Saturday

November 17th, 2018

Life

A high school senior with college dreams was paralyzed by gunfire. Two years later, he's still pushing forward

Mary Schmich

By Mary Schmich

Published May 10,2018

  A high school senior with college dreams was paralyzed by gunfire. Two years  later, he's still pushing forward
	
	Jonathan Annicks waits to go to school. Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO---A young man in a wheelchair is racing down a Little Village sidewalk.

His mother trots behind him, trying to keep up. Some days, as he heads to school and she's off to her job as a bank trust officer, she pushes him, over the cracked concrete or through the snow, but he's on his own this morning.

He whizzes past the cotton candy vendor, Nino's Tire Shop, Guerrero's Pizza. At a curb, he pops a wheelie, makes a fast, tight circle and steers in a new direction.

Only a couple of years ago, when he was a senior at Walter Payton College Prep, an elite North Side high school, he was a runner and a cyclist. He still likes speed.

At the entry to the CTA station, he stops to check which elevators are out of order in the Loop -- if he's going to get to class on time, he can't afford to get stranded in a station -- then rides up to the platform, where he sits with his eyes at the waist level of other passengers.

"I spend a lot of time staring at butts," he says.

When the "L" clatters in, he wheels inside, then wedges his chair into a corner, protection against the train's bumps and turns. His mother sits beside him and braces one of his wheels with her black sneaker.

"Just in case," she says.

As the train pulls away, he grips a metal bar with his left hand, revealing the tattoo on his inner arm:

4/10/16.

April 10, 2016. The day he was shot and paralyzed.

I met Jonathan Annicks shortly after the night two years ago that he was shot sitting in his brother's car outside his home. A shadowy figure had appeared from nowhere that night and fired a gun eight times.

Only one bullet hit him. It severed his spinal cord.

He was near the end of his senior year at Payton then, and he and his family -- his parents, Herlinda and Mike, his younger brothers, Joshua and Jacob -- couldn't imagine how they would adapt. I went to visit them a few days ago to find out.

"I spent a lot of time feeling trapped," Jonathan said.

He was sitting in his wheelchair in the living room, next to the entryway jammed with boxes full of catheters. His mother remembers when the first supply arrived, at a cost of $3,500, and the insurance company refused to pay, as if her son's catheters were a luxury.

Dealing with insurance has been just one of the challenges. Two years ago, the Annicks family thought they would have to leave their home, an old brick two-flat on a wide Little Village boulevard. It had a tiny bathroom, narrow doorways, stairs in front and back. It was no place for a wheelchair.

They made it work.

They replaced the king bunkbed in Jonathan's room with a low twin bed. Jonathan's brothers or father, a maintenance engineer, were able to carry him in and out of the house, and though his mother couldn't lift him, she could navigate his chair down the stairs, one bumpy step at a time.

"I only dropped him once," she said. She laughed. "In winter."

Eventually, through a city of Chicago program, the family applied for a mechanical lift, and after a long wait, it was installed next to the front porch, allowing Jonathan to come and go on his own.

At last, he could get out and see the world again, and if that was no substitute for his long bike rides and lakefront runs, at least he could breathe fresh air.

While in the hospital, Jonathan met a man, Alfredo, who was also in a wheelchair. Alfredo taught him how to get around without legs.

"He had a house and a car," Jonathan said. "I thought, I can do that. And I did."

He can't do everything on his own. While his family waits on a city program that will help them modify the bathroom, he depends on his brothers and parents to get him in and out of the shower. But he has learned to get in and out of a car by himself and devised a way to strap his feet into the wheelchair so they don't slide out if he hits a bad patch of pavement.

He has found new ways to express himself.

He grew his hair long. He started getting tattoos. The first was the date of the shooting. Recently, he added a giant koi fish, a symbol of good luck and perseverance.

"They swim upstream," he said.

When he felt lonely, he listened to his favorite song by Chance the Rapper, the one with the line, "Everybody's somebody's everything."

Jonathan's freshman year at DePaul University's Loop campus was hard. He had to learn to ask for help, to navigate crowded restaurants and busy downtown sidewalks, to answer the stares and questions.

"I got shot," he'll tell anyone who asks.

"They'll be like oh really, wow, and then it's the whole pity thing," he said, mildly.

He has also learned that a wheelchair can be an icebreaker, and that the conversations it starts can lead to friendship.

"If anything, I've created more relationships, more meaningful ones," he said.

Life gets easier, but not easy. Sometimes, out of the blue, his legs spasm, or his fingers twitch, or he'll sweat for no clear reason. The physical work of getting to and from school can be exhausting. His shoulders hurt.

He has learned to ration hope.

"I never tried to sugar-coat things for myself," he said, "because that just stresses me out. If I'm too hopeful and things don't work out, then I get into a mood."

And yet, he's still himself, the devoted big brother, the son his mother calls the family "pillar," the guy with the luminous smile who knows how to talk to anybody. He coaches two floor hockey teams, and though he can't play anymore, he likes being in charge and seeing his style transmitted to the kids.

He talks of what happened not as loss but as a learning process.

"I haven't had time to think of what ifs," he said, "because I'm so busy still learning. It's only been two years. I'm still acquiring knowledge."

Other people may be surprised by his equanimity. His mother's not.

"There are those waiting for him to have some kind of breakdown, throw things," she said. "That's just not him."

A young man in a wheelchair is whizzing up State Street in the Loop.

He's been to class, he's headed home. He does this leg of his commute alone, his moves as choreographed and fluid as a dancer's.

He hits buttons, opens gates and doors, is back on the Pink Line train and then off in Little Village.

His mother has told him to avoid the side streets where the gangbangers hang out. He does, but laughs at the suggestion that her worry is the reason he takes Cermak Road.

"I prefer main streets," he says. "If I fall out of the chair, someone will see me."

Who shot Jonathan Annicks and why remain a mystery, not one he dwells on, and he chooses not to be afraid of where he lives. He plans to spend a lot of the summer on the porch with his brothers.

"The more you give in to the mainstream views," he says, "the more you're going to be scared of your own neighborhood."

And when he needs a little extra courage, all he has to do is look at the tattoo that says "4/10/16" and remember the reason he got it.

"Every time I look down on it," he says, "I think: Gotta be better."

Previously:


04/05/18: Remembering the youngest history makers
04/03/18: The Parable of the (Expletive Deleted) Comfort Dog
02/15/18: Fees, fines, loans, scams: How the poor get poorer
02/01/18: When Paul Simon, Daniel Day-Lewis and Elton John say 'farewell' to work they love, should we too?
01/25/18: At Oscars time, let's snub the snubbing
12/28/17: The real 2017 word of the year
12/20/17: The laundry-folding robots are coming
12/13/17: How not to waste the last days of 2017


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