Johanna: Facing Forward

This nine-part series tells the story of a teenage relationship turning to obsession and abuse, and a strong young woman recovering from a horrific act of violence. Originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in September, 2007.

Johanna Orozco's grandmother clasped a bath towel to the darkening pit where the 18-year-old's jaw was supposed to be.

Blood seeped through the older woman's worn fingers.

A rusty-edged Honda Accord bulleted them toward MetroHealth Medical Center, blowing past corner bodegas, sagging wooden porches, 10 stop signs and three traffic lights.

The Orozcos' longtime neighbor, Maritza Santiago, never let off the horn.

Afternoon rush-hour traffic on West 25th Street parted biblically.

Vamos a hacerlo ... We're going to make it, shouted Santiago, glancing at the normally chatty teen in the passenger seat.

Johanna's delicate hands rested on her lap.

Her long and slender fingers were spread and her nails, painstakingly painted a few days before, burst with green, purple, blue and yellow.

It was March 5, more than two months before senior prom, but just a day earlier she was modeling a shimmery brown dress that she had picked out for the dance. Soon her class -- Cleveland's Lincoln-West Class of 2007 -- would be measured for their caps and gowns, in cardinal red and fresh snow white.

For Johanna to reach those milestones took remarkable resolve for the teen, barely over 5 feet tall with cherubic cheeks and a giggle that sometimes ends in a snort. She was a child in an immigrant family. Her struggling parents both died young, jarring her reality just as she was becoming a woman.

It would have been simpler for her to succumb to the streets, giving in to the gang and drug culture that reigned over her Cleveland neighborhood. But Johanna plowed ahead, confronting each obstacle in her daily life. She poured her hurt into poems and journals that she tucked in a bedside drawer. Her personal turmoil stayed hidden behind her smile.

Then she fell for a boy.

He was the reason Johanna was in the speeding car, with her grandmother trying to steady her wobbly head from the back seat.

Johanna's face was shattered; her heart ached.

Did he do this to you? Did Juan do this to you? her grandmother shouted in Spanish.

Johanna tilted her head up slightly, and then down.

Bastard. How could he do this? Juanita spat.

Johanna begged God to keep her alive. If it was her time, she bargained, at least let her join her parents in heaven.

Santiago's car screeched in front of the glass-walled emergency room, the bumper hugging the curb. If the car would have fit, she would have plowed through the doors.

She ripped past patients with colds and cuts and barged into the long emergency department corridor. Santiago screamed that her neighbor was in the car.

She's shot in the face.

Doctors and nurses bolted toward the door.

Johanna leaned on her grandmother, trying to walk herself in. Nurses lowered her into a wheelchair.

She was whisked into an emergency bay, a room lined with shelves and drawers full with sterile tubes, needles, and bandages -- each neatly labeled in block letters.

A huddle of doctors examined the flaps of skin and tissue hanging from Johanna's head. They needed to get a tube down her throat before it swelled and closed, cutting off her breath.

The doctors saw a manifest of violence created by peppercorn-size pellets that had ripped into her. They didn't know why Johanna's lower face had been blown off. They didn't have time to ask.

Only Juan Ruiz could answer that.

When police showed up at Juan's house a half-hour after the ambush that afternoon, accusing him of shooting Johanna, he laughed.

It was just a coincidence, he told them, that they had found shotgun shells in his garbage along with his black clothes and new Timberland boots. He had been home playing video games.

Later at the police station, Juan insisted that Johanna had set him up, framed him for rape, but that he didn't shoot her.

"Find whoever did this," he told them.

At the emergency room, needles pierced Johanna's vein and two spurts of medicine followed.

One made her sleepy; the other kept her still.

A doctor sliced Johanna's jeans and zip-up hoodie from her body.

Johanna remembers trying to mouth:

I don't want to die.

She didn't know if anyone heard her.

Since she was a little girl, Johanna knew her mother was dying.

In 1998, when Johanna was 10, Carmen Orozco had a kidney transplant. Johanna's paternal grandmother, Juanita, was the donor.

Carmen's recovery was rough. And it was nearly impossible to pay the $1,000 a month for the anti-rejection drugs Johanna's mother was supposed to take daily. Johanna's father, Alberto, earned too much for the family to get help with the cost.

The burden was crushing him.

His wife would never get better. If she saw her children graduate from high school, it would be a victory.

Johanna helped cook, clean and dress her brother, Kevin, who was two years younger. The kids often subsisted on Taco Bell and McDonald's when Carmen was in the hospital.

Alberto Orozco, a man with an athletic build and unruly black hair, sweated out some of his stress playing soccer in a league he helped found at a West Side recreation center.

Often, Johanna would get up early on Saturday mornings to help line the field and set up the goals.

But her father also drank.

Johanna's parents fought, almost always when her dad was loaded. Sometimes he slapped her mother. Once, her dad came home staggering. His clattering woke Johanna and she stepped silently down the stairs to see her Aunt Hilda videotaping him. Hilda wanted her older brother to see how foolish he looked.

Don't you care about how you act in front of your daughter? she pleaded.

I don't care, Johanna heard her dad say.

The drinking and abuse upset Johanna but she was still a daddy's girl.

Johanna watched "Star Wars" and "Rocky" VHS tapes from her father's lap. Her dad sparked Johanna's obsession for writing with ink pens in vibrant greens, pinks and purples. He bought them as rewards for her perfectly practiced handwriting.

When she was 11, Johanna visited her father's native Guatemala. Seeing the extreme poverty and the skinny boys who shined shoes for pennies made her cry. Johanna left all her clothes behind for the children in the town.

When she returned to Cleveland, her own family was destitute.

Her parents couldn't keep up their house payments and the bank foreclosed.

The family of four squeezed into the home of Alberto's parents, a mustard-colored double on Newark Avenue, near the towering St. Rocco Catholic Church, on the near West Side.

Aunt Hilda and her four kids lived upstairs. Johanna's great-grandmother also lived there.

In the summer of 2001, Johanna's mother decided to join her sister, who lived 10 hours away in a rural southeastern Tennessee town. Carmen's sister had convinced her that she might be able to get a new kidney there.

Johanna went with her mother. Kevin stayed with their dad.

Johanna, who was 12, didn't want to leave her friends; she didn't want her family to split. She obeyed her mother but refused to speak to her for a month.

The two had never been close, anyway. Johanna resented being responsible for her brother all the time. She viewed her mother as weak, not only physically but because she had tolerated abuse.

Away from the city, though, tucked in the rounded mountains of Tennessee, mother and daughter bonded. They chatted like girlfriends about boys and life and complained about the vegetarian fare Carmen's sister served.

Less than two months later, the family was reunited.

A letter Johanna wrote to Aunt Hilda's oldest daughter prompted her father to head south. She bragged that an older boy from church liked her. Hilda convinced her older brother that he needed to protect his flor florecedora, blooming flower, before someone plucked her.

Alberto promised that he would drink less and keep his temper. He landed a job building frames for mobile homes. Soon he was promoted to foreman.

The tree-covered slopes in Ooltewah, Tenn., reminded Johanna's father of his Guatemalan home, Coatepeque, a village tucked in a mountain range near the Naranjo River, where coffee and fruit thrive better than the people who live there.

Together the Orozcos visited Tennessee landmarks with fairy-tale names such as Ruby Falls and Lookout Mountain.

When Johanna's mother was too weak to travel in mid-2002 because of her dialysis, the family played cards and danced.

There were occasional fights, but not like before.

Carmen needed another kidney badly. Johanna offered but, at 13, she was too young to donate.

One fall day that year, as Carmen's toxin-cleansed blood flowed back into her body during dialysis, she had a stroke.

She was 34.

As her mother lay in a coma, Johanna massaged her legs, read to her and played her favorite Mexican balladeer, Juan Gabriel.

Doctors finally told the family Carmen was not going to wake up. Johanna's father decided to let them unplug the machines keeping her alive.

It took four days for her to die.

Johanna stayed at her mother's bedside, wearing a shirt that held a whiff of jasmine and peaches from her mother's favorite perfume, Estee Lauder's Beautiful.

But inside, Johanna was seething.

How dare she give up and leave me and Kevin, Johanna fumed. She thought her mother didn't try hard enough to live.

Johanna couldn't understand that her mother had accepted her fate. For years, Carmen had been telling her husband's two sisters that she wanted Johanna to have a quinceanera -- a traditional 15th-birthday celebration -- with a puffy princess dress. That she wanted her daughter to graduate from high school, not drop out as she had. And that when Johanna married, she wanted it to be a church wedding, not a courthouse wedding like hers.

At the funeral home just before her mother was cremated, Johanna's father had to drag her away as she flailed and cried. She was angry that her mom was taken just as she had learned to appreciate her.

They buried her mother in a nearby cemetery just over a ridge from a plant that has produced Little Debbie snack cakes for 70 years. The breeze that drifted over the gravesite smelled like individually wrapped Honey Buns.

Carmen's flat, steel-colored marker -- at the top of a grassy slope, shaded by the waxy leaves of an elaeagnus tree -- shouted her heritage. The red, white and blue of the Puerto Rican flag with its single star waved from a corner.

Johanna's father bought a plot there for himself. He told his family that even if he remarried, he wanted to be buried in Tennessee, next to his queen.

Four days after her mom was buried, Johanna begged her dad to let her go on a church camping trip.

Stay with me, he pleaded as they argued. Johanna needed to get away, to be up in the mountains she had come to love.

Her father relented and dropped Johanna off in the church parking lot.

I love you so much, he told her, kissing her on the forehead.

The next day, Johanna was on a hill with the other teens singing religious songs.

There was an emergency. She needed to head down to the camp.

Is it Kevin? Is it my dad? she thought.

At the bottom of the hill, Carmen's sister and her two sons were waiting.

Johanna's clothes and gear were packed.

"What's wrong? What happened?" Johanna asked.

Her aunt hugged her tight and said her father had been in an accident.

Is he OK? Johanna asked.

No. He's dead, her aunt said.

Johanna's father had fallen asleep while driving home from a meeting of a soccer club he had started in Tennessee.

Minutes from his home he crashed into two saplings, then a large tree. He was 35.

Johanna had lost two parents in 11 days.

When she got home, Johanna wiped her tears, so her family wouldn't see them. She blamed herself for her father's death, believing she should have stayed with him to mourn. Johanna looked skyward and promised her parents that she would take care of her brother. And that she would graduate from high school and college to make them proud.

Her grandparents wanted to bring their son's ashes home to Cleveland. But Johanna begged them to keep her parents together, in the spot her father had just picked, in the place their family had been happiest. Her pleas prevailed.

Alberto was buried next to Carmen.

Johanna designed her father's marker.

In a the corner, a sky-blue and white Guatemalan flag danced.

Johanna moved back to Cleveland, to her grandparents' home. The Guatemalan culture that kept her family close-knit also dictated that she mourn her parents for a year.

That meant her quinceanera had to be put off until her 16th birthday.

At first, Johanna faltered on her promise to her parents to be strong and mature. She floated through school in a cloud.

She went to parties where people drank, smoked pot and lost themselves in the thumps of Latin rhythms.

One night, Kevin saw she was tipsy when she came home at her curfew time. I hate it when you're drunk, he told his big sister.

Feeling guilty, she swore she would stop. Kevin didn't need to lose her, too.

Johanna threw herself into school activities, the Latin Dance ensemble and Drama Club. She planned on a calm summer in 2004, hanging out with her cousins and friends. One evening, Johanna was out in the neighborhood and went out with a friend to meet the girl's boyfriend.

The boyfriend's younger half brother showed up, too. Johanna knew him from elementary and middle school.

He had been shy but funny then. But she knew he had started to get into trouble as he got older.

At 16, a year younger than Johanna, he was tall and lanky with the deep voice of a man and the acne of a teen. They hugged and sat on the front porch catching up.

Can I get your number? he asked.

No, Johanna answered coyly.

She told Juan Ruiz she'd get his number later.