CHICAGO – A young man in a wheelchair is racing down a Chicago 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 Chicago 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.
The day it all changed
When the “L” clatters in, he wheels inside, then wedges his chair into a corner, protection against the train’s bumps and turns. As the train pulls away, he grips a metal bar with his left hand, revealing the tattoo on his inner arm:
April 10, 2016. The day he was shot and paralyzed.
Jonathan Annicks was sitting in his brother’s car outside his home when he was shot. A figure 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 spent a lot of time feeling trapped,” Jonathan said.
But the Annicks family made it work.
They replaced the king bunk bed 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 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.
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 has found new ways to express himself.
He grew his hair long. He started getting tattoos. 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.
Creating a meaningful life
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.
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 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.”
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 said, “I think: Gotta be better.”