Her Canvas, My Son
By Terry Cox-Joseph
His eyes, blue to ocean’s depth, stare from canvas, perfect brush strokes with perfect white highlights, perfect lashes, innocence, precocity. I wish I had painted that portrait.
The artist’s brushstrokes kiss the canvas the way I kiss my son’s forehead as he sleeps. She strokes the canvas the way I stroke his hair, caress his cheek.
My son is real. He is mine. He is flawed, something deep within his brain, axons miscommunicating, frontal lobes overworked, chemicals too high or too low. It has taken years for us to teach him not to hit when he’s mad, not to kick holes in the walls, not to spit. He has no buffer for impulse control, no “stop” button. We have hired tutors to teach him at home what he should have learned in school. Still, on many days, he comes home with a notebook blank as his stare.
Her canvas depicts a fantasy child. She gave away the real child, she told me once, sent him back to some institutional cement world. Who would hold him, I wondered? Who would caress his forehead? Who would love him? How could she do that?
As much as I have hated my son, I have loved him. From the moment I first saw him held in his birthmother’s arms, bundled in hospital green and white, a silly, warm, hand-knit cap pulled over his brow, I wanted him. The weight of him in my arms, the softness of his black hair, the tight grip of his fists that defined him. My husband, our daughter, and now, our son. Our family was complete.
The artist’s adopted son lit matches, dropped them on her carpet, lied, covered his lies with lies. Just like my son. He lit matches behind the couch, then dropped them on the wood floor in panic. He lit them in his room, too. Our therapist suggested sitting on the lawn with a bucketful of water and 1,000 matches and making our son light them until he was fed up with it. He only made it to 85 before my husband called it a day, satisfied that this was a lesson learned.
The other artist dismissed him after he rifled her purse for coins. My son went through my purse, too, when he was 14. I learned to hide my purse, even while I was sleeping. But he snuck behind my bed, behind the headboard. He stole my credit card. Stealth seemed wired into his movements. He bought online gaming points. Before that bill arrived, he slid the credit card from my purse not three feet away while I was sprinkling ginger on chicken stir fry. Amazing, his sleight of hand, sense of timing. He shocked us with his audacity, lack of boundaries, ability to thieve without remorse. Once the credit card was cancelled, he figured out how to use his cell phone to buy gaming points. I didn’t know you could do that.
If only he had directed this ingenuity toward school work.
When we disassembled the computer, he smashed two chairs and nearly shattered my eardrums. My heart had already been broken. Only the hope that this was an addiction held me to him. Surely, he hadn’t stolen out of malice. We could make it through this, too.
Her son lied to make her hate him, to prove he was unlovable, proved she couldn’t love him, proved he was a discard, proved he was right, couldn’t, shouldn’t love anyone because all people were liars, he was just one more liar, anyone who told you they loved you was a liar so why tell the truth to anyone? Lying is survival.
Clinically, it’s called Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). I call it mental illness and a bruised heart. I call it a process. I have no idea if my son has RAD. I think he’s got Asperger’s and a mood disorder, definitely anxiety issues that send him rocketing past the ozone layer if he senses too much emotional pressure, too much homework, too harsh lights, too much sound, too many transitions. How many times have I slammed on the brakes when he has kicked the back of my seat during a tantrum, cracked my favorite CDs, pulled my hair in the middle of an intersection? How many times have I wanted to open the car door and throw him out right there?
Black markers streak foul words across my son’s walls, X’d out sentences replaced with exclamation marks, wrestlers’ names, and football scores. They mar the pale blue clouds that I once papered his room with in the fantasy world I prepared. There are holes bashed into drywall that my husband I and deliberately never repaired to prove a point, if anyone remembers what the point was the day our son threw a toy truck through the wall. We never repaired the screen, either, the day he whaled a baseball through the inside of the window, shattered the glass into glittering reminders of chaos.
My canvas is never blank. It is never complete. My brushes harden in dried linseed oil and turpentine because I’m checking the toothpaste on my son’s toothbrush, making sure he’s reached those back molars instead of lying and smearing toothpaste on his front teeth with his finger and then reassuring me by exhaling in my face. I check to see if he has scrubbed his face, taken his medicine, sprayed bleach on the mattress to mask the odor of urine for the millionth time. I check his closet for the smell of urine, worried that he may have awakened in the middle of the night again and confused it with the bathroom.
I remind him to put sheets on the bed, turn out the light, and wonder if he’ll plead, “cuddle,” so I have an excuse to snuggle next to his warm back, rub his shoulders, rest my cheek against his neck as his breath keeps pace with the crickets chirping outside. Or if this time, he’ll inexplicably rage, kick me in the jaw as I bend down to kiss him, scream “GET OUT!”
He wonders why I haven’t painted him as much as I have painted his sister, who poses for the camera naturally, chooses perfect lighting that brightens her hair like spun gold, who tilts her shoulder just so, bends to pluck a daffodil, knowing that hers is a world of beauty and charm, and everyone in her orbit is captured by it. I tell him that he won’t sit still long enough to be photographed, won’t sit still to pose for the canvas, scowls when I suggest a pose. I don’t want to paint scowls. I tell him that he broke my last camera, stepped on my canvas in the back of the car, threw my paint across the room. He doesn’t understand the connection.
I have taken pictures of him climbing trees. Exploring the yard in his diapers. Climbing on all fours inside a fiberglass turtle at a children’s museum. I will save these for reference and paint these canvases when he’s grown, when he’s in school, when he’s got a girlfriend, when my paints are inventoried and fresh and my canvases are stacked neatly against the wall. I will paint him when he has grown into another world, the world of order and reason, and even if he hasn’t, the world that someday slots time into compartments, chunks of time that I can claim for my own. Because without this belief, without this goal, I cannot make it through the day. There must be a “someday.”
I will paint him with an overbaked smile, wearing a Hawaiian straw hat, face so close to the camera that he leaves nose prints. I will paint him with wild, loose strokes, shouting colors, globs of paint, because a calm, blue-eyed little boy, staring wistfully through a rain drenched window is not who he is, and I wouldn’t want to paint a stranger.
He is mine, and like an unfinished canvas, I will complete this task. Not all paintings are pure joy. Not all are effortless. I have problems with perspective, and occasionally stumble with foreshortening. But I can always come back to it with a fresh eye, a good night’s sleep and a full stomach.
Imagining my son in some faceless institution is too painful to bear. A hospital stay, yes. A special needs camp, absolutely. But to send him back, to open the fluffy New Parent Package with such desire and fervor and love, and then slam shut the lid and send him back is unfathomable. Therapists, teachers, parents, doctors are part of our team. My husband and I could not do it alone. My son cannot do it alone. But together, we can.
The other artist spews accusations with disgust, fires words like paint splatters: “He stole from my purse!” I asked her if she’d taken classes on adopting older children, if she’s heard of RAD.
“No. What difference would it make? I will not put up with that.”
I feel my heart snap shut on her, just as she closed hers toward her son. There is a finality, a certainty I feel, knowing that while being an artist defines me, I am not solely defined by it. It is one of many roles. I am more than that. I will not be satisfied with less. I will not turn my back on an unfinished canvas. I will study it, learn from it, correct it and in the end, I will take joy in it.
Some paintings are perfect. Some are hyper-realistic, traditional, each stroke so perfectly placed, so studied, so measured, it is like a photograph. The light falls perfectly, the angles are measured with precision. But some paintings are fraught with stress tempered by freedom, a tension of line, juxtaposition of secondary or tertiary color that otherwise would not have occurred in a traditional piece. That is where my artwork differs. My canvasses may never be as perfect as hers, but they will be painted from the heart, yanked from my soul, squeezed fresh from the tube and the palette with vigor and resolve. Where she craves perfection, I crave depth. If I have to, I will dig my fingernails into cadmium red, cobalt blue, viridian and sienna, and smear them where they need to go.
Let the artist keep her perfect portraits. Mine are messier. They are real.
Author’s Note: Raising my daughter was so easy. My son, however, is the proverbial square peg in a round hole, but with strapped on explosives. Writing and art are my outlets. “What do other mothers DO when they’re at the end of their ropes?” asked an artist friend. I don’t know. But my son is now 19 and no longer lives at home. Take a deep breath and enjoy.
Terry Cox-Joseph’s essays, articles and poetry have been published in Dog Fancy, Entrepreneur, and Virginia Builder, among others.
Art: Mary Ann Cooper