Paint By Number

I wasn’t jealous when Tommy beamed as he led Julie on a tour of our house. He was showing off his paintings and smiled at her, like a teen smitten with a cheerleader.

But, later that morning, when my husband revealed something to this art therapist he had not shared with me, I felt as envious as a plain-Jane watching from the sidelines.

I had hired Julie to work with Tommy following the recommendation of the social worker at Northwestern Hospital who has been guiding me since my husband was diagnosed with Primary Progressive Aphasia, a dementia that robs the brain of language.

Julie had premature grey hair, was dressed in a black outfit accessorized with colorful scarves, and looked the part of Artist. In some ways, she resembled a younger version of me. I’d like to think that led to Tommy’s easy acceptance of her into his therapeutic life.

He had 15 Paint By Number pictures to show her. They are on walls throughout our house. All are beautiful and match the example on the cover of each kit. Over the years, as Tommy completed each painting, he’d select a frame, tuck the painting into protective glass, then hang it where it could be seen and admired.

Tommy chose Paint By Number as a winter hobby, when the weather prohibited his favorite pastime, golf. I was happy to see him engaged in something creative. To show my support, I bought an easel for the spare bedroom, a gooseneck lamp to clip to the top of the board, and a French beret to complete the picture of artist’s atelier.

For several years, Tommy finished two paintings per season. Then, last year, trouble. His work no longer matched the box’s cover. He halted this effort midway, eventually tossing it in the trash. I guessed the cruel illness that was stealing his speech was now affecting his brush strokes.

So, when Tommy wanted to try again this year, I was surprised. I helped him choose a new kit from our usual online store, and watched as he assembled the easel, attached the light, spread the baby pots of paint on a makeshift table, and started in. (The beret is long gone.) But, after a few days, he stopped. He turned off the lamp, put the brush down alongside the pots, and left the unfinished painting on the easel. Then, he closed the door to his studio.

“These are marvelous,” Julie said, as Tommy led her through the first floor and pointed to each one of his paintings. When the two of them went upstairs, I could hear her praising the works in the hall and in our bedroom. Then, I heard him open the door to the room where the abandoned painting still stood on the easel. I remained downstairs, wondering how artist and teacher would handle what they found.

Julie came down first with Tommy trailing after. “We’re dumping this,” she said, holding the painting in two fingers. My husband was nodding in agreement and grinning. “We’re going to start fresh with a new painting.” Then, she showed me what Tommy had written on a post-it note. “MESS,” it read.

Julie smiled at him as if he were already her favorite student. “Yes,” she said, “that’s what Tommy was trying to tell me upstairs. That’s why we agreed to start a new one.”

Mess? My husband had confessed to this stranger how he felt about his abandoned painting? I was jealous; the emotion absent from their first interaction now struck.

I wanted in. "Maybe it would be better to try something free form," I said. "It might be easier than Paint by Number."

"No," Julie said, looking to my husband for confirmation. "Tom likes Paint By Number, so we're going to stick with that."

Then she asked, “Tom, is the problem that the numbered places are too small, or that your brain is having a hard time getting the message to your hand?”

He shook his head at the former and nodded “yes” at the latter.

“Okay,” Julie said. “Now we know how to proceed.”

After Julie left, I thought about how she was able to get my husband to open up. Perhaps it was her training, her distance from the role of spousal caregiver, and her compassion that gave her the key.

Or, maybe it was because Julie didn’t know our backstory; that before the illness, when Tommy could talk, he was a man of a few words, never eager to discuss emotional issues. When I saw the closed door, I assumed Tommy preferred to drop the subject. And, perhaps I was relieved I didn’t have to enter this emotional territory.

That afternoon, I turned on the computer. Tommy pulled up a chair next to me. We searched the Paint By Number website. He selected “Ice Cardinal.” It’s due to arrive any day now, in time for our next Art Therapy.