Thursday, November 12, 2009

Scar Series - My Son's Back

Besides painting and drawing pregnant nudes, naked men, and female nudes, I've also done a series on scars.  

Back in 2002, when my youngest son, Dylan, was 10, he was an intensely skilled athletic young boy who played soccer exceedingly well.  Then one night he quite suddenly began to lose the loss of his legs.  We took him to the emergency room immediately where he was operated on within 8 hours of arrival.  A couple of days after the surgery, he asked me to take a picture of his scar so he could see what it looked like.  The moment I saw the picture, I knew I had to draw it.  For me, art is a way of processing my feelings, and I certainly had myriad feelings about his surgery.  The doctor's first analysis of the situation when he looked at the MRI was that Dylan had cancer and was going to die and they had to operate immediately.  Thank God he was mistaken.  It was a cavernous hemangioma - like a birthmark - in his spine which had started to bleed and had blocked the nerves and begun to cause them to die.  The surgeon was able to cauterize the capillaries so that they stopped bleeding.  It won't happen again and couldn't have been avoided or predicted.  Any of us could have it happen.  Normally when it happens, it's in the brain and causes massive brain damage.  I am so thankful his mind wasn't affected.  I grieve for the loss of his outstanding athletic ability, but am grateful every day that his mind is intact and his spirit is extraordinary.  He has handled it beautifully.  Scar series is a testament to all the people who have had tragedies happen to them and have come out the other side triumphant.

Here's what Dylan wrote about his experience for his college essay this fall:

The questions have always been inevitable.

“Why are you in a wheelchair?” a fifth grade friend asks tentatively as I roll around the recess area where I was once king. Where I should still be king. “It’s complicated,” I answer evasively. “My legs just stopped working during the summer.” I’m already tired of this question, though I do understand their curiosity. I continue more cheerfully, “But I should be able to move on to crutches soon!”

“Why do you have those crutches?” a fellow fifth grader asks as I lower my safety guard stop sign to let her cross. Why indeed? Doesn’t everyone want to know just that, including me. Why me? I had mapped out my entire future: I was going to be a soccer player (famous of course). Now what will I do? But no, that type of talk will lead nowhere that I want to go. “There was this thing in my back,” I begin, “a cavernous hemangioma, which suddenly began bleeding one night and stopped the flow of nerves to my legs.” Seeing a confused look on her face, I try to clarify. “Basically, I had surgery on my back, and now I’ve got to learn to walk again.”

“Whoa!” a friend exclaims in the ninth grade locker room as we’re changing. “What is that crazy scar on your back from?” This is my favorite question, and you can usually tell my mood based on my response. If I’m somber, you get the regular old story. If I’m hurried or worried, then you get the short, version…something along the lines of, “I had back surgery when I was ten.” However, most of the time I respond with whatever comes to mind. The possibilities are endless. “Actually, I got that at my camp last summer,” I begin ambiguously, mind racing to create today’s story. “You see, I was at Shiloh Quaker Camp. Well, as I’m sure you well know, Quakers eat only oatmeal; that was actually the only food we had while I was there,” I continue, following that much loved Quaker stereotype [Thank you, ©Quaker Oats Company]. “As you might imagine, a diet of exclusively oatmeal provides a breeding ground for temporary insanity. One night, I woke up to find my crazed counselor standing over me and a knife in my back. They have now added chewy bars and oatmeal cookies to the menu. Anyway, that’s how it happened!”

“If you don’t mind my asking, where does your limp come from?” an actress asks me as I relax with my theatre troupe after the performance of our one act play, Degas C’est Moi. She continues, “Sorry if that’s awkward, but I really liked your acting, and I noticed you limping, so I was curious.” It’s hard to find anyone more unperturbed by social boundaries than actors; I guess that’s one reason I love them. “I had this thing in my back when I was younger that stopped my nerves and began to paralyze me from the chest down. They were able to get rid of it, but not without making me limp when I walk.” And messing up my sense of feeling and making it harder to control my bladder, but I leave that out for my recent acquaintance.

“Are you okay?” my opponent asks as I pick myself up off the tennis court. I brush pollen off my hands and knees and check scrapes for blood as I pick up my racket. My weak left foot had dragged and caught on the court as I lunged for the ball. “Yeah, I’m good. Thanks though.” I answer, “Your serve, right?”

«¿Por qué cojeas?» one of my students asks me with a concerned look on her face. We are hiking around the dramatic rock shelves surrounding the mountainous Peruvian city where I’ve come to volunteer this summer. My first day, and my student already noticed my limp. «Pues…» I begin hesitantly, unsure of the Spanish for much of what I want to say. «Cuando tenía diez anos, de repente no pude caminar. Yo necesitaba aprenderlo otra vez, y no lo aprendí perfectamente,» I say, telling her the same story that I’ve shared with so many others. Wherever I go, people will ask questions, and I’ll always strive to be ready with an answer.

“Why,” one of my shorter friends asks exasperatedly, “are you so darn tall?”


I'll post more stories and pictures from Scar Series in the days to come.


  1. SO striking and moving for this mother of 10 year old soccer player. Your mother-love lives in the curve of his still small shoulders and unpadded shoulder blades. My son does not have the scar, but the love and fear I feel when I look at his tiny but growing body looks just like your painting - I know it. There is always a scar. I love ALL your paintings. Thank you - Kristin

  2. Kristin,
    Thank you for your beautiful post. I'm so happy you got it.