Paralyzed man finds therapy in scroll saw carving
Holland — Robert and Barb Tucker planned to retire and travel to all the national parks.
“But this is different,” Robert, a Vietnam War infantryman said. Instead, he is a widower, paralyzed on his right side and artist of scroll saw carvings.
The different story started in 2002 when he was 51. Robert was at home from his job at Herman Miller, a rare vacation day, according to his daughter, Tonya Tucker, who depicted him as a workaholic.
He’d planned a hunting trip with his sons, though, so Robert was home when the stroke in his carotid artery hit him. It’s genetic, Tonya said; her father’s stroke happened in the same place his father’s stroke did. His son, Jason, checking in on the hunting plans, found his father leaned up against a door, clutching a phone but unable to remember how to use it. Thankfully, Robert was already at Holland Hospital when the second stroke hit.
Robert was left paralyzed on his right side. Right-handed, he had to learn to do everything again.
“I’m determined,” Robert said.
It was then that Robert turned an occasional hobby of using a scroll saw to carve wood into his life’s work. The carvings started simply and included angels Barb designed. She took care of him and the family home until her breast cancer metastasized in 2009. She died in 2011.
“It was difficult for him to care for her,” Tonya said. When their mother died, their father’s long-term care became the siblings’ priority.
With his wife gone, Robert decided he needed to learn to cook, one-handed, but he did it. He learned to hunt again and with the help of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources allowing those with disabilities to hunt from their vehicles at designated areas. Robert bagged a six-point buck last fall for the first time in 14 years.
His children, who work and have young families, needed to know their father was in a safe environment. It was then that a two-bedroom apartment opened up at Freedom Village.
Living in an inside corner, Robert’s neighbors are elevators and maintenance and mechanical rooms, and the second bedroom is his shop so he can continue work on his wood carving.
He’s carved very personal pieces for people, reproducing photos of spouses who have died, children, crosses and for a mother who lost her son to the hands of an abuser, he reproduced the last picture she had.
“Those are only the stories we know of,” Tonya said.
He’s carved ships, lighthouses and wild animals and every fall he starts a new angel. That tradition started with an angel Barb designed. Now he carves 100 to 150 angels every year and gives them as gifts. He has one of every angel he’s carved hung in his apartment. From those, one can see how Robert’s hobby and talent have progressed from simple to intricate.
It’s all done with only his left hand. Robert’s right arm hangs lifelessly at his side or in his lap. He wears a brace on his right leg to help him balance. He has pins in his right toes to keep them out straight so he can keep walking.
Some of what he carves with the scroll saw comes from patterns Robert orders, such as the Vietnam War piece he hoped to finish prior to a reunion. Much of his work comes in photographs that he will blow up until he has the right size. He uses a pencil and then pen to darken the areas of the photos that will be cut out with a saw. That becomes the pattern.
The pattern is placed over two one-eighth-inch-thick pieces of wood. Robert then sets to work at the saw, which can be tricky — the thin, metal blade has to be threaded and connected to a piece below the table of the saw. Each darkened area on the pattern is a cut. The saw — specially made for Robert and his left-handed needs — keeps track of how many cuts it takes for each reproduction.
Robert doesn’t see setbacks, he sees challenges. Reading and writing are hard, but once he learns a story, he can retell it.
Everything he does, he does it on his own, Tonya said, though she admits questioning his logic at times.
“There are few people that do what I do with the detail I do it,” Robert said.
“It’s been very good, very therapeutic,” his daughter said.