It has been a year since Palermo was told he would not walk again, a diagnosis that now appears to have been about 20 feet to the left of the pole. It is difficult indeed to win an argument with an umpire, and Palermo is trying to make sure he gets the ump's traditional last word. "I think that's half the reason I'm doing this now," he says, gritting his teeth through another rehab workout. "Just to prove that doctor wrong."
It has been a year taken not by days spent but by inches gained. "There are no numbers on this calendar," Palermo says. "The clock is faceless, with no big hand, no little hand. On July 7th I'll punch the clock, but the clock will keep on running."
Palermo was moved to the Dallas Rehabilitation Institute (DRI) on July 15, eight days after the shooting, and during the three months and 10 days he was there—6½ hours a day, six days a week of the purest torture—he kept a calendar on which he marked off the good days in bright colors, the bad days in black. If he was able to get out of bed and into a wheelchair, spend the 3½ hours it took him to bathe, shave and dress himself, then make it down to therapy, it was a good day. "When I wanted to pull the sheet over my head and bury myself, that was a bad day," Palermo says.
No matter what kind of day it was, Debbie was by his side. "Inch by inch, life's a cinch," she would tell him. "Yard by yard, life is hard." The bullet had frayed the bundle of nerves near the base of his spine, and now they sent jolts of bright pain pulsing through his body. "You just fidget and it's like you're hooked up to an AC-Delco battery," he says. "You feel like you've got jumper cables attached to your knees."
The doctors who know everything that is known about spinal cord injuries believe nerves regenerate at a rate of about a millimeter a day. Sometimes the nerves don't regenerate at all. Millimeter by millimeter, there is no rhyme or reason to life, there is only waiting.
Debbie had a severe case of scoliosis (curvature of the spine) when she was 13, and for a year she had to wear a metal brace that ran from neck to hips. "They said I couldn't be a cheerleader because I couldn't do the splits," she recalls. "Well, I was a cheerleader for four years, and that brace never kept me from doing the splits." It was her grandmother who taught her the rhyme that has sustained her through two crises. "I've always liked sayings," Debbie says, "because they help explain things that can't be explained."
"The body does things there's no explanation for," says Steve. "I was on a treadmill one day in Dallas, and I asked the therapist why my foot kept coming down the way it did, with the toe pointed down. She said, 'Why does your foot come down like that? I don't even know why you're walking with the level of injury you have and the muscle damage you've had.' Neurologically, I shouldn't be able to walk as well as I can. They don't know much about this stuff. All these specialists, and they just don't know."
No one is certain even now of the extent of Palermo's nerve damage. Had the .32-caliber bullet that tore through his spine been a single millimeter larger, he is told, it would have severed an artery and he would have bled to death. Had he not been bent over precisely as he was, doctors say, the bullet would have shattered his spine and he would have been in a wheelchair for life. But the truth is, they just don't know. "They don't know whether the bullet cut those three nerves," Palermo says, "or whether the heat of the blast caused them to swell."
Palermo doesn't know either. "I hate going out now," he says. "People ask the same question over and over: 'How's it coming?' And I tell them it's coming. But I don't know if it is coming. I don't get discouraged as much as frustrated. You don't have any control. You do the work and then wait and see if it pays off, but you never know if it will.
"Your body fights with your mind, like you're constantly dueling with a ghost. The mind tells it what to do, but the body won't listen. I don't know if my foot will hold steady. I don't know if my leg will stay stiff and support my body. And when those things do come, they're never good enough because they never come fast enough."