Chasing Hope

In the waiting room, Amadeo sits with his head cradled between his thumb and index finger, thinking.

It's never going to end. With each operation, Jacqui's situation gets a little more complicated. With each small improvement, hope for a dramatic change recedes a little further.

Hope is dying.

It never ends.


Jacqui lies in the recovery room.

"Are you sleeping or awake?" Scheker asks.

"Sleeping," Jacqui answers in a weak voice. She asks what happened. Scheker explains.

"Ay, yay yay," she sighs.

Amadeo arrives. He gives her small kisses. "You're brave. You're doing things other people couldn't do."

"I love you very much," he whispers. "I love you very much."

My tooth aches, Jacqui whispers back. Touch it.

Where? Amadeo says, poking her cheek, playing the game but avoiding the trap. Lightly, he taps along her cheek.

That one? he asks. No. That one? No. Closer.

Finally, he touches her front tooth. She bites down, then pulls his head under her chin with her arm and holds him.

Yellow Roses

Two days later, Amadeo goes for a walk.

Before, he says, he used to try picturing what road to take with Jacqui, but there were too many roads, and they all crisscrossed. His mind would follow the twists until it went blank. Now, he says, he prefers not to think.

One day, Amadeo says, he fears Jacqui could explode in anger and give up.

"She's brave," he says. "I don't know how long she can bear it, how much she can take. I'll be with her until then, as long as she wants me."

That afternoon, when he returns home, he takes Jacqui a bouquet of yellow roses.

"And my kiss?" she asks.

The Second Anniversary: Sept. 19, 2001

Amadeo pushes candles into a piece of leftover cake.

"Ah, what a precious night," he sings, fumbling with a camera flash, which keeps going off.

Jacqui laughs. The second anniversary of the wreck has been gloomy.

Happy birthday to you, Amadeo sings. Happy birthday to you.

Jacqui, as she puts it, has just turned 2 years old.

She still can't answer her questions: What will my future be? Why me?

Life must have some meaning, she still believes.

"I don't know if the meaning is to suffer," she has said, "or to live, not like you'd like to, but where life takes you to."

Amid the setbacks and slowness, Jacqui keeps celebrating her small victories. In the months before the anniversary, she gripped a pen and wrote. She vacuumed their apartment. With new glasses, she leafed through her first magazine in two years — a best- and worst-dressed issue — and watched her first movie, "Planet of the Apes." One day, she squeezed gotas y crema into her own eye.

She thirsts for more independence. She itches to drive.

One day in October, Jacqui tells her father to stop the car.

Put it in park, she says. Get out. Switch places.

Amadeo looks at her warily.

Once in Galveston, he nervously clutched the emergency brake while Jacqui struggled for two blocks, unable to see the cars around them. In Kentucky, just two months before, she cried after she failed to park.

Amadeo watches her get behind the steering wheel. There's nothing for him to grab; the Odyssey has no emergency hand brake.

Jacqui adjusts her seat and puts the car in drive.

"It's been a long time since I've touched an accelerator," she says, pushing her foot down.

"No, hija, slowly," he says. "No, just a little bit. Ohh, not so fast."

The Odyssey glides forward. With her father's help, Jacqui follows the apartment complex's snaking roads, completing one lap, then a second. She parks outside their home.

With her erratic vision, Jacqui doesn't know when she will drive again. Going out in traffic remains a dream, driving alone a prayer.

But, after two years of waiting, she has tasted driving again.

"It was perfect," she says. "Perfect. Perfect."

Look at Me

In Austin, high school students and their parents have a reminder and a testament from Jacqui, who agreed to be interviewed by an Austin Police Department film crew. The crew flew to Louisville, to Jacqui's living room, to shoot her half of an anti-drunken-driving video. The other half features Reggie Stephey in jail.

Reggie, in a blue prison jumpsuit, says in the video that the word "sorry" can't capture how he feels about the damage he caused.

"It's a pain that will never go away," he says. "It's never going to go away, no matter what I do."

When the crew arrives in Louisville the day before the shoot, Jacqui asks about Reggie: What are his days like? Is he alone in a cell? Is he sad?

That night, Jacqui says she feels an obligation to make the video. She wants to repay people for their help, and to show that God left her here for some reason.

"Whether I'm happy or not, it's my duty. Something tells me this," she says. "It's a voice. I don't know if it's my spirit, or something more."

The next morning, Amadeo carefully paints red lipstick on Jacqui's mouth. For the video Jacqui chooses a blue shirt, a black jacket, black pants and a black straw hat. She looks elegant as she emerges from her bedroom.

At first, Jacqui sounds nervous and unsure as she labors to answer each question perfectly. But as the filming continues, she grows more confident and natural. Her voice fills with passion.

Drunken drivers don't just hurt the people they hit, she says. They bring suffering on everyone that person knows.

"Look at me," she challenges viewers, "and then ask yourself: 'Is it good to drink?' "

I loved my old life, Jacqui says at one point. I felt capable of doing anything.

Now, she says, "my soul feels trapped . . . like my soul is strong and wants to get out."

But this is my life, she says, and I try to enjoy it.

"I'm here," she explains. "I can hear my father. I can smile, you know. I can laugh."

Where do you get your strength from? the interviewer asks.

"It's very simple," Jacqui says. "You find the strength in love."


Jacqui's life has changed for the better since the second anniversary of the accident.

In March, as Scheker described it, Jacqui had her "do or die" surgery : yet another operation to rebuild her eyelid. After more than two years of failures, an eye surgeon succeeded in covering her eye with a flap of skin. And the doctor didn't have to touch Jacqui's feet.

After six months, doctors plan to cut a slit so she can see through the flap and perhaps blink. In the future, Jacqui hopes to have cornea operations on both eyes to regain vision. She has more surgeries planned on her right finger stubs. And one day, she still hopes to have reconstructive surgery on her face.

With her eye covered, Jacqui and Amadeo can sleep without worrying about gotas y crema. Her father, Jacqui jokes, is out of a job. At night Jacqui no longer puts on la máscara. Day and night, she wears the pressure suit only from the waist down. And now, she says, she sleeps like a queen.

By late March, she could write e-mails quickly by typing on a keyboard with a pen and could read messages without a magnifier. That month, she and Yeli began an intensive English program at the University of Louisville. Jacqui was a student again, picking up where she left off in Austin before the crash. Always seeking perfection, she scored 100 on a mid-term exam.

In class, Amadeo sits by Jacqui's side, taking notes for her when she can't read the blackboard and turning the pages of her books.

Back in Caracas, Amadeo's company continues to struggle through the nation's political turmoil. But this month he left Jacqui alone with Yeli for almost two weeks to visit his new girlfriend in Guatemala — his first vacation since the accident. Amadeo met her through Jacqui; her son was a patient Jacqui visited in the burn unit.

Have a good trip, Jacqui told him when he left.

"Bring me back an ocean breeze."