A speech the whole nation should have heard was delivered by a 36-year-old mom wearing a Captain America costume in a basketball court outside a Bronx housing project ringed by a chain-link fence made festive with balloons.
“Around this time last year Jaheem lay in a hospital bed in an induced coma fighting for his life,” Aja Holmes began on the afternoon of June 9.
She was speaking of Jaheem Hunter, the much younger brother she is raising as her son.
“Knowing Jaheem I knew that if anyone can make it he could. But you do not know what to expect after a baby is shot in the head.”
Jaheem had been hit by a stray round outside his father’s building on his fifth birthday last June. He had been about to ride off in Aja’s car to his birthday party. He instead was placed in the back seat, cradled by his 63-year-old father, Charles Hunter. The father saw the bullet hole in his son’s head and realized he had bits of his son’s skull and brain in his hand. He watched the boy’s eyes roll back and he called out “Don’t die!”
Jaheem had stopped breathing as Aja sped on toward the hospital. She had run red light after red light, swinging out into oncoming lanes. She encountered the usual traffic jam at the Cross-Bronx Expressway, which on this day threatened to prove fatal. She then spied a traffic cop and shouted, “He got shot! He got shot!” The cop cleared the way like a Bronx version of the biblical parting of the Red Sea.
At the hospital, the doctors had determined that the bullet had traversed Jaheem’s brain from the left, bounced off the inside of his skull and torn back the way it had come. The doctors told the homicide detectives who examined the X-rays that the boy seemed to have no chance of survival.
“I was praying for death if that was the ultimate goal that God had in mind because I didn’t want him to suffer anymore…”
Aja had moved to Yonkers to get away from the danger, but Jaheem’s father had remained in the Bronx.
“I left this community to protect my children. I wanted better for them but the devil has a funny way of turning your fears into reality…”
The first sign of hope had come six hours after the shooting as Jaheem lay in an induced coma on a respirator. Aja stepped up and sang “Happy Birthday” and saw the fingers on his left hand begin to move. The doctors told her it was just a reflexive twitch, but she was convinced they were wrong, because it had only started when she began to sing.
“However, God has a way of giving you grace and mercy…”
After four weeks, the doctors had begun to say that Jaheem might survive after all. Asia and the rest of the family joined a physical rehabilitation team in teaching him to walk and talk as if he were an infant again. They taught him how to pronounce “hungry” and how to chew when he progressed from fluids to solids. The made sure he wore a helmet as he struggled to become ambulatory, as part of his skull had been removed in a craniotomy to allow his brain room to swell without crushing itself. He was largely paralyzed on the right half of his body and seemed to forget that he had an arm and a leg on that side. They made him aware of the limbs by rubbing and moving them.
By November, he had resumed walking and talking. The doctors placed the section of skull back in his head and he seemed largely on his way to resuming the life of a little boy.
But then he had begun to run a fever and his speech had become slurred and garbled. The doctors had suggested it was just a cold virus, but Aja had not been convinced. She was proven right on New Year’s Day, when the boy’s pillow was soaked by brain fluid oozing from his skull. The previously removed piece was removed again.
Jaheem had been placed on continuous antibiotics via a surgically implanted IV line for three months. His family had mobilized again to help him through a whole new regimen of rehab, teaching him yet again to walk. He had progressed to where the doctors felt the time had come to cover the gap in his skull with titanium mesh that may have to be replaced periodically as he grows. Aja had taken to calling him “Iron Man.”
The boy who had seemed all but sure to die on his fifth birthday had survived to see sixth. The family began planning the big party in the basketball court on East 169th Street, where Aja now stood in her Captain America costume and delivered her speech.
“…God has given us Grace and we are thankful for it.”
Jaheem was off to the left in a Spider-Man costume, sitting in his father’s lap.
“Growing up in this community I’ve had to dodge many bullets. There were many run-for-your-life moments or ‘OK, it’s time to go’ moments because of shots fired. I lived on the 19th floor of a corner apartment which was in close proximity to the roofs of neighboring buildings. I feared every night that someone shooting off one of the roofs would accidentally shoot me while I lay in my bed. I grew up in the crack era and before bed I heard gunshots every single night. I had nightmares and fears of my mother grandmother aunts and cousins and friends being shot and killed. And some of that did come true. I lay at night worrying about my family every time I heard bullets ring. I never thought that growing up this way was different or bad. It was just what it was.”
The mom dressed as Captain America had lived all her young life without the sense of safety that the kids down in Parkland, Florida, lost only after a few minutes of terror this past February. And even as millions of Americans have lived that way, the nation has hardly shrugged.
“Until I went to college outside of my neighborhood and found that other people didn’t live with the worries of death everyday. They actually lived in a community who look out for each other and protected each other from any outsiders. They celebrated together and never worried about getting shot while doing so.”
Aja was coming to the end of her speech.
“Our community deserves better. Our children deserve better. Jaheim could have been anyone’s child. He could have been any one of these children here today.”
Among the other kids at the party was Aja’s son, Josiah Vestrey, a month younger than Jaheem and wearing a Batman costume. Josiah is protective of his cousin and seemed not the least bothered that Jaheem was the center of so much attention.
The party even had a DJ, and the boys began dancing to Silento’s “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” with their cousin, Paityn McKee, who was dressed as Wonder Woman. Jaheem went up on one foot, both arms extended, his smile announcing that he had lost his two front baby teeth.
Three detectives, Keith Walker and Oscar Rosa of Bronx Homicide along with Jose Valdez of the 42nd Precinct squad, stood off to the side. They had worked the case back when Jaheem was shot and they had every expectation that the charge would soon be upped to murder when they arrested a 27-year-old suspect the next day. The suspect is said by people in the neighborhood to have been carrying a gun after somebody broke his hand with a baseball bat in a dispute a few days before.
The charge had remained attempted murder and the detectives now marveled at this little boy who was alive as any child could be, dancing and playing tag and stuffing his mouth with big strawberries that brought a look of total contentment. Jaheem scampered off to a bouncy house and removed his sneakers before clambering inside. He bounded about with that toothless smile.
Aja noted that Jaheem still has bullet fragments in his brain and experiences occasional balance problems and sometimes has seizures. The seizures that hit at home prompt the ever protective Josiah to hurry unbidden to get his cousin’s sneakers for the trip to the emergency room.
But Jaheem seemed completely fine at this birthday party that might not have been. He did tire after a while and sat for a few moments outside the bouncy castle.
Jaheem instantly revived when an added surprise appeared in the person of a grown-up in a Spider-man costume. Jaheem’s eyes shone at the sight and it was clear that the bullet had not affected his capacity for wonder. He walked with his right hand holding Spidey’s hand.
“We had to keep telling him he had a right hand,” Aja recalled of the rehab days.
The cupcakes came out. Everybody joined in singing “Happy Birthday,” the song that had prompted the fingers of Jaheem’s left hand to stir in that first sign of hope the year before.
“He’s happy,” Aja later said. “He’s really happy. He’s a happy kid.”