SPICEWOOD, Texas (KXAN) - In April 2000, Jared Dunten, 26,and a friend approached the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park.After a couple of tough hiking days in the park's Chisos Mountains,a bath was in order. Dunten grabbed a bar of soap and headed forthe water. He knew better; he really did know better, and he admitsto having enjoyed a couple of beers. Maybe that is why. Maybe it isnot.
For some reason, though, Jared Dunten clasped his bar of soapand dived in. The river was its usual brown-tinged swirl of dirtand water but from the moment he hit the Rio, the only color Duntenknew anything about was black, mindless, numbing, quiet black.
When the darkness lifted, Dunten's eyes fell on the instrumentsand accouterments of an intensive care unit at a Lubbock hospital.His body ached with pain.
"It felt like it was on fire," he said.
What was even stranger, he couldn't move it. From his neck down,no muscles obeyed his command to function. He could hear, though.Noises came from everywhere, especially from the ventilator thatgrabbed the air his lungs could not. In those lungs, polluted andfilthy river water staked a claim on Dunten's life.
Back at the Rio Grande, his friend had given him mouth-to-mouthresuscitation for two hours after that fateful dive, pausing onlyto scream for help, until a medical team finally arrived. That kepthim alive, but now his lungs labored under the curse of pneumoniaand he could not move.
From Lubbock, Dunten went to a rehab hospital in Houston. Thepain killing drugs circulating in Dunten's veins there caused himto drift in and out of sleep. Once he awoke to find a "bigbeautiful black woman dressed in white," singing gospel songs tohim.
"Am I in Heaven," he wondered? Of course, he was not. He lay,instead, in Hell, confused and in pain, still unable to move.
A year passed and the sickness gradually left his body. Two moreyears went by, devoted to the hard work of regaining his strength.It was during that time that Dunten's mother suggested he put apaint brush in his mouth and put something on a blank canvass.
"Just do it," he recalled her saying.
So he did it and to his surprise, it was fun. It focused hisattention, not in a pacifying, but in an engaging way. It didn'tjust give him something to do; it gave him something to be. Thepaintings piled up and so did the sales.
There was something else going on, as well. Dunten had a friendwho was dating a woman who had a friend of her own. Kim was hername and the joint friendships led to time together for Jared andKim. What followed was a slow process, a "serious business," asDunten described it. When he finally went to Kim's father to askfor permission to marry her, the man only smiled.
"What took you guys so long?" he asked. "We knew six monthsago"”
Photographs from the wedding adorn a shelf in the Dunten home, ahome built by employees and clients from the GSD&M advertisingagency, for whom he still works. In the next room, Dunten and hismouth are hard at work at a custom easel his father made for him.His wife mixes his paints with her right hand, her left resting onhis. They laugh easily. The brush is wedged inside a hole in theend of a short dowel rod. At the other end of the rod, a piece ofT-shirt cloth is wrapped and taped, allowing Dunten to hold itfirmly in his mouth. He mumbles a request to Kim, who somehow knowsexactly what he wants and quickly responds.
"Jared has a beautiful soul," she testifies. "So he brings a lotof beauty to it."
There is talk of a family of their own someday and there istalk, a lot of talk, of Jared Dunten getting up on his two legs andwalking.
"I've never let a doctor or anyone tell me, you know, 'This isit,'" he said. "I mean, because I'm, you know, I don't believethat. I really don't and I don't think it's denial; I don't thinkI'm delusional."
Husband and wife bring up Christopher Reeve, the Superman actorwho was paralyzed in a horse riding accident and championedresearch and treatment for spinal cord injuries before his owndeath in 2004 cut that work short.
"Superman had my back," Denton said. "Now if I have to take onthat cause, I will."
So he paints, day in and day out, he paints. He is, he assuresanyone who will listen, painting his way out of his wheelchair.
"If you're right, at some point, you're going to walk; you'regoing to run," I said. "What's that going to be like; can youeven...?"
The pause is long as Dunten tries to form the words withoutcrying. It doesn't work. The tears come but so do the words.
"It'd be fantastic."
His wife reaches out and puts her hand on his arm. She cries,too.
"I have a lot of debts to repay," he adds.
He will repay those debts someday, he promises, by walking up tothose who have helped him and wrapping his now motionless armsaround them. She may not know it yet, but a gospel singing womandown in Houston, may have a big hug in her future.
Jared Dunten will present his paintings in a one-person show that will run from March 4 through 28 at Access Gallery, a new space dedicated to promoting creativity in people with disabilities. A reception for the artist is scheduled for Saturday from 5 to 7 p.m at the gallery, located at 3701 Guadalupe Street, Suite 103.
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