What first drew me to this panel was the words “I LOVE you mom” scrawled in large blue letters across the lower half of the panel. I could feel the shout of desperation, the longing, the need to have the mother’s spirit know that her son loves her and misses her. These words speak to me, not about the mother lost, as much as the child left behind. It reminds me of my favorite book quote, from The Book Thief where death is speaking:
“It’s the leftover humans. The survivors. They’re the ones I can’t stand to look at, although
on many occasions I still fail. I deliberately seek out the colors to keep my mind off them,
but now and then, I witness the ones who are left behind, crumbling among the jigsaw
puzzle of realization, despair, and surprises. They have punctured hearts. They have
beaten lungs. Which in turn brings me to the subject I am telling you about tonight,
or today, or whatever the hour and color. It’s the story of one of those perpetual
survivors –an expert at being left behind.”
Looking at this panel I want to analyze the life of these young survivors. I want to hear their voices and know their stories. Their “punctured hearts,” and “beaten lungs” deserve to be remembered and understood. I want to understand Robert Brown, the creator of this panel, and how AIDS affected his life. He presented his panel at age 12. For him, every aspect of this panel honors his family, specifically the mother that he loves and misses. After viewing this panel, I read two letters sent in about the panel. One from a NAMES Project volunteer who witnessed the presentation and one from Robert himself.
The volunteer tells the story of a “tearful” Robert who struggled to let the panel go because it was like “once again he was forced to leave his mother.” Finally, Robert gave the panel to the AIDS quilt, asking that they “put it with ‘The other Mothers” who have died.”
In Robert’s letter, he explains the symbolism of the panel. The birds to the left and right of the circle are him and his sister. The bottom bird is his grandmother, who is now his guardian. The symbols at the bottom of the panel are animal tracks “leading to the spirit world.” The beige background represents the earth. The pinwheel made to represent life colors each represents aspects of nature:
Red- The sun
Blue- The sky
White- The clouds
At the center of this circle is where Robert believes his mother’s spirit is located. Robert never explains the illustrated cloths, but because they encircle the mother’s spirit, I believe they are Robert’s way of creating a perfect ‘heaven’ or ‘haven’ for his mother’s spirit. Surrounding her with beautiful images of nature is Robert’s way of bringing her the peace. This could represent the pressures these children face to protect their sick parent from the horrors of the world- they work tirelessly to give their suffering loved one a perfect life and when they lose that loved one they may feel the need to give them that perfection in death. It is very normal in our culture to want to bring peace to these lost ones, however, normally that weight is not put on the shoulders of a 12-year-old boy who just lost his mom.
Robert also did not mention the multicolored words like the “I LOVE you mom,” this could be a message for his mother’s spirit. This affectionate cry proves not only that the elements of this panel is meant for his mother, but also the desperation Robert faces to ensure that his mother knows how much he loves her. This panel shares the concerns of this young boy- How will she know where to go? What if she gets lost? Does she know that she is loved? Is she happy where she is? Does she finally feel better? Will she miss me?
Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. Print.