CHICAGO -- There is a large photo of Jonathan Annicks on a wall at the rehab hospital where he was once a patient.
Sometimes when he rolls by in his wheelchair, he gazes at the black-and-white image, taken shortly after he was shot and paralyzed. He was 18 then, his cheeks a little rounder, his wavy hair shorter.
He looks confident, calm even. “I let on the facade that … ‘Yeah, we’re good to go!’” Jonathan said.
At the time, he saw no other choice than to hold it together, for his family, for himself. If he cracked, he said then, his world might completely crumble.
But he was harder on himself than he let on, and confused.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” he recalls thinking. He was scared to go outside, especially without legs that worked. What if someone came after him again? He wouldn’t be able to run.
“Oh gosh, Jonathan, you’re so great. You’re doing so well,” people would gush.
“Yes, he is,” his mother, Herlinda Annicks, said. But even now, “that doesn’t mean he’s not internally struggling with everything because, you know, this completely changed his world around.”
Admitting he’s not OK all the time hasn’t been easy for the young man who never wants to be seen as a complainer. “Everyone has bad days,” Jonathan said.
But, at age 24, a bit older and wiser, he’s learned that triumph over tragedy rarely comes in neat packages.
The gunman who shot him in April 2016 was never caught. He ambushed Jonathan as he was retrieving a cell phone charger from a car parked in front of his family’s longtime home in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood. A few weeks later, an Associated Press team met with him and his family to document his story.
The first few months were a whirlwind.
The young man with the big brown eyes and an easy smile amazed everyone when he went to prom two months after the shooting.
Shortly after, while crossing the stage to collect his high school diploma, he celebrated by popping a wheelie with his wheelchair.
That fall, he began classes at DePaul University, taking the train and eventually driving himself in his car, modified with hand controls.
“There’s no point in going back and sulking over something that I can’t change,” he said at the time.
Still, he worried about burdening his family. He and his girlfriend broke up after she went to college in another state. And, while he continued to rely on a small group of friends he’d made before the shooting, he found it hard to make new ones in college.
He wanted to be more than just “the guy in the wheelchair.” But his social anxiety, longstanding but made worse by his injury, could be paralyzing in its own way.
By the winter of 2020, Jonathan hit a major low. He had assured his family that he was getting his classwork done. Then his mom got a phone call, a wellness check from DePaul. He hadn’t been going to class or turning in assignments.
“You could have knocked me over with a feather because I thought, oh my God, I have been asking him for weeks, 'What are you doing? What’s going on? How’s school?'” his mother said.
They had a long talk. He’d been “in his own head,” he said. “It was a confidence thing.” Getting caught up felt overwhelming. But he realized that telling no one what was happening had been weighing him down.
It was a turning point.
About that time, his mom got the chance through her employer, BMO Harris Bank, to earn her Master of Business Administration degree at DePaul, Jonathan’s school.
During the pandemic, they both attended classes online at home, and earlier this month, they graduated, together. Mom presented Jonathan with the cover for his bachelor’s degree in communications and media. He presented hers for her MBA.
Mom fought back tears, as her husband Mike, and a small group of family and friends whistled and clapped from the stands.
“I could never ask for anything better than this,” Herlinda said, recalling the many days and nights she spent helping care for Jonathan at the hospital and afterward.
She had prayed that a day like this would come.
Since Jonathan was shot in 2016, the number of shootings in Chicago had been on the decline, until the pandemic hit.
Some gunshot victims and people with other kinds of spinal cord injuries come to the Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital, as he did.
Now Jonathan, the former patient, is a mentor who helps teach them life skills to those who are paralyzed.
This spring, he accompanied a group, all in wheelchairs, to a Chicago Bulls basketball game. He’s taught some of them how to navigate the benefits system and how to make their homes more accessible.
Recently, he showed Cesar Romero, a rehab patient, how to transfer from his wheelchair into a car. The 45-year-old Chicagoan worked construction until he was shot last year on his way to the grocery store.
“A ver?” Jonathan asked his student in Spanish. You see? Being bilingual has made him even more valuable to the hospital, where he hopes he might work his way into the marketing department, now that he’s graduated.
“OK, let’s go!” Romero said, as he shifted into the driver’s seat, gleefully grabbing the steering wheel and rocking it back and forth.
“If he can do it, I can do it,” Romero said.
These moments bring Jonathan joy and help give him purpose.
So does playing wheelchair softball.
On a concrete diamond on Chicago’s North Side, adults and children with various disabilities play the no-glove version of the game with a slightly larger ball.
At a recent practice, Jonathan hit an in-the-park home run, as his teammates and coaches cheered.
“This is going to sound cheesy … but people like Johnny provide a beacon to people who are out there,” said Jorge “Georgie” Alfaro, a peer mentor for the team, which is sponsored by the Chicago Park District and the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab, among others.
“I want a little kid in a wheelchair to come and play softball for the first time and meet people like Johnny … and the parents say, ‘My God, my kid’s going to be OK.’”
Again, OK doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Jonathan tells his younger brothers that, if he could just pee under his own control, he wouldn’t mind being paralyzed. Waking up to the occasional mess in his bed, he says, is demoralizing.
Pressure sores are also a constant worry. They can afflict people who sit for long periods or who are bed-ridden and can lead to life-threatening infections. One of his friends had a toe amputated. Another had to drop out of school.
But the challenges haven’t stopped Jonathan from dreaming. He wants to live on his own, meet a special someone and have children of his own, which is still possible despite his injury.
“Having kids would be crazy, having little mini-me’s running around,” he said, quietly, grinning shyly.
If that’s going to happen, he concedes, he’ll have to actually go out and socialize. “Not easy for me. But I gotta do it.”
He wishes he could go back and reassure his 18-year-old self, the one in the photo on the Schwab hospital wall.
He’d tell him, “Don’t be so mean to yourself. You’ll figure it out, eventually. Stop stressing about it.”
It makes Jonathan realize just how far he’s come.
Martha Irvine, an AP national writer and visual journalist, can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @irvineap.