“What about here?” I am holding Tommy’s latest Paint By Number in my hands and stretching to reach a spot on the kitchen wall above the TV.
My husband raises two thumbs up, his catch-all for yes, okay, great, and perfect. We agree, “The “Ice Cardinal,” a painting of a red bird, white and blue tree limbs, framed in black metal, will look great in this spot.
From a distance, the painting looks colorful, novel. Close inspection reveals this effort -- Tommy’s latest -- does not match the perfection of the 15 other Paint By Numbers he has completed over the years.
No matter. I’m impressed with “The Ice Cardinal,” because I had thought his Paint By Number days were over. My husband’s condition, Primary progressive aphasia, a degeneration of the frontal lobe of the brain, has erased most of his speech and chipped away at concentration.
Once an avid reader of Ruth Rendell mysteries, Tommy left the last book untouched on the coffee table. Crossword puzzles no longer are attempted. And, an older Paint By Number had stood unfinished on its easel.
A few weeks ago, I thought of a way to help my husband restart that abandoned artwork. Without asking Tommy, I arranged a visit from an art therapist.
Their first session together appeared successful. Tommy, on a post-it note to the therapist, was able to admit his stalled painting was “a mess.” I envied her ease in getting my husband to confess this feeling, for he never revealed it to me. And, fearing it was due to his handicap, I never asked.
I envisioned a long relationship, teacher and student, using creativity to compensate for losses. “The mess” was tossed out, and in time for lesson number two, I bought a new Paint By Number, “The Ice Cardinal.”
On the morning of the second session, I opened the door to the art therapist. My husband lay prone on his couch, as if he were a corpse. She took a seat on the couch opposite him, pulled out a notebook, and began to ask questions that would lead to a plan for ongoing sessions. Looking at Tommy’s body language, I suspected she, and I, were in for disappointment.
She soldiered on, and when my husband didn’t show any reaction, closed her notebook and walked upstairs to the the spare bedroom turned studio. Tommy rose and followed. In less than a half hour, they were back downstairs. The art therapist gathered her purse and coat, Tommy headed back to the couch.
“See you next week,” I said, as I closed the door behind her. I looked at my husband, motionless on the couch and doubted my words.
Tommy’s arms were folded across his body. “How was your lesson?” I asked. No response. “Do you want to continue?”
Arms unfolded, two thumbs down.
“Not even one more try?”
He repeated the gesture.
“Okay,” I sighed.
I called her and said, “It’s not you, it’s me. I was overly ambitious. Tommy just isn’t into art therapy.”
“Perhaps an hour?” she said. “We were too rushed.”
“No, one of the affects of his illness is impatience.” What I didn’t add was, “especially for art therapy that wasn’t his idea in the first place.”
I’m not sure why Tommy gave up on the painting he had labelled “a mess.” And, he can’t explain why he rejected the art therapist. Or why, after she left the house, he rose from the couch, and went back upstairs to work on “The Ice Cardinal.” Alone.
Perhaps my husband was saying he didn’t want his wife to try and light his path with her bright ideas. And, he didn’t want a therapist to assist, no matter her expertise.
When Tommy was first doing Paint By Numbers, he likely enjoyed it because it was something he could do by himself, on his own schedule. As the degeneration progressed, perhaps he became frustrated when the last painting didn’t compare to earlier ones.
So, maybe it was stubbornness that pushed Tommy back to the easel. He would show us. “The Ice Cardinal,” which he completed a bit at a time, has found its place on the kitchen wall. Soon, we’ll have to scout a location for “Goldfinches,” his current Paint By Number.
Every night now, while Tommy is downstairs on his couch, in his prone position watching television and flipping channels, I slip upstairs to his studio and peek at this painting’s progress. From the doorway, I see the beginning of a yellow bird, green leaves, blue sky. No need for closer inspection. I raise two thumbs up, and retreat.