In the afternoon hours after Jeanie Escarment celebrated Christmas with her two youngest children, they headed across town to Plantation to a rehabilitation center to spend time with her oldest son, Devonte Grady, 14.
The three walked down a first-floor hallway and entered a room decorated with family photos and Spiderman posters, his favorite childhood character.
Devonte lay in his bed still and quiet, left in a coma after a near-drowning accident in 2007.
Later Christmas evening, Escarment, 30, returned alone and stayed overnight, a mother with her first-born on his sixth holiday in a coma.
“I never want Devonte to be alone, so I spend as much time here as possible,’’ says Escarment softly. “Not sure if he knows we are there, but he should not be alone on Christmas. What if this were his last?’’
Escarment’s boyfriend, Douglas Brown, 31, — the father of Ethan, 5 and Serenity, 4 — died in a similar drowning accident one Sunday last January.
The double tragedy has left Escarment scarred, but determined to provide a stable home for her children.
“I just want the best for them. I don’t want them to be like me, a teen mom who sometimes hung around the wrong crowd. I want them to grow up as regular kids, go to their prom, go to college, get a job, meet someone nice and get married,’’ she says. “I want them to have children, a regular life without troubles.’’
Grieving and faced with a mountain of bills after Brown died, Escarment and her children moved back in with her mother in Oakland Park, a household now suddenly bursting with six members. With the bedrooms full, Escarment sleeps on the couch in the den.
So, in the most practical sense, her holiday wish is for a bed and a computer for the children. But her greatest wish is to have her own apartment so she can bring Devonte home and be not just his mother, but his caregiver. She is hoping that donors contribute two months rent to help her start the next chapter.
“They have gone through so much and Jeanie has shown so much strength and resilience, she keeps going for her children,’’ said Jeanette Johnson, a family strengthening program coordinator at Jack & Jill Children’s Center in Fort Lauderdale.
The Center, serving about 150 families in Broward including Escarment, works to break the cycle of poverty for children of low-income working families through pre-school child services, family support and intervention.
“You can see her love and dedication in how she interacts with them,’’ said Johnson who also works there as a behavioral analyst. “They are well taken are of.’’
Escarment had Devonte when she was 16 years old. Three years later, he was diagnosed with autism.
“I didn’t know much about it, but I did know something was wrong. No one could really understand what he was saying other than me, his speech wasn’t normal,’’ she says. “Then he stopped really talking, he just didn’t say much at all.’’
She remembers spending time with the children of friends and how they were full of energy, newly-learned words and giggles. Devonte was different. He had a beautiful smile and full personality, loved basketball, singing and choo-choo trains, but at times he seemed unable to connect with the outside world.
On March 15, 2007, Devonte, then 8, was at a neighbor’s home in Oakland Park and somehow wandered into the pool in the backyard.
“By the time they got to him, he was at the bottom of the pool. The police officer jumped in, got him out and immediately began CPR,’’ says Escarment, who was eight months pregnant at the time with Ethan. “He finally pulled through but he had lost so much oxygen to his brain. He was in a coma and the doctors said he suffered brain damage.’’
Devonte now stays at Kidz Korner, a pediatric facility specializing in rehabilitation, ventilation management and long-term care.
With his care paid for through Medicaid, Devonte is now breathing on his own, can open eyes and has some movement.
Escarment visits at least twice a week, in-between her shifts as a CVS photo lab manager and the time spent caring for the other children — Ethan is a kindergartner who wants to be a soldier when he grows up, and Serenity, a bubbly pre-K student wants to be a firefighter.
“I talk to him and hold his hand,’’ Escarment says, her voice weary and thin. “When his brother and sister come, they sing gospel songs to him, the ones he used to sing before he went into a coma. I believe he knows we are here.’’