It was vital to me that Neil got to know and have his own experiences with other people I loved and respected. Our village, our friends, was such a full cast of characters, with so much collective knowledge, a vast range of interests, and full life experiences that could expose him to things we could not.
Neil’s interests were varied but mainly within the creative realm: music, art-making, and writing. One of our friends who had a significant impact on Neil early on was Tony Fitzpatrick. Tony was a successful Chicago artist with a big personality, no-bullshit attitude, and many well-honed talents; he was an artist, writer, actor, playwright, and general raconteur. Tony did things his way, independent of the rest of the art world. Tom had known him since the 80s when Tony read poetry and showed slides of his work at the Green Mill. Tony had a big heart and was generous with his time and talents to help younger artists and friends. We attended Tony’s studio openings, and Neil noticed how, when Tony walked into the room, everyone wanted to talk to him. He loomed larger than life and held court out on the front stoop; everyone hung onto every word he said.
Tony had a soft spot for Neil. When Neil’s godmother Marcy passed away, Tony gave Neil an etching of a ghost. It was his way of telling Neil Marcy would always be around, watching over him. One warm, clear Friday night, not long after Neil completed middle school, we all stood on the sidewalk in front of Tony’s storefront studio. Neil said Tony had invited him to intern at his studio that summer.
From our home in Indiana to Tony’s studio in Chicago is not a simple journey, and Neil wasn’t quite old enough to make it on his own without much coordination. We figured a day with Tony would have to suffice until Neil was older. I drove him to Chicago and dropped him off at Tony’s home studio early in the morning. When I picked up Neil that evening, he was abuzz. He had helped one of Tony’s assistants cut out images for their stock of details to be used in Tony’s gorgeous collages; it was a good thing Neil had experience with an X-Acto blade. Then, Tony and Neil went to work with Tony’s son Max on a short film he was making on location. Tony was starring in the movie as a tough guy or money collector, something of the sort. Neil stood in a bathtub holding lights and diffusers for a scene where Tony repeatedly dunked some guy’s head in the toilet. It was a special day for Neil.
Neil developed a unique relationship with his Uncle Phil, one of his dad’s older brothers. Phil had been fighting testicular cancer for several years. He moved in with Neil’s grandma after he could not continue working. Neil and his dad visited Grandma and Phil frequently. Through the course of those visits, Neil and Phil became very close. They spent lots of time together, talked about all sorts of things, like Beavis and Butthead to music and philosophy. Phil taught Neil how to play the guitar. It was during this time Neil also became interested in mysticism and healing. Neil hoped he could help Phil and devise a concoction to save his life. I found tiny vials and tinctures labeled and quietly fermenting in Neil’s studio closet. He accompanied Phil on his visits to the oncologist. Neil knew the details of Phil’s entire course of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. He stood by his side through it all, hoping to positively impact the outcome. Phil was hospitalized, and we took Neil to visit him as much as possible. It was plain to see that Neil’s visits made Phil happy and gave him hope.
Neil told us he was worried that having Phil back at the house might be too much for Grandma. He wanted to make sure Phil could recover after he was released from the hospital. We offered to have Phil come live at our house to convalesce, and Tom would make three healthful meals for him each day; we would make sure Phil had everything needed to get better. The prospect made Neil happy, and it seemed like Phil was OK with the idea, although he was frail. We had no idea when he might be released. Within a day of talking with Phil about coming to stay with us, he took a turn for the worse; all of his organs began to shut down. The next day, Phil was gone.
It was hard for Neil at first, but he quickly became the protector of Phil’s memory. I offered to make a photo slideshow for the memorial service. Neil brought over a box of photos the family had put together. I had pictures of my own of Phil and the family; he had been my favorite brother-in-law for many years. Neil was also in charge of the soundtrack. He selected plenty of Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones. After the priest said some prayers, Neil got up in front of roughly a hundred people and spoke from his heart about his Uncle Phil. He recounted what made Phil so special and how much he would be missed. Neil reminded everyone there that they had been special to Phil and that he had appreciated their love and friendship. It was a very proud moment for me. Neil was only 14 at the time.
Phil left his possessions to his son Ryan and Neil. Neil became the proud owner of 5 of Phil’s prized electric guitars and his pot pipe and often wore some of Phil’s clothes and pajama pants, which all featured beer logos or cartoon characters.
Tom’s role in Neil’s life has been friend and mentor, and he always gave selflessly to help Neil feel loved and supported. They shared more common interests as Neil grew up, like music, art, and living a creative lifestyle. Living with us, Neil could see the benefits of following your passions, working through the ups and downs of self-employment, and living an artist’s life. That’s not to say Tom never got upset with Neil. In a fatherly way, he lectured the poor kid for hours about working hard, virtue, generosity (only children can be pretty selfish), patience, self-control, empathy, proper nutrition, and exercise. And he stressed the importance of not being a pain in the ass.
We talked to Neil about his decision to wear alternative and goth-style clothes and his desire to grow and color his hair. We told Neil he could do as he wished but warned him that certain people would judge him on his appearance before they got to know him. It wasn’t fair; it was just the way things were, and it was a price that had to be paid to do what he wanted. He seemed confident enough to deal with these issues and enjoyed the freedom to figure things out for himself. _
I’m not a fan of the term “old soul,” but Neil has always enjoyed the company of people older than him more than people his age. From the age of 8 or 9, until he was 13, he volunteered with my mom at an assisted living home to call Bingo on Saturday afternoons. Neil helped pass out cards, assisted people who couldn’t hear or move their chips on their boards, and helped clean up at the end of the games. The people enjoyed Neil’s company, telling him stories and teasing him. Some of the people lived into their 100s. Once in a while, Neil came home after Bingo and told me that one of his friends had died. He’d know their history and the small details about their life. I was glad the losses didn’t stop him from going. When he got older, he started to pull away from the tradition. Still, those experiences planted the seeds of compassion and respect for older people in Neil.
Neil had lots of friendships with the adults at school. Teachers he really liked, the lunch lady, the principal, and even the school police officer all knew him from friendly encounters in the halls.
When he got to high school, Neil gravitated to the older kids. At the end of each year, Neil mourned the departure of his closest friends as they graduated and left for college or whatever they did. Early in his junior year, he started to bond with a group of guys in a band called Belladonna. They worked on their sound, somewhere between grunge and a jam band. They wrote all of their music, with a cover here or there to keep people connected. Neil was younger than the rest of them and assumed the role of their roadie who couldn’t drive yet. He did sound and helped them out with things at their gigs. Before long, he was invited to join the band as their keyboard player. Tom and I excitedly watched his friendships develop with the guys in the band. His ability to communicate and assert himself flourished as the rookie in the group. We liked his bandmates; they were excellent musicians with lots of potential and lovely guys. There didn’t seem to be a lot of drama between them; they worked together very well, and each had their role in the process. Before long, they played together at parties, small venues, frat parties, and bars.
When Neil became entrenched in the band, he began spending more time at his dad’s house. His dad let the group set up a practice space in his basement, and they practiced as much as they could between their work and school schedules. This was a bittersweet time for me—I was thrilled Neil had his friends and the band, but I missed seeing him every day. We devised a schedule where he spent the night at our house three nights a week, but after he finished his junior year, he stopped spending nights with us at all. His time was pretty booked up between school, band, and his new girlfriend. He continued having dinner with my parents and me on Monday nights; then, he would return to our place to visit Tom for a while.
Nobody ever warns mothers that their child becoming an adult coincides with changes inside you. I was so focused on Neil and Tom that I hardly noticed I was starting to enter menopause. Suddenly, every time I saw Neil or talked to him on the phone, I began to cry without fail. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, but it was stressful for Neil, and I am sure it made him not want to talk to me. I was behaving erratically, couldn’t focus, and almost completely lost interest in my job, looking for opportunities in the day-to-day of keeping the studio running smoothly. The confidence I had had disappeared a little more each day. It was also a hard time for Tom, but he was gentle and helped guide me through things. Looking at and talking about art was one thing that brought me comfort during this time; it was like a vacation from myself. Menopause is so much like puberty; you don’t understand what’s happening to your body, and you don’t recognize yourself. I didn’t know who I would become and was not eager to get to know the new, older version of me. It was this, on top of Empty Nest Syndrome. I missed Neil, and I had to face the fact that he was grown and wholly independent, that regret would not take me back in time or give me a do-over. I realized that what I wanted and needed was more time. More time to get to know the person he was becoming and to appreciate and enjoy all the beautiful, odd, and familiar things about him. To savor everything I could with the enthusiasm and appreciation of someone who had realized how lucky she was to be his mother.
Neil decided to attend Indiana University’s local campus after high school to study art. As I proudly told people, he was joining the family business. Neil told us he still wanted to have dinner with us once a week, at least. When he said that, my fears that I had failed him faded, and I was free to start planning an epic graduation party for him.