No mother should have to go through this.
Inside the care center, Maxine Shinholster cradles her son’s face in her hands, kissing him clockwise. She starts at the top of his forehead, then past his eyebrow and cheek to the bottom of his chin, stopping when she completes the circle before the trail of tenderness goes back the other way.
With each kiss, she whispers his name softly, trusting her voice will get through to him.
“Hi David, Mommy’s here,” she says. “Hi honey, it’s me — Mommy.”
She knows he’s in there. He has to be.
Inches away from them, Renay Shiggs steps to her son, Nyquan, with the energy of hyped up fans at a hip-hop concert.
“C’mon Quannie, throw your hands up,” she says, her smile as bright as the one she had when he was born.
She’s got music pumping through his headphones. She shakes his pinky, dancing in front of him before she gets close, nose to nose close. But silent anguish takes over the enthusiasm as she looks for that spark he once had in his eyes.
She knows he’s in there. He has to be.
David Jackson is 23 and Nyquan Shiggs is 24.
They suffered traumatic brain injuries four months apart in 2012 that left them unable to speak, walk or feed themselves. The similarities, although tragic, are not the only things that bind them.
David, an assault victim, and Nyquan, who was struck by a motorist, were classmates at the Chad School, a private Newark elementary school they attended in the 1990s.
David was in the fourth grade, Nyquan in the fifth. The fine line of demarcation didn’t matter, because they knew one another and were part of a popular school circle that knew them.
They moved on after Chad, trying to find their place in life before the swells of irony brought them together 13 years later in the unlikeliest of places.
David was lying in bed last year on one side of the room in a brain trauma unit at Kessler Institute. Nyquan was on the other side, separated from his childhood classmate by the curtain partition.
They were roommates and didn’t know it.
Neither did the mothers. They had no idea their sons knew one another until David’s friend visited him.
Victor Ikwuegbu, after learning about David’s injury, went to see the buddy he played basketball with at Chad. But he wasn’t there long when he heard a familiar laugh on the other side of the curtain.
Peeking through an opening, he saw some pictures on a wall. Looks like Nyquan, he thought, his fifth-grade classmate. He wasn’t sure, but he heard that laugh again and put two and two together once he saw who it was — Nyquan’s mother, Ms. Shiggs.
“What are you doing here?” Shiggs remembers saying.
He told her about David, then he looked down and saw Nyquan and couldn’t believe it.
“I was thinking, how do I tell her?” he said.
When he did, they could not contain themselves.
“We got emotional,” Ikwuegbu said. “If they (David and Nyquan) were awake, all three of us would have a conversation and reminisce about Chad.”
Nyquan was the jokester. A natural at having a good time, he had break-dancing moves few could challenge. He tried college after high school, but that wasn’t his thing, his mother said. Music, maybe modeling, something creative to match his carefree spirit seemed to be his path until April 18, 2012.
A motorist who didn’t see him struck Nyquan while he was crossing Route 33 near his home in East Windsor.
David could play some ball for a fourth-grader. Friends called him D-Jacks, the smooth, laid back kid with a great personality. He was the classic teenage big brother, his mother said, letting his little brother tag along with him to the basketball courts in Union. Always neatly groomed with a fresh haircut, David saw himself as an entrepreneur when he was at Kean University.
The thug who sucker-punched him after a party on Aug. 25, 2012, in Hillside didn’t care that he was three months from graduating. His problem was that David bumped into someone accidentally at the party, police said. About 20 to 25 members of the assailant’s crew surrounded David when someone in the bunch pulled out a gun. The blow to the back of David’s head with an unknown object dropped him to the ground, where he was hit in the face.
“No mother should have to go through this,” said Shinholster, wiping away tears.
No arrests have been made, but police said they do have suspects. And to protect David’s safety, his mother can’t name the long-term care facility where he’s recovering after leaving Kessler last year.
David was then moved to the care center where he now lives, and that’s where he and Nyquan ended up on the same floor, one room apart. And they are often together with moms watching over them in the center’s lounge and activity area.
They were transferred to the same place weeks apart after, the mothers said, insurance companies wouldn’t ante up more bucks for therapy, another battle they wage as parents.
As much as this is about two young men who had the world before them, it’s about their mothers, two women who are now sisters, fighting and clawing from the depths of their sinew to raise awareness that constant physical therapy is needed to get their sons clicking again.
The mothers say that what they want for their boys and everyone else in the same boat is not what insurance companies will pay for, unless there is significant progress. And while their sons do get some restorative therapy, the mothers say an intensive, consistent schedule of it is necessary to build on their gains.
The blank, detached stare they once had is gone.
Nyquan can follow his mother with his eyes. He can do thumbs up, but not consistently. He moves his left arm a lot. And his smile, the one that melts her heart, came back.
“If that smile can come back, OMG, then Quannie can come back,” she said.
You see it coming first as a smirk when one of his favorite rap songs is on.
“Yeah, Quannie,” she shouts, her voice piercing with happiness. “That’s your song.”
The concert is on again as she scrolls through an iPad searching for music.
“Friday is a party mix,” she said. “Sunday is gospel.”
David doesn’t move as much as Nyquan, but he can follow his mother with his eyes. If he’s not too groggy from anti-seizure medication, his mother said, he can move his hands and arms, too. And he responds to stimuli, like those kisses she greets him with every day.
“Each day I see more and more progress, very little, but progress nonetheless.”
The prognosis for their sons is time, and the mothers use every unforgiving minute.
Each night before visiting hours end, they massage their boys with scented oils — peppermint, eucalyptus and rosemary — from head to toe after a long day on the job. Shiggs is in law enforcement in Newark, Shinholster is a legal secretary for a law firm in New York.
An aroma therapy lantern circulates the fragrance while they stretch their sons’ legs, arms and fingers, bending and opening each limb so the muscles won’t stay contracted.
Shiggs even has a low voltage electrical device attached to Nyquan’s arm for extra stimulation.
While that vibrates, prickling his skin, she’ll pop in a video that shows colorful, prism-like patterns you’d see inside a kaleidoscope to connect with his brain waves. On other days, it’ll be a CD with serene nature sounds, like a waterfall, or encouraging words that say he’s not sick, that he can walk, that he’ll get up.
Shinholster sings to David. She’ll play some old-school tunes from the Stylistics or the Emotions. And she talks to him a lot, telling him that he’s going to be well, that he’ll finish college and come home.
“Then you can start your dream,” she said, stroking her fingers through his hair.
You wonder how they keep up this pace, because it’s so hard for them to see their children this way. Inside they’re screaming, yet they show the world a strong façade that says they’re coping.
“Sometimes when I deal with things, I act like I’m on stage, like the world is my stage and I’m just playing a part,” said Shiggs, her voice trembling.
Shinholster is with her at the facility, rubbing her back for comfort as the tears fall.
“But inside I’m dying, you know, because I miss my son. I miss his voice.”
They don’t give up hope, staying afloat with stories of people waking from comas.
They’ve heard about robotic therapy and have met with a holistic neurologist, anything to get some traction. On the bulletin board in their sons’ rooms, the mothers have pictures of David and Nyquan with family and friends, hoping to trigger a memory. Notes, letters and cards are attached, too.
“Today will be a better day,” says one to Nyquan.
“David — The crew just ain’t the same without you.”
And would you believe it, the two happen to be gridiron rivals. David is a Dallas Cowboys fan, his room decked out in Cowboy paraphernalia, a blanket across the bed, a balloon drifting toward the ceiling. Nyquan is Giants, “Big Blue” all the way. He has a Giants blanket, a T-shirt and names of the players on his wall.
The mothers laugh about that, thinking what their sons will say to each other when they wake up.
Key word — when they wake up.
Until then, the mothers lean on each other and their faith, knowing they can’t feel sorry for themselves. No one can truly know their pain but them.
“I got on my knees when all else failed,” Shiggs said. “I called on God, and each day I get stronger and I come in here and take care of my son.”
Shinholster said she’s in this for the long haul, promising to never abandon her baby.
He’ll always be that — her baby.
“Every day they’re breathing is a good day,” she said.
Every day they do something different gives the mothers more hope.
David is in bed, his arm drawn to his chest, his fingers clenched. Shinholster, in her soothing motherly tone, gets him to be calm.
“Relax, David,” she said, holding his hand. “It’s me, Mommy.”
The arm goes back down, the fingers open up.
He’s in there, alright, and she knows it.
Down the hall, Nyquan’s mother wants what some sons are embarrassed to do.
“Give Mommy a kiss,” she said.
Nyquan wiggles his head, then rolls it to the right.
His lips touch hers. Not once, but twice.
“Tell me that boy doesn’t know,” she said.
He knows and so does she.
That he’s in there. He has to be.