticed the “JUDE” in blood-like red spray paint graffiti on that large rock at the end of my driveway as I pulled in each day over the next several weeks. Since it would go away, it was already off my mind. Of course, something a lot worse than graffiti-stupidity would soon transpire. Two weeks later, Adam was dead, and in our first moments back home from the hospital after leaving him, people began showing up. JohnPaul’s spray paint buddies were the first ones. I remember walking into Johnny’s room that following morning to check on him, seeing them there all asleep on the floor, those same stupid boys. Those same beautiful, loyal, brave, dumb boys.
It wasn’t until a few weeks after Adam died that I found myself in the car one morning, on my way to work, looking out at the rock.
“JUDE” Right there, as bright and ugly as that first Monday morning. … But it had certainly rained since then … Washable paint…
Have you ever heard of washable paint? Google it. It actually does exist. You’ll find images of plastic bottles labeled “Crayola” that look suitable for art or kindergarten classrooms. It does not come in acrylic or oil-based formulas, or spray paint cans. Washable paint. He was full of sh–. Adam always hated seeing me tense. All my boys do. They will all tell me whatever they think I need to hear rather than the truth if it is upsetting, and it annoys me immensely. But now I was laughing out loud. I felt his laughter and his love right there in that moment, and I even understood the quiet humble love of that chaotic Monday morning in his relaxed, instinctual, “washable paint” response.
Some of the signs that Adam has sent me since his death have to do with a loneliness I’ve endured over these last trying years. They’ve included a “someone, someday” and have come through in my most forsaken and despondent moments.
In one instance, I was asleep in the cottage out in Westhampton. I had fallen asleep just 40 or so minutes earlier, and I was woken by his voice. It was in my head and not out loud, but it was distinct, almost palpable (or whatever is the same for noise). After, I remembered the sound of his voice and his words. He shared details about a person who would eventually be there for me, and ended with, “but you’ll just have to wait.” It made sense, Doug is still alive, even if he’s mostly gone mentally and physically. I’ll finish it out like people who promise their lives to each other do. In that lonely moment Adam reassured me that it would all be ok. I was comforted, hopeful, and less lonely, even as my actual situation, levels of responsibility, and solitary sadness remained unchanged.
Another time, I was alone in the dining room doing paperwork, feeling overwhelmed by insurance refusals, bills, and complex stuff that I needed to figure out (in addition to the laundry, tidying, meals, and that whole job thing). This particular day it all felt crushing. I was losing hope that I could handle it all. Doug was never coming home. I wished I had a partner to carry some of the pain, shoulder some of the responsibility, or just hold me. Once again, I felt so alone and my eyes filled with tears. I moaned, sobbed, then screamed out in despair. And suddenly, the wood plaque on the kitchen shelf, the same one from my dream, just fell off the shelf spontaneously.
“Not to spoil the ending, but everything is going to be ok.”
There were no windows open, no breeze. Unprompted, it just fell over off the shelf to the floor, crashing loudly, startling me and redirecting my self-pity to action. I jumped to get it and make sure it was okay. (That plaque is so important to me now, with its words and the associated dreams and stories.) It wasn’t broken. It was totally fine, and I felt Adam’s chuckle, and even felt him say, “Mom, really, RELAX?! What have I told you?” And, distracted from my angst and sadness, I chuckled too, and put it back on the shelf. It had never fallen unprompted before and hasn’t since. I went back to the bills, comforted, less alone.
These signs came deliberately, so overtly, that I never questioned his presence in them. I was distracted from the sadness each time, and I still hang onto them to carry me through dark periods. In those horrible desolate moments, he’s comforted, calmed, and fortified my strength with a reassurance that it’s all going to be ok, that I won’t always be – that I’m not – alone. Whether his bold assurances about someone in my future are true or not doesn’t even matter. It did the trick in the moment and got me through. And now I’ve discovered a peace and joy within my own self that I never experienced before. So, I’m not really lonely anymore anyway.
Were his messages and signs just more “washable paint?” Distractions to carry me through, white lies or a game of semantics? “I said ‘lonely’ not ‘alone’, mom.”… It really doesn’t matter I guess now; it worked its purpose. And, if so, thank you, Adam … I guess … It’s reassuring, somehow, to know death has not changed anything. …
“Mom! Why you so tight?!… everything is going to be ok, I promise!”
And he’s right.