The Unfinished Painting

by Victoria Alford

A large expanse of canvas glares at me as I walk into my art studio every day. There is the outline of a grotesque face in black on the stark, white background. I wish I knew what my son was thinking when he drew this garish thing. I know part of the reason was for shock value. Gabriel did everything with gusto and bravado and he was a master. He was always in your face with his laugh and his quick wit and when he shot back with some hilarious response to something I said, there were a few times I almost wet my pants. I notice the bold statement this picture will make: how fitting for his style. He came into this world kicking and screaming and maintained a more subtle grasp of attention getting behavior throughout his life. He was such a gregarious child and he became a well-loved friend and companion to many as he grew into adulthood. I do have the finished rendition of this masterpiece he had planned. It is much smaller, but vividly colored inside his sketchbook on page five. I have stared and stared at it for months now, afraid to begin the task before me to complete the last artistic endeavor he began, but was unable to finish. You see, Gabriel died. His final work of art haunts me so that I feel compelled to complete it. The desire to make this dream a reality drives me, but I am afraid if I start working on it, I will ruin it. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Do something everyday that scares you.” This is the scare of a lifetime. Will he be able to see me painting and wish he could wrench the brush from my hand? He was only twenty-four years old and so impetuous. I want to bring life into this picture to replace a life lost. It needs the color he would have used. I need the color he brought to my life. Will he be with me and guide my hand as each brushstroke is placed, or will I feel his spirit fading as his last mark on earth is finished?

I want to remember every detail from beginning to end, of the birth and growth of my son. It is funny how you can remember snippets of occasions or dialogue or facial expressions, but the bigger picture seems to totter on the edge of your memory, falling in the opposite direction as you reach out to grab it. When Gabriel was born, he arrived quickly and angrily. I was up all night after his birth failing in every attempt to quiet his incessant crying. I delivered a screaming baby and I took home a screaming baby. My oldest son, Jordan, was a breeze from start to finish. His was a slow, determined arrival and he was quiet and cuddly from day one. The bond we developed was soft and cozy. Gabriel, on the other hand, was not to be ignored or taken for granted. Lacking the power of speech did not deter him from getting my attention, so screaming was the order of the day, every day. No one could look at him. From the moment he realized he wasn’t the only person in the room until he spoke his first word, he would verbalize his distaste with screams. All it took was a glance from my best friend, who wanted to baby sit desperately, or one of his grandparents, who just wanted to hold him for a moment. They weren’t vocalizations of terror or fear. They were statements that seemed to say, “Don’t even look at me, unless I invite you to.”

I never spoke to my children with anything other than adult diction. Baby talk always makes me wince and I believe it only serves to confuse a child who is just learning to speak. Jordan was a quick study in language and he, in turn, taught Gabriel everything he knew. I had read somewhere that mothers interact vocally less often with sons than with daughters. This was not going to happen in our household. When I breastfed Gabriel, I used the time to talk to him just as I had with Jordan. Occasionally, he would bite down hard and then look up slyly to register my reaction. I quickly learned to say certain things that would elicit a smile and make him unclench his jaw. It was a game and a test which he would engage me in most of his life.

The dark shadow of divorce shattered all of our lives when Gabriel was four. Jordan understood perfectly what was happening, but Gabriel was emotionless. I attributed it to his age though Jordan was only five and openly bereft. While they were close in age, at times it seemed as if they were living in different environments. As they matured, I came to realize that Gabriel was like a steamy cauldron that quietly held its turmoil below the surface. The anger broke through when fiery, passionate elements combined, fueled, for example, by strained visits with his father. Later, the volatility exploded when Gabriel started drinking.

The eyes that stare back at me from the face on the canvas are opposites of one another. The right eye has the heavy lid and wrinkled crease of one who has experienced sadness too many times and is the wiser for it. Disappointment turned to deep, pervading sorrow when Gabriel realized the relationship with his father would never be close. The distance grew with each passing year to the point that conversation between the two was stilted. Visits were limited to holiday obligations. The loss of a loving connection with his father was like a death for Gabriel, and he filled his life with drunken or drug induced stupors to shield his pain from the outside world. There is a definite cartoonist touch to the left eye. The design mirrors the child-like essence of my son. Gabriel’s world held no consequences for dangerous deeds that only daredevils would consider. He was the imp who could accept any challenge with impunity and come out on top. For all the potentially harmful activities he engaged in, there was not a broken bone or a broken spirit to betray the spine-chilling thing he might have just done. He believed that a twenty-four year old was invincible and made it his quest to prove that, twenty-four hours a day. Maybe those eyes represent his interpretation of what he was and what he lost.

I was a rebellious teenager and mistakenly thought my experience prepared me for that phase when the boys began junior high. I forgot about the big difference between girls and boys during puberty. Testosterone, the nemesis of many a pubescent boy, reared its ugly head and my children became evil barbarians. There was no man by my side with a big, booming voice to scare goodness into my sons. My hopeless attempts to persuade them into making good grades, developing a work ethic, and seeing the obvious difference between right and wrong elicited snide remarks and slammed doors.

There are gargantuan teeth in the mouth of the face and voluptuous lips barely hide the points on the ends of some of them. I saw sardonic evil the first time I looked upon them, but now I wonder. Could they be the representation of darkness that swept over Gabriel during this tumultuous time, as he struggled to deal with his impending move towards manhood and realizing he was gay? His anger became palpable. He was arrested for assaulting a schoolmate and spent time in the Juvenile Center. He dropped out of high school. Twice, I alerted the authorities he had gone missing after he walked out of the house so inebriated that I was certain the next time I would see him would be at the city morgue. After he violated his probation following the assault, I turned him in and gave the judge my blessing to send him to Boys School in Ft. Wayne, Indiana for three months. He was out of control. Something very black had swallowed him up and I had to accept my own inability to snatch him back. Yes, that ugly mouth could be a symbol for consumption without mercy.

The incarceration seemed to turn things around. Gabriel graduated from high school. He and I drove to Ball State University for orientation day and a look at the campus. The time together was a thrill for me because my son was actually excited about going to college. He drove like a maniac all the way there and all the way back. The risky behavior was not washed from his system as I had hoped, but his enthusiasm heralded a light at the end of the tunnel. The academic aspirations soon were daunted by the lack of financial aid he would need to attend school in a different city, so IUPUI became the alternative. Since his main goal was art, what could be more prestigious than Herron Art School? My brother had attended Herron and went on to become a successful jeweler. The first act of this reality show went off without a hitch, but the second act drew the curtain closed as the combination of job conflicts and a lack of self-discipline began to erode the time spent on school. He was openly gay now and making the most of it. He lost no friends after he divulged who he really was and soon gained bars full of gay ones.  His focus became acquiring a partner who was at least as old as his own father. It was a sadly disguised search for the male nurturing he desperately needed without the restrictions inherent in a father-son relationship. He was a charming, charismatic man-child with looks and personality to match. I don’t think he was ever without an admirer or two, no matter where he was. He would still have the occasional scrapes with the law, usually public intoxication, but there was no violence perpetrated during those times. Finally, he managed to return to school and was accepted into Herron. The smile on Gabriel’s face when he announced this accomplishment told everyone he was on his way.

The hair drawn on this figure is composed of a series of spikes. The lines have very sharp angles where they meet and have no symmetry.  If placed horizontally on a chart, they could be fluctuations demonstrating the highs and lows of Gabriel’s life. I see them as prickly barriers shielding the head that wears them. Are they the screams that kept everyone at a safe distance so long ago? Gabriel was an enigma with intelligence, creativity, talent, steadfast loyalty to those he loved, and above all, a reverence for laughter and fun. Keeping him from harm in his pursuit of pleasure was no longer within my jurisdiction, but as a mother I find it very difficult to accept my impotence on the night he died. Rounding the tips of hair on the painting will not make everything better. Trying to figure out how he was able to get his stepfather’s prescribed morphine out of our house that night brings me no peace. Knowing he died from an accidental overdose, not suicide, gives no comfort. The thought of his body laying there for three days before being found is a perpetual nightmare I will only escape with my own death.

This is my reality, the life I am not ready to leave, yet must endure. The artwork is Gabriel’s legacy and I must not let sorrow, despair or loneliness interfere with completing what he started. First I need to cry a bit more, dwell on my loss a bit more, remember his smile and his laughter a bit more. The painting will be finished, my beautiful boy, once the fear subsides and the first brushstroke begins to heal my broken heart.

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7 Comments

Filed under Issue 2, Short Story

7 responses to “The Unfinished Painting

  1. maryann mcguire

    beautiful describes him to a tee i dont know if our hearts ever heal over the loss of a child. I loved the story. keep on writing love MaryAnn

  2. Jeanne Kelsay

    A superior piece of writing. Let it be the first of many essays to come. Only the skillful hand of a loving mother can sift through the complexities of her child with such tenderness and insight.

  3. Peggy Lawson

    excellent piece, leaves me bleak and sorrowful for for you and Gabe, but definitely reminds me of the need to pick up the pieces and carry on and how important it is to reach out to others whether in writing, art, or friendship. The avenues are endless if we are strong enough travel them.

  4. Allison Shelhamer

    He was a stinker, wasn’t he? 🙂

    Your words represent Gabe perfectly. I can’t imagine how difficult and cathartic this was to write. There is a certain sense of freedom in writing your thoughts down, and putting them out there for the world to see. I am so proud of you!

  5. Sarah J

    I am so proud of you for writing this! I don’t have any children of my own but I saw what you went through and it broke my heart! This is just the beginning for you. Gabe is with you and I think that he would want you to grab that brush and finish the piece. He might help you along the way. You are an excellent writer and I want to read more and more, keep it coming. Love always! Sarah

  6. Cristy Sommers

    Vicki, this is absolutely brilliant! I am speechless once again. My heart breaks for you and I admire your strength to tell this story so beautifully. Please keep writing; I want to read more. You are so gifted.

  7. I am so proud of you for writing this, it had to be hard but there probably was a sense of relief also. I’m sure Gabe would want you to finish the picture, he might even grab the end of the brush and help you. I can’t wait to read your next one. Love Always, Sarah

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