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The healing arts

A suicide attempt left a son's body broken, and his mother lost to guilt. With brush and bow, they have learned again to hope

Devin Lomon-Humes with his mother, Glynis Lomon. After Devin's suicide attempt, the pair found relief in art. Devin Lomon-Humes with his mother, Glynis Lomon. After Devin's suicide attempt, the pair found relief in art. (Suzanne Kreiter/ Globe Staff)
By Patricia Wen
Globe Staff / April 12, 2009
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Every chance he gets, Devin Lomon-Humes paints. With all the energy his ravaged body can muster, he drags a brush across a canvas, using bold colors to make radiant forms that defy the darkness he knows so well.

Glynis Lomon, his mother, plays the cello. Pulling her bow in rapid-fire strokes, she creates urgent jazz rhythms that fill every nook of her Wellesley apartment, and help her say things she otherwise buries.

Their creations are also their escape. They talk little of the winter afternoon more than a decade ago when Devin decided to die and nearly succeeded, a day when Glynis left him alone for about an hour and almost lost him. Guilt consumes her.

Filling the quiet space between them is their art, which has become their balm and, as it turns out, their bond. This is the story of a young man and his mother, of a brush and a bow, and a long, unusual journey toward hope.

It was the winter of 1998, and Devin, 21, was a talented student at the Massachusetts College of Art, with roguish good looks that were winning him modeling contracts. But he was also tortured by depression and paranoid delusions. Glynis was a struggling single mother, working as a massage therapist to supplement her nominal income as a musician.

Friends found it hard to tell whether Devin's behavior came from being part of a bohemian family - or was a sign of mental illness. Some madness may have been an inheritance: His father was the late Harold "Doc" Humes, a novelist and cofounder of the Paris Review whose gregarious life included at least one stint in a psychiatric ward.

When he was in Boston in the late 1970s, Humes was Glynis's much-older, on-and-off boyfriend and father of Devin - though in name only. He was too caught up in his role as a kind of eccentric genius around Harvard Square, fascinating college students with his iconoclastic ideas, including the therapeutic effects of marijuana and massage, to focus too much on the child.

Devin began to show signs of instability in adolescence, and shortly after turning 21, his mind began spiraling into a perilous place. At a Dec. 28 session with his therapist, Devin barely spoke, and the next day, he was equally uncommunicative with his psychiatrist. But with the few words he did offer, Devin made it clear to both clinicians that he was having suicidal thoughts. Glynis says she heard her son explicitly tell his psychiatrist that he wanted to throw himself in front of a subway train.

Both specialists recommended that Devin be hospitalized, but did not insist that it be done immediately, records show. Devin chose to wait for a bed at McLean Hospital in Belmont, probably the next day, and his mother and psychiatrist agreed.

Devin slept in his mother's Central Square condominium, and the next morning, Glynis received a call that the McLean bed was available.

But Glynis, 45, had a longtime client scheduled to come to her apartment for a massage. She hated to cancel. What difference would a couple hours make? Devin was on the living room couch when she walked into another room to meet her client.

She didn't hear the front door open.

Sometime after 1:30 p.m. at the Central Square Red Line station, according to an MBTA report, "a white male subject jumped in front of the train from the area of the collectors booth . . . motorman stated train was placed into an emergency stop. Victim was found in a prone position and in a conscious state under first car of train."

"During extrication," the report continued, "victim stated to Cambridge firefighters that he had tried to kill himself."

When Glynis finished the massage, she returned to the living room. Devin was gone. Glynis frantically scoured the apartment and looked outside.

Then the phone rang.

For weeks, Devin remained at Massachusetts General Hospital on a ventilator and feeding tubes, heavily sedated from surgeries to his fractured neck. He was largely paralyzed below the neck, though he retained some feeling in his arms. His right leg had to be amputated below the knee. He had suffered massive brain trauma. He was put on an array of medications, including psychotropic drugs.

Glynis, overwhelmed with anguish, threw herself into the round-the-clock role of caretaker.

She peppered doctors with questions. She read books about brain injuries. She fielded phone calls from friends and family.

Devin talked little with her about what had happened, but he confided some feelings to his older half-sister, Immy Humes.

"I was foolish," he told her from his hospital bed.

"You were sick," Immy recalls replying.

Friends brought brushes and sketch pads as gifts, and everyone wondered if Devin would paint again.

Art, it turned out, was not far from Devin's mind. While recovering from surgery that first week, his face displayed sudden alarm.

"My show!" he exclaimed.

Devin had had an art show scheduled for Jan. 7 at the Zeitgeist Gallery in Cambridge. His mother assured him that the event would go on without him. That day, some 300 people showed up for the opening - some weeping - to look over two dozen paintings from Devin's "Aerodynamic Aesthetic" series. They were mostly abstract landscapes, many with planets and moons.

Two of Glynis's friends played saxophone at the show - but she was in no mood to make music with them.

By Valentine's Day, after being transferred to a rehabilitation hospital in Woburn, Devin had regained the ability to partially lift both arms. He wore his baseball cap backward again, showed off his wheelchair finesse, and talked about getting tattoos to cover his scars. To friends who visited, he was basically the Devin they knew. And later, even more of the old Devin would return.

One day in May, Devin asked an aide to put a brush between his front teeth. He dabbed it into wells of paint, then jerked his head up and down, side to side. First with thin blue lines, then bold splashes of yellow, he transformed a blank white paper into a profile of a man - his hand outstretched.

To his mother, the image symbolized Devin saying, "There's a path ahead."

For Devin, it was a breakthrough. He set out to explore the capabilities of his new body. He painted with a brush taped to the palm of his right hand. He also used his chair as a brush, coating the wheels with paint and whirling in sweeping, intersecting circles across giant sheets of paper spread across the floor. His creations confirmed to him that art was, as he would later say, "the sustenance of my being."

Glynis beamed with pride as Devin's new work went on display in two shows in 2000.

Devin's mood improved too. Though he often vented frustration - particularly at his mother - over wearing diapers or needing help turning his body in bed, he was generally more cheerful. Doctors took him off all psychotropic drugs. He was soon declared free of any major psychiatric illness.

Nobody could explain why his depression lifted. But Devin's neuropsychologist, Dr. Roger Cohen, said some patients, after suffering brain damage, experience and express emotions differently than before, some perhaps even losing the ability to feel the darkest of emotions.

For Glynis, it was a welcome but unfathomable bright spot in her life.

"In a way, he's back," she thought to herself. "He's more who I know - my son."

By 2000, Glynis knew her own life needed new direction. Her marriage to an audio technician had ended years earlier, and the son they had together, then in high school, needed a fair share of his mother's time. She had sold her Cambridge condominium and renovated a multifamily home in Watertown to give Devin a first-floor unit. She and a team of home health aides helped care for him.

Her massage therapy practice had been put on hold. And in the corner of her study was the brown case containing her antique cello, which she had had since middle school. She had performed only once in more than a year.

Some friends suggested that she see a therapist, but she preferred to consult with a spiritual adviser she had known for years.

There, she unloaded her feelings of guilt for, among other things, failing to cancel the massage appointment on that December day.

"I could have stayed with him the whole time," she kept thinking.

Over many sessions, often on a weekly basis, Glynis began to recall the haunting memories - the empty couch, the phone call, the taxi ride to the emergency room, the surgeons' grim faces. That winter day, she remembered, was "like being hit by a tidal wave."

As time passed, she unleashed anger at Devin's therapist and psychiatrist. She decided she alone should not shoulder blame. As medical professionals, she felt, they should have better assessed the risk and insisted that Devin go immediately to any available psychiatric bed - not home with her. She and Devin hired a lawyer to file a medical malpractice suit.

In May that year, while in her Watertown apartment, she received a call from Bill Dixon, a trumpeter who had been her mentor while she studied music at Bennington College in Vermont.

"Why don't you play at the Vision Festival?" he asked.

It was a major New York City cultural event with musicians, dancers, and poets. There, she would not play her style of free jazz - fast-paced swooping sounds that were her unique voice; she would be one of 30 musicians in an ensemble led by Dixon. Still, the idea of being in a community of musicians appealed to her.

She went over to her cello, rubbed the bow with rosin and sat down to play. Later, when the phone rang and a young trumpet player from Jamaica Plain offered to drive her down, she made up her mind.

"She was dealing with such a heavy load and that's why it was so great to get her back to playing," the trumpet player, Taylor Ho Bynum, would recall later. "She's an extraordinary musician. . . . The intensity of her music is so palpable."

Ultimately, playing in that Manhattan ensemble revived Glynis's love of her cello. And over the next several years, music would regain its vital place in her life.

"When I get to play music, I get to remember what life's really about and who I really am," she said one recent day in her apartment. "Basically I have a feeling of joy when I play cello. It's getting those emotions out. It's a release."

On a rainy afternoon late last month, Glynis and Devin went to her parents' high-rise apartment in Cambridge overlooking the Charles River. There, a half-dozen of Devin's paintings hung along the front hallway against a crisp white background like museum pieces. Moving around in his wheelchair, Devin sported a new haircut under his baseball cap, and his body was adorned with some 30 tattoos, including ones covering his tracheotomy and the stump from his partially amputated leg.

His mother, now 56, stopped in the hallway to look at a framed picture that used mustard-colored paints mixed with dirt and bits of metal.

"Is that pre-injury or post-injury?" she asked.

"It's post - all the 'Gold Series' is after the injury," Devin replied.

In all the hours they spend together, Devin and his mother rarely discuss the details of that December day more than a decade ago, and it's referred to as the day of the "injury." Sometimes, Devin will call it the "accident."

His deepest regret is the anguish that he has caused his mother and others that he loves. He gives his mother credit for ultimately protecting him from despair. His inheritance from her, he says, is the philosophy that one does the best with what life brings.

"In this remarkable way, she taught me a certain piousness," Devin, now 31, said recently. "There's a spiritual benefit to whatever life puts forth."

He and his mother live in different towns now. Coordinating all of Devin's care in the Watertown apartment proved too difficult over time, and he now lives in an Everett nursing home while they look for a new arrangement. Glynis sold the Watertown place and now rents the apartment in Wellesley.

Devin and his mother talk nearly every day on the phone, and twice a week, they go on outings, maybe taking their dog to the park or attending a concert. They get around in a handicapped van, bought with some of the $350,000 that Devin ultimately netted from settlement of the legal case. Theirs is a relationship of doing, not analyzing or re-living the past.

Just last weekend, Glynis and her trio performed at the Outpost, an off-beat venue only blocks from the Central Square subway stop. Wearing a glistening maroon blouse and lipstick, Glynis took her place on the small stage, with her cello, then plunged in. Her acrobatic style captivated her audience.

Sitting in the back of the room were her parents, as well as Devin in his wheelchair. The familiar rhythms of the music brought smiles to his face, his eyes often closed. When the audience burst into applause at the end, Devin clapped in the only way he could - his fist pounding against his leather armrest, which was speckled with paint.

Patricia Wen can be reached at wen@globe.com.