Johanna: Facing Forward

I want to go home, Johanna told her aunt on Easter Sunday, five days after the 13-plus-hour surgery that gave her a new jaw.

I give up.

Aunt Hilda gestured to the tangle of tubes that drained fluid from her niece's face and leg, her IV stand and her noisy suction tube.

If you go home, all this goes with you, Hilda said. It won't disappear.

The days since surgery had been miserable. Her face, swollen to three times its normal size, was tight and smeared with greasy antibiotics.

Saliva no longer stayed in her mouth, it cascaded onto towels used as bibs.

"I drool like a dog," Johanna complained.

She started to catch her reflection in glimpses. In the screen from her IV machine. In window glass as they wheeled her through the hospital for tests.

Mostly, she glanced for a moment, then looked away.

When Johanna was moved from surgical intensive care to another floor, they forgot to drape the bathroom mirror in her new room with a towel.

Johanna saw herself full on.

"I'm a monster," she cried.


Johanna's progress wasn't measured in days. It was marked with triumphs and setbacks.

She was elated to greet her family on Easter by eking out a breathy hello for the first time in more than a month.

But disconnecting the air tube that helped her breathe made her dizzy and she threw up.

Then doctors allowed her a drink. It wasn't the orange juice she craved. It was apple juice and she drank it from a small syringe like an injured baby bird.

Hilda let Johanna's frustrations surface; wallowing was not allowed.

"Don't let this stop your life," Hilda, 34, repeated to her niece again and again. "Don't be a victim. Move forward."

And triumphs did come. Those days were the best.

For Johanna, the best was . . . The Shower.

After 41 long days of scrubbing with a scratchy washcloth, she reveled as the hot rivulets of water washed over her.

She used real shampoo and soap to slough off the sticky goo left from the tubes taped to her arms, legs and neck.

After the shower, Johanna limped down the hallway to her room with a crutch propped under each arm. Her dark hair was plastered to her head. She melted onto her bed with a sigh. Johanna was about three shades lighter.

"It was awesome," Johanna said as a nurse combed and parted her hair.

She giggled with anticipation.

Monday, April 16, was the day she was longing for. Propped up in bed, Johanna studied the lines of an emerald-green notebook.

She was working on a note that would be released to the media after she slipped unnoticed, she hoped, out of the hospital. The intense attention had made her nervous.

"How do I start it?" Johanna asked, looking at Hilda.

"Start it nice, with some thank-yous," Hilda suggested.

Johanna's message was gracious but direct. "Please give me the privacy that I need to recover from the surgery and my emotional state . . ."

In the morning, Johanna had a terrible stomachache.

It could have been nerves but more likely it was the mix of orange juice and milk she gulped down.

After another shower, Johanna got dressed.

Her normally healthy weight of 125 pounds had fallen, teetering around 100. Johanna mourned the loss of her hips and rounded rear. She wriggled into new jeans, size 3, and a black T-shirt.

Johanna dozed as last-minute visitors stopped by: a dietitian to teach her how to fill the tube in her stomach that helps feed her, a social worker with information on a victim compensation fund, and a psychologist Johanna waved away with a frown.

Hilda told her she may, at some point, want counseling. Johanna rolled her eyes. She was forced to see a counselor after her parents died and hated it.

At 1:30 p.m., Johanna perched on the edge of her bed, legs bouncing, when Dr. Michael Fritz waltzed in.

"You ready to get going?" he asked.

"Yes," she giggled.

Her surgeon bent down, examining her chin closely, eliciting even more giggles.

"You look good with real clothes on," he said, grinning.

Johanna put a ruby-red rosary around her neck. It was a gift from her best friend. And she cut off the hospital band, officially ending her reign as Alexis Kennedy.

Aunt Hilda sat down next to Johanna. They prayed.

"You survived your parents' death, you are strong. You survive this, you are stronger. I hope you get something out of this for the rest of your life. You still have a hell of a fight, Mija."


Redheaded Maritza Santiago, the family's longtime neighbor, swirled into the room, a tornado of chatter. She cuddled Johanna, handing her a bouquet of roses.

Johanna's grateful grandfather asked Santiago to do the honor of escorting Johanna home. Santiago's wild ride to the hospital on March 5 had probably saved her life. Santiago cut the tag off a pair of white sunglasses and placed them gently on Johanna's face.

"You ready?" she asked. "Let's get outta here."

Johanna climbed back into the front seat of Santiago's rusty Accord.

There was no sign of her previous ride.

"Today, we have to stop at the stop signs, OK?" Santiago said.

As they wove toward Johanna's new home, Aunt Hilda's house, Johanna was quiet. Just as before, her hands rested in her lap, still.

Her shoulders were hunched.

Santiago glanced over at her. Her grandmother, sitting in the back seat, asked, "You okay, Mami?"

Johanna mumbled.

They couldn't understand her.

She repeated, barely audible.

"Brings memories."

During the 13-minute ride, Johanna flashed back.

The shooting with no noise. The bleeding. Waking up confused.

The hospital had become her cocoon. Boring but safe.

Now, reminders of the fears she faced piled up. As the Accord, with its rumbling muffler, made its way along West 117th Street, the White Castle where Juan had served sliders flashed into view.

Johanna looked away.

Of all the uncertainty ahead, Juan was the biggest question mark.

He was locked up in the county jail, in a special pod with teens who had committed murders and armed robberies. The thought of facing Juan terrified Johanna.

She was also worried about retaliation against her family or friends. But there was something Johanna needed from him.

She needed to know why.

Juan had written her family a letter from jail.

He had begged forgiveness from her grandmother, her grandfather and even urged her little brother, Kevin, not to hate him.

He talked about how Johanna was a blessing to him.

But Juan never addressed her.

He never apologized.

Johanna always felt she communicated best through her poems.

Though he wouldn't see it, she wrote one to Juan, while recovering at home.

It was called "Why"

My heart broken

Because of the decisions he had chosen

Scars on my face

But still not enough for me to hate

Hoping for a better day


In Aunt Hilda's driveway, on a street buffered by two parks, Johanna wobbled out of the car, ignoring crutches sent home with her.

Nobody noticed.

There was no fanfare and no TV cameras -- they were all parked outside her grandparents' house a few miles way.

Johanna limped up the tall stretch of wooden stairs to the bedroom she would share with her cousin, flopping down on her new bed to admire the cheery green paint Hilda had picked.

In the living room, Johanna plopped down on a stuffed chair, and flipped the television to "SpongeBob SquarePants."

Johanna's cousins, home from school for her arrival, ordered pizza from a neighborhood place called Georgio's.

The smell of the pie wafted from the dining room toward Johanna.

"Sniff, sniff," she joked, inhaling jealously.

"Quit smelling it, dummy," her 14-year-old cousin, Junior, told her.

Johanna snagged the piece her cousin was carrying and placed a finger on top, then touched it to her tongue. She savored the orange grease. Screw the rules. She was tired of rules. Johanna plucked a piece of pepperoni out of its cheesy bed and sucked the taste out of it. Her eyes closed dreamily.

One finger at a time, Johanna lapped the sweet red sauce off the soft dough, till it all was gone.


Later in the week, on April 20, the prosecutor assigned to Johanna's case met at Hilda's house with her and the family for the first time.

Pinkey Carr -- her real name, she swears -- is a disarming woman with a tough job.

Behind her glowing smile and perfectly pressed suits, Carr is known as a bulldog in the courtroom. But after a jury acquitted Daniel Hines in 2004 of the murder of Shakira Johnson, the girl's family was stunned. Carr wept with them as she grappled to explain what happened.

Hines had just been arrested again, accused of having sexual contact with a young girl. It made Carr smile.

Carr sat on the edge of the couch near Johanna, facing the family members. Carr walked the family through what she would be doing with the case in the following months.

Carr hoped Juan would forgo his right to a trial and plead guilty to the rape and shooting charges he faced.

If that happened, Carr said, it would come down to a numbers game.

Family members asked how many years he would get.

"Trust me, I know that no amount of years will erase the pain or the memories," Carr told them.

She told them to pray for a tough judge.

"One that likes big numbers," Carr said, her eyebrows arched high as she nodded.

She said Juan faced a maximum of 88 years in prison.

Johanna's Aunt Miriam was worried about the sentence. She wanted to be sure that Johanna would be so old when Juan was released that he wouldn't recognize her on the street.

Right now, she was only 18.

Johanna's fears were more immediate.

She didn't want to see Juan, the boy she once loved so deeply.

Johanna couldn't face him.

"I can't do it," she whispered.