It has been less than two months since a single gunshot during a home invasion instantly changed Walter Bonam’s life, but he is back home now, speaking with a perspective rich in faith and ageless wisdom and talking about friends, strangers and miracles.
The days, months and years ahead for the associate director of religious education for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, as well as for his family, will be challenging. The bullet fired July 6 by a perpetrator who still has not been caught ricocheted off his jawbone and sent fragments of bone into his spinal cord before coming to rest in his right lung.
Doctors have classified Bonam as a “C-6,” meaning that he has no sensation below his sixth cervical vertebra. But as Bonam quickly points out from his motorized wheelchair, if the bullet had penetrated higher on his spinal cord, he would be unable to move his shoulders and arms. Or, he might be dead.
“It would be easy to come up with a pat explanation that might sound pious, but I do think that God allowing me to be here rather than in a box in the ground tells me there’s something for me to learn from this,” Bonam said.
While Bonam and his wife Jennifer and daughter Amanda are learning, they also are teaching everyone around them about how to carry a cross without dragging it.
“One thing I keep saying is that we had about a two-minute encounter with this young man, and in a millisecond’s time, that gun went off and injured Walter,” Jennifer Bonam said. “But his act seems to overshadow all the amazing stuff that’s been happening to us.”
Shortly before Walter was to be discharged from the spinal cord rehab unit at Touro, Jennifer knew she had to begin looking for a wheelchair-accessible van to get her husband home. She called a specialty van company to ask about the price range, and the woman on the other end said, “We can get you into one for $67,000.”
“No,” Jennifer replied, “I didn’t say a house, I said a van. Let’s talk pre-owned.”
The sticker shock and the prospect of having no way to get her husband home from the hospital left her “so depressed,” but then the phone rang. A Covington woman was on the other end, and she had seen a brief television segment on Walter on the station’s Web site. The woman’s father, a cotton farmer from Jonesboro in north Louisiana, had bought an accessible van after having contracted a strange disease that left him paralyzed and unable to speak.
Then, just as suddenly, after a few years, her father’s condition cleared up virtually overnight.
“They apparently had been pondering, ‘Who could we give this van to who might need it?’” Walter said. “Their daughter got the video piece that was online, e-mailed it to them, and as soon as her mom saw it, she said, ‘This is the guy we’re supposed to donate the van to.’”
A woman who had been run over by a car and had spent several months in rehab read a story about Walter and his love for spiritual writer Thomas Merton. She dropped by Touro to drop off two Merton books. A man whose partner was killed in a home invasion walked up to Jennifer and handed her money.
“He came to tell me that he understood what happened to us,” Jennifer said. “This is a guy I had never met before.”
Jennifer’s sister and brother-in-law tore out the bathroom at their home to build a wheelchair-accessible shower. Close friends Cynthia and Richard Cheri have been cleaning the house and drove up to Jonesboro on a moment’s notice to get the van.
Another man who spent 40 years in a wheelchair due to a car accident was upgrading to a newer chair and donated the motorized chair that Walter used to come home.
“The discharge plan had been to send me home in a manual wheelchair,” Walter said “I would have been totally dependent on Jennifer to move me around because I don’t have any grip. He unhesitatingly said, ‘I want Walter to have my wheelchair to use until he gets his own.’”
The Men in Christ group from Corpus Christi-Epiphany Church, 20 strong, came to Touro and squeezed into Walter’s room to pray.
“The nurses said, ‘Who are all these people?’” Jennifer said. “They couldn’t figure it out. And they were all praying and praying for a miracle. And I keep saying to them that God has granted us miracles. The stuff that’s happened – the things that people who don’t even know us are doing for us – those are miracles. Miracles are not just Walter getting up to walk.”
Walter has attacked his rehab with gusto, just as he has his teaching ministry. He must turn over every two hours while in bed to prevent bedsores. Although he can move his arms, he can’t grasp anything with his fingers, but he can manage to feed himself with a fork that has a built-up grip and is attached to his hand with rubber tubing.
“This has made me so much more aware of how much we take for granted when our bodies are functioning normally,” Walter said. “Even just eating. Who knew that eating could be an adventure, until you’ve chased the same piece of lettuce around your plate for five minutes.”
‘In God’s hands’
Doctors have been sober in their prognosis. Although swelling in the spinal cord can diminish even months after trauma, Walter probably will not walk again. No surgeries are planned.
“At this point, any further recovery of movement in my legs is pretty much in God’s hands, which is fine,” Walter said. “If God says, ‘Arise and walk,’ I’m not going to say, ‘No, I’d rather stay in a wheelchair.’ But on the other hand, if he wants me to be a wheelchair witness, that’s fine. He’ll give me the grace I need to do whatever it is he wants me to do.”
The Bonams have been protective of their daughter, a junior at St. Mary’s Dominican. Amanda did not want to return to the house where the shooting occurred, but in the short term, the Bonams decided to return home while looking for a new home. They’ve added white burglar bars on their front door and installed home surveillance cameras.
“Walter has suffered the greatest physical brunt of this, but I think Amanda’s suffered the greatest emotional impact,” Jennifer said. “She told me, ‘Momma, I need to put a board on my bedroom window.’ I said, ‘Honey, you do what you feel makes you feel secure.’ She doesn’t want to leave our side. She wants to be close. She continues to say it just doesn’t feel like our home because it’s been so desecrated.”
Walter hopes to return to work in a few months once he gets his body stronger and his routine more regulated. He is trying to keep the family grounded in the graces they received after a house fire in 2001 and then Katrina in 2005 destroyed their home.
“As I told Amanda when we were evacuating for Katrina, ‘God got us through the fire, and we made it,’” Walter said. “Whatever happens, God will get us through. I believe the kinds of graces like the wheelchair and the van are not coincidences. I think God is continuing to say, ‘I’m still here for you.’
“I think God allowing me to be here rather than in a box in the ground can perhaps enhance my ability to speak to certain kinds of people and have them take me seriously. I’ve just been humbled beyond belief by things. I’m so unworthy of that, but I’m willing to accept it. This has just made me aware of how much more blessed I am, and that it’s not a matter of merit, it’s a matter of God’s goodness.”
Grace abounds – amazing grace. Walter, Jennifer and Amanda hope to be back worshipping as a family at Corpus Christi on Sunday, Sept. 4.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.