|The date was fast approaching for my discharge from the rehabilitation unit of University of Washington Hospital. I had attended a few other going away celebrations for other patients who either preceded me or whose injuries were not as extensive.
These parties were always tinged with a heavy dose of uncertainty for by leaving the secure confines of the hospital the support network would rest with the family and their ability to manage care and the various agencies that offered help in vocational training and out patient follow up.
My parents had made modifications to our home in order to accommodate my chair. They had moved their bedroom upstairs and I used their former space as a studio with a small bedroom next door. All was prepared for my discharge except for my state of mind. After a solid year in the hospital, I had become accustomed to being waited on for my needs and knew that at home I would be fending for myself or developing habits that would encourage my family to help me.
I gathered in the occupational therapy room with all the nurses, doctors, therapists and fellow patients who had almost become a second family to me after my long stay with them. We toasted my departure and I made gifts of paintings to most of those individuals who had provided care, love and attention to my fears, my bodily needs and my peace of mind. I would later have a private farewell at a local nightclub with my inner circle of friends.
Shortly after the Bicentennial celebration of America I moved home. Ironically, since Independence Day would never be for me again. This would be a test for my entire family. Of my 4 brothers, only Eric, the youngest was still at home. At ten years old he barely knew how my condition came about but he was eager to help out as he was able. I hired my older brother, William to help me out of bed and get my day started. He would come across town and usually fix himself some breakfast before attending to my needs. Usually it was near noon by the time I was up and about my affairs.
The lion's share of my personal care fell to my mother. Besides her regular household activities, it was she who helped to coordinate my appointments, dress any sores I might develop and the personal needs of defecation and renal care. On occasion my bladder would not empty properly and she would be obliged to snake a catheter into me and drain the yellow fluid into a tray. This could be a tricky operation for involuntary muscle contractions could upset the tray and spill urine over both of us.
Needless to say I felt as though I had returned to the state of a small child and wondered if I would ever be able to have a life of my own. Fortunately, I had my art. This gave me something to focus on instead of my pathetic condition. Without distraction I would paint all day, usually throwing away most of the day's production before bedtime. Evening found me scanning the cable channels for a late show from my electric bed who's head came up enough to watch comfortably.
During warmer months I would struggle to push myself up and down the alley outside our home. Unfortunately, the ends of the alley dropped off precipitously and so I was stuck on this one block unless I determined to be in my power wheelchair which gave me greater freedom but did nothing for my exercise. I'd spend time with the other neighborhood children and remember my happier moments playing with my mates who were now marrying and starting their own families. Although it was medically possible I felt resigned that I would not know the joy and pain of parenthood. I was having difficulty imagining that any woman would be interested in spending time with me.
An older friend of mine who also is an artist asked me if I would be interested in joining him in conducting informal art sessions at nearby Children's Hospital. I jumped at this chance to get out of the house and share what I could with patients who in many cases were much more disabled than I. It was a singular pleasure to feel worthwhile again and the pictures that were created during those visits helped decorate patient rooms and pass the time constructively. After some months I decided to apply for grant money that would allow me to expand the program to 20 hours a week and found funding through the Comprehensive Employment Training Act.
This not only lent legitimacy to my classes but also introduced me to a company of artists who were also in the program and affiliated with the Seattle Arts Commission. Slowly I met others who shared my belief that art could be used as a form of non verbal therapy. Special Education teachers and therapists encouraged me to seek additional training and as luck would have it a course was being offered at Seattle Pacific University not far from my home. Classes were paid for by the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation and taught by instructors from VSA arts, an educational affiliate of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D. C.
This remarkable organization, founded by Jean Kennedy Smith in 1974, would continue to be a vital source of creative opportunities for many years.
Besides the art therapy training that I was able to instantly apply to my sessions with the hospital kids, I was invited to participate in a local art festival sponsored in part by VSA arts. I showed a small sampling of my increasingly competent paintings and endeavored to demonstrate my painting technique by rendering a few portraits of festival goers.
This lead to an invitation to be a delegate to VSA art's first National Arts Festival in Washington D. C. in the Spring of 1979. My brother Bill joined me as we toured the wonderful collections of art and monuments and made the acquaintance of Jaime Wyeth and Andy Warhol who were also demonstrating their art. I recall Andy saying as he drew a Campbell's soup can "What flavor should we make it? Turned out to be Mushroom. He looked over the collection I'd brought with me, mostly small cubist-like heads and hands, and declared them "Great". Bill drew his portrait and gave it to him.
The next landmark in my carreer was being voted into the illustrious band of macho artists, The Puget Sound Group of Northwest Painters. Since I was a kid I'd celebrated at annual picnics and joined in sketchtrips of the group. As a member I produced a large high quality picture that was auctioned at the annual stag banquet. My Dad isn't just a Life Member but has led the vaudeville - like skit the group produced as the evening's entertainment. The group is the oldest self-sustaining professional art group on the West Coast, being founded in 1928.
In 1980, I first heard about and applied for membership to the Association of Mouth & Foot Painting Artists. The art created by this group decorates greeting cards, calendars and other products and sold by mail throughout the world. I doubted my work to be of adequate ability but persisted, striking up a correspondence with a nearby student member. In 1985 I received the good news and joined also at the student member status and elevated to full member in 1995. Through this magnificent association I have found a freedom from worry and establishment of friendships globally.
It has been a distinct pleasure to attend the group's conventions in Shanghai, Mexico City, Vancouver B.C., Vienna, Buenos Aires, Sydney and Lisbon. In 1999 a solo exhibit of my work was shown at their gallery in Selborne, England. My wife Anne' and I lived there during August before continuing a long stay in Tuscany. In my journals are reflections from these times as well as stories about other travel for conventions including Brussels and Lima, Peru where we took the opportunity to visit the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu.
I first moved away from my parents home 6 years after I had re-entered it. Delightful brick duplexes were right across the street and featured a terrific view to the East. I moved in for six months with my younger brother Chris who had gotten out of the airforce, was restoring a '56 Chevy and rebuilding a romance with his high school sweetheart. The combination didn't work out and soon I was back home only now I no longer had use of the studio. It had become the "Family Room" with the TV. I managed to downsize enough to fit everything in my bedroom and became more cloistered than ever.
My other brother, Rodger, lived nearby but was soon to be evicted since the property was being developed. On the way home one day I noticed a For Sale sign on the abandoned grocery store that had been the center of neighborhood activity when I was young. I jumped at the chance to pick this up and Rodger agreed to go in on it with me.
We split the place in two, he occupying the front and I the use of the apartment in back. I hired an attendant outside the family and settled down with renewed vigour to build a permanent home for myself.
In an effort to further my interests I sought employment and through the efforts of the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation secured a position as receptionist to the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington. It was enjoyable enough to volunteer 20 hours a week for 2 years in order to establish a paid position that is now only part time. The museum staff is a fabulous source of inspiration and knowledge and I've made many friendships over the years.
The time was right to meet a special someone and the pattern of volunteerism leading to opportunity again occurred in leading me to my heart's desire. Through the dental program at the University of Washington, I attended to cleanings, fillings and even lectured to the 3rd year students about spinal cord injuries.
My assigned hygenist for the day was a beautiful and vibrant woman named Anne'. We discovered a mutual friend who's parents had gone away for the winter and she was housesitting in their Seattle home near me. She visited me at home, liked my work and we began making further dates. Her powerful spirit moved me in ways I had never known and I knew our union was to be something very special. We were wed aboard a chartered yacht and have enjoyed a full life together.
Besides our numerous travels around the world we have enjoyed the company of Anne's two daughters and their fabulous kids. They reside in rural Texas and we celebrate with them as often as we can.
God has been very good to me in spite of the trials I have endured. I encourage you to do the best with your life and remember to never give up on your dreams.