Before you go, do you love you?
In a humble piece of art, my late son left me an important question and, possibly, an even more important answer.
“I want to make paintings that look as if they were made by a child.”
There is a paradox in words. On the one hand, they are fragile things that can sometimes fall apart with the slightest pressure. On the other hand, they can be indestructible, for they can inspire great and noble deeds the effects of which are permanent. Fragility and permanence sometimes live side by side in words. When we speak or write, we can convey both ephemeral wishes and timeless truths, or, sometimes without our awareness, ask profound questions of ourselves and others. “To be or not to be,” is a simple contemplation, yet from it flow the deepest questions of human existence.
I have these thoughts in mind as I consider a singular creation of my late son, Enzo. I noted in my last essay his love of music, but in recent years it was art that beguiled him more and more frequently. No art form meant more to him than graffiti. I grew up in New York City, during the early years of hip-hop, when graffiti was the visual manifestation of that underground culture, and so it was natural for me to introduce it to my boys when they were very young. I told them that I used to write my graffiti name on trains as a kid (a practice called “tagging”). Together, we watched movies such as Wild Style, Style Wars, and The Freshest Kids, so that they could appreciate this often-misunderstood art form and understand its role in New York’s social history. From the start, Enzo loved graffiti art and soon became familiar with its pioneers: Taki, Phase 2, as well as more famous artists like Keith Haring. Indeed, shortly before he died, Enzo travelled to New York for an exhibition of his favorite artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat (who also started his artistic journey drawing graffiti) and returned amazed at having experienced his art up close.
Graffiti art mesmerized Enzo. He read about it and studied it online. He painted his own t-shirts and jackets. One day I found him in the garage spray-painting his new bicycle—the same one he would eventually die riding. For me, as a cyclist, to spray-paint a bicycle would have been irreverent, but I smiled, for I understood that to him it was the ultimate act of personalization, yet another sign to the world that he was blazing his own path through the colors and images that filled his mind. No creation of his, however, is quite like the work he made shortly before starting college.
One spring day, he went to the garage at his mom’s house, where he carefully made a large rectangle on the floor, about four by five feet in size, from paper towels he took from a roll in the kitchen. Why he did not buy an art board on which to draw is a mystery, but I suspect he was acting spontaneously with whatever materials he had at hand. With the paper towels formed into his canvas, he painted with spray cans in the tradition of the best graffiti kids. The green base-layer traces an arc counter-clockwise from the letter “u” to two versions of the word “you.” The next layer is black and poses a question: “Before u go, do you love YOU?” Enzo then adds the word “Love” in red paint to the right and “MOM” in pink to the left. The last main layer, dark blue, contains three elements: a box around the “Be” in “Before” that connects to the word “you" in the center; a double arrow that unites “MOM” and “Love”; and an arrow from “go” to the question mark at the bottom right. At the top right is a yellow quarter-sun with four rays, which I suspect was the last item Enzo added (because I often advised that he leave the lightest colors for last). He left the pieces on the garage floor to dry for a day and then packed them for an upcoming move into a new home. I saw it for the first time on the day after he died.
Enzo Marcel Alvarenga (2003-2022)
Before you go, 2021
Aerosol acrylic on paper towels
I have lost count of the hours I have spent since that day contemplating the image above. Though I could not of course know the thoughts in the mind of my eighteen-year old son, I can intuit many ideas and wishes he was trying to express in the painting. There is the connection between the concept of love and his mother, for whom he cared immensely. There is the phrase “Be you,” which was the motto of his life. There is the sun shining above his world. There are the shadows behind the words “you,” which he added to give the word special emphasis and visual depth. Most importantly, there is the question: “Before you go, do you love you?”
I never had the chance to ask Enzo what he meant by his query, but I know I will ponder its meaning for the rest of my life. It is tempting to consider that “go” refers to his leaving for college, but perhaps it does not. Perhaps he was making a statement about his future, thinking about what experiences he would have, as most young boys and girls do. Imagining how his life might develop, I think he felt that the journey would be best if he were fully at peace with himself, a state he had not yet reached. Like most teenagers, he had self-doubts and anxieties, and perhaps in this work he gave himself a message: before leaving home, before entering the world on your own terms—indeed, before ending life—be sure to love the soul within you—the unrepeatable combination of dreams, thoughts, hopes, and desires that make every human being unique.
I believe that Enzo’s question was for his mother too. No differently from most mothers, her first child’s departure from home was difficult. A father may see his son prepare for college and be proud of having helped raise a fine young man with a bright future. A mother sees something else. She sees that the child whom she bore and held in her arms every day of his life is preparing to leave her side. It is a separation of lives that were joined before the child took his first breath.
I am convinced that Enzo saw in his mother both her pride in his achievement and her sadness at his departure. “Mom,” I believe he was saying, “I know that since I was born you have lived for me, giving everything you could so that I would flourish. It is time now for you to care for yourself and to love your own life and value it as much as you have valued mine.” It was a lovely wish from a caring son to his devoted mother, and it was wholly in the character of a boy who wanted the people around him to be well and the world around him to be kind.
With his death, I return to the questions that Enzo asks us to consider with his humble home-made art: before you go, do you love who you are, how you live, and what you have accomplished with your days on earth? Before you go, are you at peace with those you love and those who love you? Before you go, are you content with the life you have lived and prepared for the end that is to come?
I wrote in a previous essay about the misfortune of losing a son who was the world to me. In it, I questioned whether I had been a good enough father to make his short life worth the price of a premature death. As I look at Enzo’s painting, now preserved in a frame, I consider that perhaps Enzo had already provided me the answer. Rather than tear myself apart wondering about fate and worth, I need to heed my dead son’s advice and find peace in who I am and what I was to him. Perhaps, before I go, I need to love who I have been and believe that it was enough for the quiet, introspective boy who had so much to say.
Carlos, I have been following your writing since hearing you lecture in one of Toby's courses at JHU. I am so sorry for your tragic loss, and so touched by your bravery in sharing your journey through such cruel heartbreak. Your achingly beautiful writing has helped me process some of my own experiences with loss, and provides such a clear window into the opaque place where all the heartbreak and beauty of parenting exists. Thank you for sharing your Enzo, and your love for him, with us. Kindest regards, Lucy