Free Range Neil, 2002 – 2018

Neil has no memory of life before Tom; he came into our lives when Neil was two. Tom was sensitive and knew not to push to be a father to Neil. His dad was in the picture, and we all worked together to make sure Neil was cared for and loved. From those early days, Tom and Neil formed a sweet bond that grew over time. Tom could see things in Neil that the rest of us couldn’t, and he went out of his way to help nurture him, build his confidence, and encourage him to be who he would become.

Neil’s years in grammar school were hard for me. Like most mothers, I would have told you my son was of above-average intelligence. Unlike most other mothers, I would also admit that he was not perfect. Neither was I. He had a hard time in school; he could not sit still and fit into the mold a public school expects a child to meet. Every day of those five years, with few exceptions, Neil left school with red and black marks on his behavior color sheet, indicating unacceptable behavior. It was stressful to receive these notices. I could not control what he did when he was not with me, and I was not interested in controlling him anyhow. I was called to the principal’s office on several occasions as we all searched for a way to tone down whatever it was about Neil that bothered the teachers so much.

Some of his teachers recommended medicating him; we were utterly opposed to this idea. They would have to deal with him in an unaltered state. He was not a mean kid or overtly disrespectful, and his infractions were minor in my estimation. He had difficulty staying in his seat not talking to other kids, and sometimes got in their personal space. To get him more acclimated to being around other kids and working as a team, we signed him up for Cub Scouts and Little League. He did not thrive in those activities. I accept the blame for some of that; I am not comfortable with structured group environments, so I did not help show him how to interact within them. Many parents love to be in the thick of everything their kids are doing; but I didn’t get involved in Neil’s activities. I feel guilty about that when I think about it now.

Hanging around with other moms made me uncomfortable and self-conscious. It was irritating that they gathered in little cliques after school when they picked up their little angels. I often stood by myself or with the grandmas who raised their grandchildren; we made fun of the homecoming queens holding court about last night’s PTO meeting. I volunteered to help at a class party once. A group of moms met in the cafeteria to dole out assignments. When I arrived, there were already over 20 moms—from one class—present and eager to organize. I would have left, willing to give up the opportunity to develop a craft for the kids to do, but I was there for Neil.

Another Mom and I were assigned to the craft portion for the class Halloween party. She decided we would make seasonal picture frames for the kids to bring home. I took photos of each of the kids in their costumes. Then, I ran to the store to have prints made of the images to put in the frames before the end of the day. It was a brilliant idea; I left the party as soon as I took the photos and returned with the pictures when it was almost over. The framed photos were a big hit with the other moms, and I took that as a sign to retire while I was still on top.

Since he was tiny, Neil was independent. Even in preschool, when I took him to the park, he never wanted me around and pretended to be there all on his own. He walked up to teenagers and tried to hang out with them. He liked to picture himself as an older kid, to model who he wanted to be, which was never his age. As Neil got older, he didn’t mind being by himself; he preferred it. It didn’t worry us. He had a couple of friends and liked the company of adults, as many only children do. I was not the recipient of lots of cuddles and hugs, which I would have loved, but I followed his lead and tried to give him what he needed. When the hugs or cuddles did come, they were that much sweeter.

Once Tom, Neil, and I moved to Dyer together, we felt more like a family. Tom turned the spare bedroom into a studio for Neil, complete with tables and shelves with bins filled with art supplies and miscellaneous doodads that Tom had accumulated over the years. It was more of a laboratory as it became a home base for Neil’s countless, sometimes smelly, experiments and projects. I knew what a space like that could do for a child, a place where anything was possible, and he was free to figure things out for himself. Neil spent hours there playing, building, making, and reading. Tom and I assisted him when asked, but we let him have the space unadulterated.

When Neil was about ten, he wanted to learn how to use an X-Acto blade; I was nervous about this, as I had never used an X-Acto and not cut myself. Tom bought Neil a knife and blades and taught him how to use them and properly dispose of them.

It was a happy day when we went out and bought Neil a red BMX bike to ride on the ramps at the skatepark. Watching him as he rode down the street away from us was hard. Tom told him to come home when the sun went down, and he did.

Neil became interested in music when he was seven years old. That’s when he discovered the mythical Keith Richards. I took a deep breath and shut my mouth when I learned of this fascination with Richards. Neil’s dad was also a musician, as were his uncles, and they often played live music in the house. Tom and I decided to encourage that enthusiasm and signed Neil up for private piano lessons. We couldn’t afford a piano then, so Uncle Dave and his wife Marcy, Neil’s godmother, purchased him a keyboard for practicing. Just like many things with Neil, it took us a while to find him the right teacher, and over the years, he had a few, all of whom complained Neil wasn’t practicing enough. I wanted to stop the lessons many times; it seemed we were wasting money and effort on this production and that maybe there was something else Neil would like to do. Tom told me that we should stick with it. So, we brought him to weekly lessons until the significance of practicing became important to Neil.

Neil joined the middle school band in 6th grade, playing in the percussion section. Their band director was an obsessive and strict woman who loved to reprimand the parents for their inability to stay on top of everything involving the band. But boy, did she get results. I couldn’t stand her and thought that Neil would lose interest. I was wrong; he loved her and blossomed under her instruction; although he was not one of the band’s top kids, she expected a lot from him. She was all about winning and taking home the gold from the regional competitions. This type of success was something new for all of us. She worked so diligently with the kids they won the gold every time. Tom, Neil’s dad, my parents, and sometimes even my brother attended the concerts. I beamed with pride as Neil helped set things up, played beautiful and complicated music as part of the band, and helped the group tear things down at the end. He had found his jam.

            The years we took Neil with us to Chicago to the galleries and museums were especially precious to me. We talked in the car on the way there and made our game plan of places to go. There were specific galleries Neil liked more than others, but he knew the drill and didn’t complain if we stopped into the galleries he didn’t like. He walked off alone once inside, and I enjoyed seeing him interact with the art and people. When we were ready to leave, we usually found him conversing with a few people. They would tell us, “He wasn’t bothering us at all. Neil is an awesome kid; we enjoy talking to him.” Afterward, we went to dinner before going home at night’s end. At dinner, we would talk about art, music, and anything Neil was interested in at the time. He approached all these new experiences with confidence and an open mind.

There is one evening I sort of regret; I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Neil must have been eleven years old when we took him to an art center in Chicago owned by two brothers from China. The building housed over 30 artist studios and a few galleries. The building teemed with art, people, and youthful energy on Fridays. It was Neil’s first visit, and he was thrilled to be there. He asked if he could go off on his own and see what was upstairs. We knew many people in the building, so I said yes. Later, Neil ran up to us, a little flushed. He whispered something to Tom and told him he wanted to show him something. I followed them even though Neil didn’t want me to. We walked up the dark stairway to a cavernous space. The thumping bass of hip-hop music grew louder as we approached. There were dancers, strobe lights, and graffiti art displays all around. This world was familiar to us; many of our good friends were Chicago and Northwest Indiana graffiti artists who had studied with Tom at one time or another.

After a few hugs and handshakes, we made our way through. I followed Neil and Tom over to a live painting demonstration, where an artist was airbrushing directly onto the skin of a young, topless woman. Neil’s most significant observation was how pointy her breasts were; he didn’t say it in a silly, immature, prepubescent way. We talked on the way home to clarify some things for Neil about consent and why objectifying women should be avoided. From a young age, Neil had seen many of the paintings Tom had done of me, even nudes, and my breasts weren’t pointy. I suppose because he grew up looking at art and knew Tom loved and respected me, it gave him an innate understanding of the respect an artist should have for their subject. He handled the situation with maturity for someone his age.