Dad, son find it tough to part after injury

Copyright © 2001 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.
E-mail this story to a friend






Watching your kid return to college for another year is never easy. But when Ken Palmer bade farewell to his son, John, last week, the air was especially heavy.

"We talked a lot this summer," said Ken, soaking up Friday's late-summer sun from his motorized wheelchair outside the New England Rehabilitation Hospital. "You transfer a lot of what you want to do to your children. But I don't want this to be the defining moment of his life."

He was talking about the wheelchair - and how he got there.

It happened on April 30. Ken, 53, a former Portland middle school teacher turned tax preparer, had made it past another April 15 and, at the urging of his wife, Joan, flew down to New Orleans to visit John, an architectural student at Tulane University. The night before Ken was to fly home to Portland, he sat on the steps outside John's apartment, reading a book while his son studied for finals inside.

Ken heard a voice, looked up and saw a young man standing in front of him. In his hand was a chrome .38-caliber revolver. The man told Ken to hand over all of his money.

"All I could see was his face and the gun. I never took my eyes off the trigger," Ken said. "I stood up and patted my dungaree pockets to show him I didn't have my wallet. Then he said, 'We're going inside.' "

Ken started up the steps, but stopped at the door. That was his kid in there.

"I just wasn't going to let him inside, that's all," Ken said. "I turned and grabbed the gun."

They fell, struggling, back down the steps. The gun went off once and hit the house. Then it went off again and suddenly, from the neck down, Ken couldn't move.

Police caught the 19-year-old shooter, high on heroin, in a tree three blocks away. Ken spent three weeks in intensive care in New Orleans before coming back to Portland, where he and Joan have lived all their lives, raised three kids and now wonder what comes next.

"This is it," Ken said when asked about his prognosis. The bullet remains lodged in his partially severed spinal cord. He can't move his legs. He has partial use of his arms, but not his hands. "Hopefully by next tax season, I'll be able to tap on a keyboard."

Last week, after months at his Dad's side, John balked at going back to Tulane.

"It was hard to see him leave," said Joan. "He told us, 'I don't want to leave the family right now.' "

But they urged him to go. You have a life to build, they told him, and there are plenty of people here who can help take care of Dad.

They weren't kidding. The Royal River Chorus, of which Joan is a former member, plans a benefit concert this fall at Merrill Auditorium to help offset the family's lost income and mounting medical bills. A dance is also in the works, at the Italian Heritage Center in Portland.

Earlier this month, members of the Greater Portland Christian Church showed up at the Palmers' home in Deering Center and, just like that, built Ken a wheelchair ramp.

"We don't even go to that church," said Joan. "I told them, 'You're such good people,' and then I just broke into tears."

Friends have even set up a fund for those who might know the Palmers (or not) and want to help out: The Kenneth Palmer Family Trust, c/o Peoples Heritage Bank, 833 Forest Ave., Portland 04103.

Ken goes home this Friday from the New England Rehabilitation Hospital. And he knows the months and years ahead won't come close to how he and Joan "planned to spend our golden years."

But the way Ken sees it, it could be worse. He could be flat on his back - and unable to take his two grandchildren, Brianna and Dylan, for rides around the hospital parking lot in his motorized wheelchair. And John could be in a hospital himself (or worse) instead of starting his junior year in college.

"What happened, happened," Ken said. "I don't think what I did was particularly heroic."

Spoken like a true parent.


Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: bnemitz@pressherald.com