1 A Room of His Own A memoir, by Barbara Floyd Matt stood in the middle of his new room, smiling. With a thumbs-up sign, he signaled that it was a job well done. “It’s perfect,” he said. “You would never know a child had ever lived here.” We had transformed my 16-year-old son’s bedroom from the blue room of a little boy to a modern, black and white room befitting a young man. For him, this represented more than a new coat of paint. His new room announced the end of his childhood. And with that end, a calmer teenager started to emerge from this room, to talk to us about his day and even watch a movie with us on Saturday night. Maybe he would have arrived at this place even without his new room. But I don’t know. Transforming his room encompassed a journey that took him from boy to young man, a journey that included coping with a terrible tragedy. It also took me on a journey, from denial to acceptance. Denial that my little boy was gone and acceptance of the new person he was becoming. Looking back, I wonder why it had been so hard for me to truly accept this new person. Certainly, his angry, early teenage years made it more difficult. It’s hard to embrace someone who is always scowling at you. Desperate to understand what he was going through, I read all the books in my local library on teenagers. It helped to learn that his behavior was normal for his age but it didn’t make it any easier to take. My husband, Eugene, was patient and supportive, which also helped, and I leaned heavily on my sister- in-law Paulette, a psychotherapist. She wisely encouraged me not to take his cold shoulder too personally. “Underneath all those scowls, he still loves you,” she would say. “He just needs to separate from you to grow up.” But the larger stumbling block, bigger even than his teenage angst, was a seeming inability on my part to really say good-bye to the little boy I loved. I missed him so much. I missed the bedtime stories, the movies we shared, the games we played, the Halloween costumes we dressed up in together. I wanted to turn back the clock and get my son back. I couldn’t seem to let go of the past. I never said any of this to him but I fear he could sense my disappointment that he wasn’t a child anymore. For all I know, sensing this may have hardened his resentment towards me. And why wouldn’t he resent it? While I was stuck looking back, I was missing out on the thrill of who he was going forward. I had never meant to be “that” kind of mother. Before giving birth to Matt, I was a successful television journalist and devoted to my career. But journalism paled in comparison to just how in love I was with my new baby. And because Matt was born with a severe allergic disorder as well as a tendency towards infections, high fevers and seizures, keeping him healthy became my new career. One of the most harrowing nights of my life was spent sitting by his side all night in a pediatric ICU praying he had not 2 been permanently harmed by a seizure that left him temporarily unconscious. He was ten months old and it was his first seizure. Nights like that have a way of transforming the most independent career woman into someone more akin to a mother lion fighting for her cub. It was never easy. At the age of two, he had to stay home all winter because another child’s runny nose could set off a downward spiral of infection, fever and seizure. By the age of four, his allergy to chemicals meant he couldn’t go outside on a smoggy day. More and more, he couldn’t be too far away from the HEPA filters at home that cleaned the air for him. We worried how he would attend school. It took a year-long battle with the NYC Board of Education to win accommodations for him that would create a hypoallergenic classroom. The carpet and blackboard were removed and air filters and air conditioners were installed, enabling Matt to attend kindergarten at P.S. 75 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The school was wonderful. The following year, the principal, Robert O’Brien, even found a way to accommodate Matt’s gift with numbers by placing him with a fourth grade teacher for math. His first grade classmates helped roll the air filters down the halls from their classroom to his fourth grade class for math, and then back again. I joined the PTA and we welcomed his classmates, both first and fourth graders, into our apartment to play after school. But, unfortunately, his health continued to deteriorate. Halfway through second grade we couldn’t get him the nine blocks to school without risking an attack, even by taking a taxi. He finished the school year on home instruction, with tutors coming to the apartment to give him his lessons. He was now trapped at home full-time and we knew we had to make a drastic change. His allergist, Dr. Morton Teich, suggested either the mountains or the seashore, as far from New York City’s pollution as we could feasibly go. So, in July, 2001 we gave up our rent stabilized apartment, said good-bye to all our friends in the city and moved to Westhampton Beach on Long Island. The early years in Westhampton Beach were lonely. He still needed to be on home instruction for third and fourth grade –his immune system was not yet strong enough to protect him. But we made the best of it. We walked on the beach, played games, sang songs and created projects together. I supplemented his lessons by teaching him French and art. Slowly, over time, his health improved. By fifth grade, he was finally able to return to a classroom equipped with air filters. The social adjustment to school was difficult. He had no friends and was teased and bullied in fifth and sixth grade. But he never gave up. By ninth grade he no longer needed air filters. Today, as a high school sophomore, he has found his group of friends, the other top students in his class. He also rows for a local rowing club and creates movies at a Saturday afternoon movie class. We had finally achieved our goal of fostering a healthy, “normal” child. I was thrilled watching him blossom away from home. It was the realization of everything I had worked for. But I was also filled with a feeling of emptiness. It didn’t help that my only identity for 12 years was Matt’s Mom. I returned to freelance journalism and that helped a little. But the emptiness lingered. I would be sitting at my desk doing research for a project for PBS but longing to return to the time spent sitting on 3 the floor painting a mural with Matt. For the bottom line was, despite everything I needed to help him overcome- his medical issues, his loneliness, his social delays - we never stopped having fun together. Matt never ceased to amaze me, whether by teaching himself to read when he was three or doing multiplication in his head at the age of five or designing a board game with 100 spaces on the board at the age of nine. He was endlessly fascinating. I was just along for the ride. And what a joyous ride it was! No matter how hard the times were, we got a good laugh out of every day. It didn’t help my feelings of loss that starting around the age of 14, even when he was home, he wasn’t really there. His door stayed closed, with me on the other side. Our conversations left a lot to be desired: “How was school?” “Normal.” “What would you like for dinner?” “Whatever.” “What are you doing?” “Nothing.” Paulette called him the “Neanderthal Adolescent,” because of his one word answers. “Be patient,” she would say. “He still needs you, just in a new and different way.” So, when he came to me and asked for help cleaning out his room, I was grateful for the opportunity for conversation and to work on a project together again. But I was not prepared for what he had to say about his bedroom. “It’s too babyish,” he said. “Would you help me get rid of all this junk?” As he spoke, he was tossing items into a box to store in the basement. I stared at his room. Of course, he was right. The room had not changed since we had moved in, six years before. Why hadn’t I noticed how outdated it had become? I guess because it pained me to see the room through his new teenage eyes. From the first day we moved into our house, Matt loved his new bedroom and so did I. It was the perfect room for a little boy. Light blue, with white trim, with a hand-painted mural on a dark blue background on one wall. He would lie in bed and trace his fingers over the kites, suns and clouds that were painted on that wall. The white platform bed with bright yellow drawers that he got as a hand-me-down from his cousin held all his treasures, from his stuffed Mario characters to his Star Wars action figures to his Nintendo 64 video games. I loved the way the yellow drawers matched the yellow in the mural. I watched him putting his train lamp into a box. I remembered the excitement I had felt when I found that lamp, when he was one week old. Now it was being packed away, no longer needed. I watched him toss Disney’s Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree into the box. It was the first video he ever watched when he was two years old. “Remember,” I said, “how after watching this movie, we collected all the stuffed animals from the Disney store and you could never leave the house without having the whole Hundred Acre Wood with you?” I started to recount those memories to Matt until I noticed that he wasn’t listening. He wasn’t even looking at the titles of the videotapes as 4 he tossed them into the box. He was just anxious to get the job done. We finished quietly. I marked all the boxes, sealed them with tape and Matt carried them to the basement. His complaints about his room continued. “Can’t I have new furniture?” he would whine. “The bed is too small. I hate it.” I argued that it was a twin size bed and not too small. And besides, I told him, we couldn’t afford new furniture. He cannot have inexpensive furniture made from pressed wood because the glue emits formaldehyde fumes for years. He can have older pressed wood furniture, like the hand-me-downs he had now, or solid wood furniture. We told him it would have to wait. He stormed off to his room and slammed the door. For the next year, it seemed like his room snuck into every conversation. Why was he stuck with the smallest room in the house, why couldn’t he have a bigger bed, why did he only have one window in his room, why was his room so dark? We did our best to ignore it. But we couldn’t ignore that he no longer wanted to spend much time with us. He’d given up Saturday night movie night with us to watch television alone in his room. When he did emerge, it was usually just to ask me for something to eat. Anything I said was met with a look that said, “You’re so stupid.” He was a little better with Eugene, but not much. At least, we consoled ourselves, he was still close with Paulette. She would come out for a weekend and stay with Matt while Eugene and I would go out to dinner. Inevitably, when we came home, we would find them cuddled on the couch, laughing and watching the sci-fi channel together. Then, last year, his world turned upside down. Paulette suddenly died. It is still hard to believe it’s true. She was only 61. A life-long asthmatic, she had been in the hospital for two weeks with a severe asthma attack when suddenly her body was ravaged by a terrible infection that no amount of antibiotics could get under control. The night before she died, the doctor called us at 11:00 pm and told us that if we wanted to see her one more time and say good-bye, we better come now. The three of us sat by her bedside, in intensive care, along with my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law and their cousins. She never opened her eyes. We drove the two hour drive back home at six in the morning, praying she would come out of the coma. Later that day, she died. Her loss leaves an empty space that can never be filled. When we lived in the city, she came to visit every Saturday. After we moved, she came out to Westhampton Beach at least once a month. She was an integral part of everything we did. She was Aunt Paulette. We worried about Matt. Eugene and I were able to express our feelings of loss but he was so quiet. He didn’t want to talk about it. He also didn’t want to go to the funeral. When we pressed him, he admitted that he couldn’t stand for people to see him cry. We compromised. He could wear his sun glasses but he had to be there. He needed to say good-bye and the family, especially my 90-year-old mother-in-law who was shattered by losing her daughter, needed him to be there. He sat next to his cousin and near his grandmother and made it through the long service. At the end, when we walked past the 5 open casket and said our last good-byes, he leaned down to hug me. I held him tight while he cried. After her funeral, we kept a close eye on how he was doing. He was anxious to return to his usual routine of school and rowing. For the first time in his life, he struggled with his schoolwork, telling us he was having trouble focusing. We debated finding a grief counselor for him. Ironically, it would be Paulette’s furniture that helped him to finally open up about how he was feeling. Let me explain. Paulette had no one to inherit her rental apartment. She was divorced, without children. All we could do was clean out her apartment so the landlord could get it ready for the next tenant. We had a month to do that. Sorting through her things was one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had. In the end, most of it was thrown away; most of it was not worth saving. But when we looked at her bedroom set, a full-sized platform bed with drawers and cabinets underneath and two matching nightstands, we immediately thought of Matt. The furniture was old enough that any chemicals would be long gone. But, to our surprise, when we asked Matt if he would like the furniture, he said no. I sat down with him and pressed him why he didn’t want the furniture. His eyes filled with tears. “Maybe it’s my fault she died,” he said quietly. “How do you figure that?” I asked. “If I hadn’t wished for new bedroom furniture, maybe Paulette would still be here,” he said softly. “No, honey” I explained. “We don’t have that kind of power in life. Your wishes had nothing to do with the infection that ended Paulette’s life. Part of mourning is guilt, we’re all feeling that. But you, of all people, have nothing to feel guilty about. Paulette knew how much you loved her.” That day we had a long talk about Paulette. I said I doubted if we would ever really get over losing someone as special as Aunt Paulette but somehow we had to go on. He told me it made him feel uncomfortable to think of benefiting from her loss. “Believe me, Matt,” I said. “It would make her so happy to know you have her furniture.” He said he would think about it. After a few days, he told us he would like to take her furniture. In a rented van, Eugene drove the bedroom set from Queens to our house. Matt helped him carry the furniture into the house and we piled it into the guest room until we could get his room ready. I walked across the hall and stared at his room. It was only then, at that moment, that it truly hit me what he had been trying to tell us all along about his room. I looked at this tall young man who was dealing with such heartache and I looked at this grown-up furniture he was inheriting. Neither he nor this furniture belonged in the baby-blue room. I had loved his room as much as he had and I realized I had been holding on to it, trying to stop time. I had to let it go. I couldn’t stop Paulette from dying and I couldn’t stop Matt from out growing his room. 6 “Your room needs a whole new design,” I told him. But how to achieve that goal? This was not like decorating the nursery or putting up some posters in a little boy’s room. I had no idea what the room should look like and neither did he. But I did know what I could no longer deny: this was no longer a boy’s room. It needed to fit the tastes of a young man. And so we embarked on a new project together. To help us, we turned to B&T Décor and Staging (www.btdecorstaging.com). The B&T are for Becca and Tracy, Rebecca Schmidt and Tracy Tamucci, and their motto is “we design with you in mind.” I’d seen their designs for other rooms and was impressed- their work was creative, colorful, unique and affordable. Whether the room was a living room, kitchen, bathroom or bedroom, they specialized in helping people define their own style and completing the job on budget. First, they sat down with us and explained their goals for Matt’s room: to create a more grown up design scheme, to make more efficient use of the space, to utilize many of the items that we already owned and to keep it hypoallergenic. Next, they met with Matt alone to find out what he would like in his room. They told us afterward that, believe it or not, once his parents were out of the room he was able to articulate what he wanted enough for them to formulate a plan. He asked for a very modern, clean look, with linear, geometric shapes. For his color scheme he wanted black and white and asked for all black walls! Luckily, they were able to persuade him that black walls weren't actually a good idea but a clean, crisp white room with black trim would give him the feel that he wanted. They also explained that he needed an “accent color” and he chose red. Then, taking Matt’s ideas into account, they began creating a design scheme for his room. Painting in the winter is never ideal but Christmas break was the only time everyone was available. It also would come right after Matt’s 16th birthday, making the room renovation his birthday present. He slept in his old bed for the last time Christmas Eve. We did our best to enjoy Christmas, but it was hard without Paulette. The room renovation would prove a great distraction. The day after Christmas we moved everything out of his room. Paulette’s furniture – the bed and nightstands – were moved into the garage to be sanded and painted. Once the room was empty, I repaired all the little holes in the walls and vacuumed the room. That night, after Matt and Eugene were asleep, I sat on the floor of his blue room. Other than the walls being dirtier, it looked just as it had when we moved into the house seven and a half years ago. I remembered him running into his new room, clutching his Mario action figure in his hand. We had left Manhattan in search of cleaner air and the hope that his health would improve. Here he was, bigger and healthier than I could ever have imagined. “It’s time,” I said to myself. With tears in my eyes, I said good-bye to the blue room. Becca and Tracy arrived early the next morning. They unloaded a car full of stuff and got to work right away transforming our little boy's room into something a teenager could call his own. Within a few hours the blue baby mural was sanded and primed and no 7 longer a visible reminder of the past. Already the space looked bigger and we could sense that a new life was beginning to take hold of the room. The girls’ positive and determined attitude was just what we needed. Over the next few days they worked tirelessly painting the walls and Paulette's furniture in a fun color scheme of black, white and red, all with Benjamin Moore hypoallergenic paint. To create a cool and geometric feel to the room they painted a faux headboard out of black and red squares on the wall where the old mural once was. It was exciting to watch them turn their design for his room into reality. After the paint dried they began decorating and organizing the room. They were able to use much of the previously unused space in his closet to store his television, DVDs, video games, and hanging clothes. They added a curtain to his closet so that he could close it off when he wanted his room to look clean and grown up. To keep the room from looking cluttered, they hung just a few pictures on the walls, pictures that Matt had chosen for his new room: a photograph of the Brooklyn Bridge, a copy of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, a pencil abstract Matt drew in art class, a small red and black abstract that Paulette had painted years ago and a Bruce Springsteen poster. Creative touches like a magnetic bulletin board for school work, a floor pillow with fun fabric for friends to sit on, and his Star Wars light saber helped keep a playful feel to the room so it didn't become too adult. That first night, right after the renovation was completed, we stood there with Becca and Tracy, amazed at the transformation of his room. He was so moved he had to put his sunglasses on so we wouldn’t see it in his eyes. Surprisingly, I wasn’t teary. Just excited that he finally had the room he wanted. He loves his new room, everything about it. It is his sanctuary. It’s hard to even remember now what the mural of kites, clouds and suns looked like or what shade of blue the walls were. His room has moved on, just as he has. How fitting that Paulette’s furniture was the catalyst, pushing everything forward. It is now a year since Paulette died and we are able to freely talk about her and remember all the good times we had together. And finally, I’ve moved on, too. I am better able these days to enjoy who Matt is without that nagging longing for the little boy he used to be. It also helps that these days he speaks more and glares less. No one would have understood that more than Paulette. It is as she predicted. But I remain convinced that changing his room helped to move the process along, if not for him, then certainly for me. Now all that’s left is to figure out what to do with all his old stuff in the basement. I’m hesitant to throw everything out or give it all to charity. After all, hopefully I will have a grandchild one day who, with any luck, will happily sit in my lap and watch Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree with me. But tackling those boxes in the basement can wait. I have been invited to watch Aliens with Matt in his new room. It was one of Paulette’s favorite movies. He has only one request, for me to please sit in a chair instead of on his new bed. “A Mom on your bed,” he laughs. “Now that’s gross.” I laugh, too, because it’s funny and because, finally, I understand completely.