Chuck Powell inched his wheelchair out of a specially equipped van, guided by his brother-in-law.
His chair made contact with the driveway of his house, and Chuck slowly spun around to see colorful “Welcome Home” banners hanging from the top of the open garage.
Then his wife, Marilyn, backed her electric wheelchair down the van’s ramp.
They turned to each other and took deep, shaky breaths.
“We’re home, honey,” Chuck told his best friend of 45 years.
“We are home.”
They held hands and cried.
On Wednesday, the Powells spent the night at home for the first time since a February crash that paralyzed both of them from the chest down.
Home is on everyone’s mind this time of year. People hop on planes and drive hundreds of miles to get there in time for the holidays.
It took the Powells 10 months to get home today for Christmas.
‘This is not going to get me down’
Feb. 17 was a nice day. The high in Wichita reached 78.
Marilyn visited Chuck for lunch at his workplace in Wichita.
They decided they’d go for a ride that evening on their 1500 Honda Gold Wing. They left their house between Rose Hill and Derby and rode for a while before heading to Douglass for dinner.
Somewhere near Leon, Chuck turned on a paved road. The motorcycle that’s taken them on so many fun trips hit a patch of sand put down to prevent winter accidents.
“We don’t remember much, but we went off the side of the road,” Marilyn said. “That’s the last thing we remember until we went to St. Francis.”
Chuck and Marilyn, both 63, suffered identical spinal cord injuries in the crash.
Marilyn also broke her left elbow, both wrists and a hip.
Chuck fractured his right wrist and broke his neck, which surgery repaired.
Avid motorcyclists for years, they were wearing full riding gear that night — helmets, boots, gloves, chaps, the works. Their helmets stayed on during the crash.
Chuck said they always wore the best helmets money could buy.
Luckily, Marilyn said, someone drove by fairly quickly.
Helicopters came for them.
Chuck was in a coma for several weeks. When he gained consciousness, he learned he and his wife couldn’t walk.
“It was a hard thing to hear, that you’re paralyzed, but after that settles in, you’ve got to settle for what you’ve got,” Chuck said.
Marilyn remembers when she woke up in an intensive-care unit. She started moving around. She discovered her legs didn’t work.
“I wasn’t able to talk yet, so I mouthed that I couldn’t move,” she remembered. “That was scary, when you realize what’s happened.”
But with her husband in the same shape, Marilyn decided “This is not going to get me down.”
Right place, right time
The Powells’ faces simply light up when they’re asked how they met.
They were 16. She was from Winfield; he was from nearby Atlanta.
“I was dragging Main one night looking for another guy,” Marilyn admitted, smiling. “Instead of finding him, (Chuck) found me.”
“That’s one of those times she was in the right time at the right place,” Chuck said, smiling back.
They got married at 18. His mother had to sign a paper giving permission.
At a time when many marriages don’t last four or five years, let alone 45, Marilyn Powell said, “We’ve been pretty lucky. We’ve had a great marriage. We’ve done of a lot of things together. We work together and play together.”
Sharon Archer, the Powells’ neighbor for 33 years, said that whenever Chuck and Marilyn went somewhere in their truck, Marilyn would sit as close to her husband as she could, much like she would have dragging Main Street as a teenager.
“It’s always like they’re on their first date,” Archer said. “They keep each other going. If they didn’t have each other to fight for, I don’t think they’d be this strong. She’s just a small-town girl who stands by her man.”
Marilyn said Chuck felt guilty at first about the accident because he had been driving.
But Marilyn told him, “I wanted to go for a ride that night.”
“Everything you do, you run a risk,” she said matter-of-factly.
Friends pitch in
While Chuck and Marilyn recuperated and learned how to live in wheelchairs, their family, friends and neighbors got to work, too.
They made sure the Powells had a ramp to use. They widened doorways, moved furniture so that two people in wheelchairs could get around.
They took out a closet to enlarge and remodel the Powells’ bathroom, putting in a shower that they can roll into on their chairs.
The bathroom has light blue walls. Marilyn and Chuck saw it for the first time Wednesday.
“Oh, wow. Oh, man,” Chuck told his friends. “I could have never done that.”
“You damn well could have,” longtime friend Stan Dyer answered.
Friends took off cabinet doors and moved things around in the kitchen so Marilyn and Chuck could reach them.
A shop teacher Marilyn worked with at Rose Hill schools made custom wooden tools she can use to open the oven door and the washer and dryer lids.
Marilyn’s former co-workers at the school’s cafeteria cooked up a storm, providing the couple with meals for the near future.
“You ready for this?” friend Ellen Dyer asked Chuck and Marilyn when they arrived home from the hospital, accompanied by Marilyn’s sister, Carolyn Foster, and her brother-in-law, Les.
The Dyers travel the country in an RV. They met the Powells years ago through motorcycling and stay at their house for a month or so two times a year. They’ve tried to pay the Powells for letting them use their land and hook up to utilities, Archer said, but the Powells always have said “no.”
When the Dyers learned of the accident, they were in Texas. Stan Dyer left for Kansas the next day.
The Dyers have paid for much of the materials to make the Powells’ home accessible, Archer said. Archer said she and her husband, Craig, have pitched in here and there.
Marilyn and Archer walked two miles together every day in the year before the accident. After they each retired, they became closer and had more time for their friendship.
Archer said she didn’t want to visit Marilyn at first.
“I didn’t want to see her that way,” she said. “I had a hard time making myself go to the hospital. Then when I got there, I told myself ‘You’re in now, there’s no going back. You’re going to be in this until the end.’ ”
Friends from the Powells’ Gold Wing Road Riders group also labored to get the house ready.
Marilyn and Chuck said the words “thank you” don’t seem enough.
“We didn’t realize that we had so many friends,” Chuck said, breaking down in tears.
The Powells plan to live independently.
As they navigate their new lives, a nurse will stop by twice a day, in the morning to help them get out of bed and ready for the day and at night to get ready for bed. They’ll continue with physical therapy.
They were excited to be home last week, but they also were nervous about living outside a hospital where the patients are just like them.
But Marilyn was proud of something she accomplished on her own the day she came home.
“They were going to help me wash my hair today, but I did it myself,” she told her friends.
Wanda Russell, a registered nurse at the rehabilitation hospital, helped Marilyn curl her hair. Doing that by herself is one of Marilyn’s goals.
‘Best Christmas present’ ever
Staff at the hospital said they didn’t remember ever caring for a couple paralyzed from the same spinal cord injuries.
“I’ve been doing this work for 30 years, and it’s the first time I’ve come across it,” said case manager Barney Hoss.
Marilyn said Chuck knows what she’s gone through, and she understands what he’s gone through.
They’ve always been close, she said, but the accident probably has made them even closer.
Their bedroom now is in what was the living room of their house. Two twin hospital beds have been pushed together so the Powells can sleep next to each other. The beds were donated through the hospital by former Wichita State University baseball player Carl Hall, a former Shocker baseball star who was paralyzed in an accident last year.
The Powells have an underlying determination that helped them get home, Hoss said.
“It’s been a real battle for them,” he said. “I’m sure at certain points, they felt like they’d be in a nursing home for life.”
The staff worked hard to help them get out of the hospital by Christmas, he said.
“I think Chuck said that’s the best Christmas present he’s ever had,” Hoss said. “It’s a Christmas present for us, too.”