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Grief had a color – gray. That was what Will had come to realize in the weeks after the death of his father. As an art major, he had never really paid special attention to the bland, pallid shade that paled in comparison to vibrant reds and rich blues, but now it was different. The color itself seemed ever-present and followed him everywhere he went. It alternated back and forth from overpowering and heady to sullen and gloomy, often so fast and so sudden that it made the ground beneath his feet tilt and the world around him spin.
At nineteen, Will was legally an adult but still more boy than man. He had been raised in a sheltered and wealthy suburb and didn’t even know how to do his own laundry until a year ago, when he went off to college and was forced to grow up. While he knew of the crimes and corruption in the world, he had never truly experienced terror or pain. The news regarding his father was a cruel blow, one that left him disoriented and dizzy.
Will’s father had been a strict and harsh man. He was equally as meticulous as he was unforgiving. In many ways, he was like a wasp – proud, quick to get fired up, and eager to sting once he was angry. There was no gentle guiding in his parenting, only pushing. Will both feared him and craved his approval. It made for a rocky childhood and an even harder adolescence. He remembered crying often and worrying about everything.
But despite all of their arguments and the tense silence-filled days after each one, Will loved his father unconditionally. He was the only person that he could visualize himself going fishing or watching basketball with. Ironically, he was also the only person that Will could see himself fighting with. Will was, by nature, moody and quiet. It seemed that he had inherited those personality traits from his mother. He never chose to speak up about anything, not in school or outside of it. But with his father, Will often found himself red-faced and livid, boiling over with a fury that he didn’t know he was even capable of possessing. He seemed to bring out the worst in his father, as well, who matched his turbulent emotions with an equally loud voice and just as much exasperation. The two of them disagreed on everything related to his classes, college of choice, and career path. His father made it clear that he expected Will to be the best of the best in everything. Will was willing to play puppet until he discovered a surprising talent for art. From then on, nothing went well between them.
But Will had never wanted to arrive home to a message left on the answering machine by his mom telling him that his father had been the victim of a fatal traffic accident.
Death was an awful word, but grief was even worse.
Will hadn’t known the true meaning of it until that moment. It was foreign and had never applied to him before. When it had fully registered in his mind that his father was gone and never coming back, he felt that the five-letter word was a poor description of the strange emptiness inside his chest. He wasn’t sure if it was his love of painting or if he was crazy, but words, whether spoken to him or simply read on a page, were often accompanied by colors. The word sneer brought a burst of crimson, taunting and belittling, while jungle evoked lush, jewel-toned greens. Grief was gray, a common color that was suddenly not quite so simple to Will.
For a moment, he wondered if emotions could be felt not just psychologically, but also physically. His throat was tight and his head pounded. He thought of the petty and unreasonable arguments he had had with his father and the fact that the last time he had spoken to him had been over a month ago.
That first week, Will stayed in his apartment and slept until his body refused to sleep any longer. He didn’t want to get up and he didn’t have the energy to do so anyway. He thought to himself with a wry smile that he was every bit as lazy, useless, and immature as his father had told him years ago. Above all, he felt utterly incapable of dealing with the entire thing. His father had been the dominant figure in his family – the one that made the decisions and knew exactly what he was doing. Will’s mom often joked that the two of them were the perfect foils for each other. And now, with his father suddenly just gone, Will felt as if he had been caught high in the air, suspended for the briefest of moments, and then thrown carelessly back to earth.
In those days and weeks, many things occurred to him. The first was that his father would never be able to meet Will’s future wife or play with his children. It was a trivial thought, but the realization hurt much more than Will had expected. Mostly, he thought of how unfair it was that his father’s life had been so easily taken away. Despite his strict standards, he had been a truly good person and viewed life as a place full of wonder and possibilities. It suddenly felt like the world had somehow betrayed him by dealing him such a bad hand of cards.
Will flew from his college in New Jersey back home to South Carolina to attend the funeral. When he returned, Will went on with his life. He had never been an emotional person and didn’t want to wallow in any type of misery. It was painful, excruciatingly so, but it wasn’t the type of pain that he was willing to share with others. He continued on, lost in some ways and hurt in others, but determined to keep up with classes and homework nonetheless.
At the end of the semester, the final project in his oil painting class was to pick something – anything – and fill up an entire canvas with it. The assignment filled Will with a sense of dark dread. He couldn’t think of anything but grief and the gray that came with it.
But later that night, as he sat staring at the blank canvas ahead of him, sorrow pushed through his consciousness slowly, deep blue like the ocean. Regret followed slowly in a pale shade of lavender. Then, quicker, a searing flash of red anger. Dark violet frustration came next, followed by an unexpected burst of yellow, full of cautious cheer and hope.
Will reached for his paintbrush.
Three hours later, he finished. His painting was filled with colors and emotions, and not one of them was gray.