NEW YORK — Shirley Cabey saved all the letters--the ones that called her son a "nigger," that wished the boy had died, that threatened his life if he survived the gunshot that sliced through his spine.
Each note, with its ugly words and racial venom, sits pressed today inside the Cabey family's Bible. The Good Book, like Shirley and her son Darrell, remains where it was when the letters arrived 10 years ago--in an apartment in a South Bronx housing project.
The letters literally added insult to injury: They started after Darrell was shot by subway gunman Bernie Goetz. Cabey was paralyzed from the waist down, fell into a coma, suffered irreversible brain damage. He is now 29 years old, with the mental capacity of a third grader.
Darrell Cabey is growing old, but he will never grow up.
"The years have gone by so quickly," Shirley Cabey reflected recently. "It's still hard. Very hard."
It was Dec. 22, 1984, when Goetz shot four youths on a Manhattan subway train--Cabey, James Ramseur, Barry Allen and Troy Canty. Goetz said the four were about to mug him.
He admitted walking up to a wounded Cabey, sticking a gun into his torso and announcing, "You don't look too bad, here's another" before pulling the trigger a second time.
Cabey's lawyer, William Kunstler, said that point-blank shot left his already wounded client paralyzed. Goetz claimed his gun was empty at that point, that he had already shot Cabey once and missed the teen with a second shot.
The details aren't important to Shirley Cabey, whose son was instantly crippled. He nearly died, kept alive only by a respirator for 57 days. He spent 14 months in the hospital, leaving in the wheelchair he's used ever since.
Once, Shirley Cabey had prayed that her son might escape the South Bronx--maybe to the northern suburbs aboard one of the commuter trains that zipped past their apartment every day.
Instead, he boarded a southbound No. 2 subway to Manhattan.
"I wanted Darrell to go back to school and finish up," Cabey says of her son, breaking years of silence, "to do whatever he's capable of doing. But now. . . . "
Now, Darrell Cabey cannot tell you the day of the week, the month, or the year, his doctors say. His vocabulary is limited. He does not know the name of the mayor or the governor. He doesn't know how he wound up in a wheelchair, his mother said.
Cabey spends his weekdays in a Bronx rehabilitation center, his weekends in the apartment watching horror videos. While Goetz's three other victims committed subsequent crimes, an outstanding criminal charge against Cabey was dropped in 1985 when the Bronx district attorney determined he had the capacity of an 8-year-old.
"He used to be outgoing. He enjoyed dressing, looking good, all that," Cabey recalled. "Now, he's not the same."
Only Goetz denies the extent of his injuries. In battling Darrell Cabey's $50-million lawsuit, Goetz charged that Cabey is exaggerating his injuries.
"He has some brain damage, yes," said Goetz. "But he is not in the vegetative state that he pretends to be in."
Goetz, who was convicted on a single weapons charge in the shooting and spent 250 days in jail, blames Cabey for trying to mug him. His opinion of Cabey's injuries has never wavered, even after two depositions where he questioned Cabey and couldn't elicit any answer longer than a single sentence.
"Have you ever heard the name Bernie Goetz before?" Goetz asked in the June, 1993, session.
"No, I haven't," Cabey replied.
Shirley Cabey said she doesn't dwell on Goetz or the shooting: "In order to keep my sanity, I don't do much talking." She tries to remember her son the way he once was.
"I don't see his wheelchair," Cabey's mother said. "That's how I look at it. And God has been with me since day one. When you've got him beside you, it makes a big difference."
At a United Cerebral Palsy facility in the Bronx, Cabey spends hours doing simple repetitive tasks--sometimes successfully, sometimes not, says his lawyer, Ron Kuby.
Mrs. Cabey said her son is "learning new things all over again. It's getting better, but it's still not the same."
These days, Darrell's world revolves around the Cabey apartment, its VCR, the cerebral palsy facility. "Mostly, he stays in," said Mrs. Cabey. Family, friends and a home attendant help Darrell cope.
If Darrell can't remember what happened, his mother can't forget.
"He's taken it very well, the whole thing," said Mrs. Cabey. "I thought he was going to be depressed, angry. . . . He doesn't even question what happened.
"I'm more depressed than he is."