I had a deplorably short attention span as a kid. One week I was a piano-key-tinkling fiend, then a Pelé-in-the-making the next. I was relentlessly and tirelessly on the go. Let’s be clear, it wasn’t so much that I was prone to boredom, but that I found so many things interesting. I just wanted to gobble up the world in a single sitting. As a result, I’d be smacking tennis balls against the side of the house one minute, and racing down the street on my roller-skates the next.
Perpetual motion was my game, and from the look of things, I was determined to sprint through life.
That is, until I’d pick up a piece of paper and a pencil.
Drawing became a meditation garden within an inquisitive mind that lacked a power-off button, and the one thing that I could sit still for. Maybe, just maybe, that’s why my mom encouraged it. (A more cynical person might suspect it was an act of self preservation on her part.) Be that as it may, I had a knack. And while I played at full tilt, almost as if the objective was to finish whatever it was that I was doing as quickly as humanly possible, I could draw for hours.
I’d sit in front of a piece of paper, meticulously duplicating an image from a magazine cover or some such.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise, then, that my mom enrolled me in art classes. First it was acrylics, followed by watercolors, but it was oil painting that became my passion—a forgiving medium with vibrant colors—and one that I centered my life around until another hobby ate up all my time.
Again, we go back to my mom. She signed me up for a class in the hope that it would help create a healthy outlet for my boundless energy, and I took to it like a duck to water. Within a couple years, I’d risen to the rank of an elite gymnast, even winning a national title on my very first trip to the Junior National Championships. By then, I was so thoroughly infected with the gymnastics bug that I set art aside. My peculiar logic dictated that a gymnastics career would have a short shelf life, and I could always pick up a paintbrush when I’d retired.
Logic, unfortunately, doesn’t account for the caprice of life.
I was twenty-four when it happened. I’d been touring Australia with the Chinese national gymnastics team, and had flown back to Baton Rouge, Louisiana for a competition called the Mardi Gras Invitational. It was a pretty big deal. Only five men and five women from the US Gymnastics Team were invited to participate.
It turns out that the head cold I caught on the flight, combined with jet lag, made for something of a lethal combination. I was warming up a series of release moves on high bar (you know, you let go of the bar, flip around twelve feet above the ground, regrab the high bar, and continue…) and didn’t notice the little girl with the camera standing to the side. She took a flash photo of me in mid-release—one that blinded me—and I missed my regrasp to the bar.
Normally, when you miss a release, you simply “tuck and roll,” dropping twelve feet onto your back. Since you land on a six-inch thick “landing pad,” it merely knocks the air out of you.
Well, that’s where the head cold and jet lag come in. I was disoriented, and simply forgot to tuck and roll.
It’s funny how something so simple can change everything. I stuck out my arms and dove twelve feet into the ground, instead.
The official diagnosis was extreme dislocation, but the surgeon said, “For all practical purposes, your left arm was severed off at the elbow.”
Every ligament, every muscle, and every tendon that should have been attached to my elbow was found near my wrist. My ulnar nerve had wrapped itself around both the radius and ulna (think forearm bones), and the major artery had been pinched off.
Further description isn’t required.
I was flown to the Houston Medical Center where the plan was to amputate what was left. My parents, however, had other ideas.
They brought in a surgeon who’d developed a reconstructive technique, and I was to be his experiment.
The odds were pretty long that my arm would ever function properly again, but there would be no odds at all if it were amputated.
Eight hours later, after I’d been wheeled into the hospital room that would serve as my home for a couple weeks, the surgeon was briefing my parents. As best as he could tell, the surgery was successful, but he was quick to add, “It might be up to six months before we can tell whether or not the arm will function at all. Prepare for the possibility that it might be a flail.”
A flail, a non-functional appendage.
As he said that, an associate surgeon ran a pen across my open palm and I closed my hand around it.
To be honest, I think no one was more surprised than the surgeon, himself.
After that, I had two years worth of physical rehabilitation, during which it became pretty clear that there was some nerve damage.
This is where I feel obligated to mention that I’m left-handed.
Would it surprise you if I confess that I never picked up a paintbrush or a pencil again? Don’t judge me too harshly. I was… afraid. It wasn’t within me to bear the possibility that the accident had robbed me of my knack for drawing as well as my gymnastics career.
And that’s where things stood for thirty years.
But then I wrote a book. And that took a type of courage I didn’t even know I possessed. So, I thought, why not?
I bought some magic markers, some sheets of art paper, and let me tell you what. My first attempt to draw nearly convinced me to never do so again. There were some tears, and perhaps even a few words that my mother wouldn’t approve of. Who knew that drawing could be physically painful?
All in all, though, I’m a perverse person. Instead of giving up, I doubled down. And when I doubled down, an interesting thing happened. My mind eventually found its way back to that meditation garden from my childhood, and everything else drifted away. There was no turning back. I’d fallen in love with color and form all over again.
Love. How strange. Apparently, it has no shelf life.
Take a look at some of my recent doodlings here: Scott’s Art