on November 28, 2013 at 6:10 AM, updated November 28, 2013 at 8:43 AM
Hungry and alone, Vaida Jefferson lies in a cold, dark apartment, waiting for her son to come home.
She has barely moved in 11 hours. A rumpled purple comforter covers her frail, 100-pound body. Her rail-thin legs are folded and bunched toward her chest, stiff and stubborn.
The television, as it does so often, marks her countdown on this late October day.
“The Queen Latifah Show” in the morning.
The news at noon.
“Judge Alex” between 1 and 2.
And then, “Everybody Loves Raymond” reruns.
At times, she stares out her second-floor window, gazing at the mountains stretching from Passaic County toward western Jersey. But now they have been swallowed by darkness, so Vaida knows her boy will be home soon.
At 6:43 p.m., she hears a key slide into the front door. A small smile crosses her face.
“Yo Ma?” Quai Jefferson calls.
“Yes baby,” Vaida answers in a tiny voice.
“What up, what up, what up!” he says, flicking on the lights, dropping his book bag and heading for her bedroom, leaning down with a welcoming kiss.
The care package he prepared that morning — plastic containers filled with carrots, cooked potatoes and strawberries, and two bottles of water — has been emptied.
“How you doing?” Quai asks. “Are you cold? Should I close the windows? … Do you need anything right now? … Want water?”
Tall and muscular with warm brown eyes and a camera-ready smile, Quai (pronounced KWAY) is a senior wide receiver on the state’s No. 1-ranked football team, St. Joseph Regional of Montvale.
He’s also the starting shooting guard on the basketball team, but it’s his speed and savvy on the football field that will put him through college at the University of Delaware, where he has verbally committed to play next year.
In about eight months, people at the school will be there to wash his clothes, prepare his meals and monitor his every move.
But tonight, Quai, 17, leaps into the role of caregiver for his mother, whose body has been overrun by the effects of multiple sclerosis.
He will empty Vaida’s urinary catheter bag, re-dress bandages covering her ghastly bedsores and help her change clothes.
Tonight and almost every night, he will wash the dishes, cook their dinner, feed his mother and then get her settled for bed after they share a few hours. The coupon clipping and grocery shopping, the laundry run and the bill paying, he will take care of in spare hours.
It’s a routine that would break most teenagers. But not Quai.
“If her son hadn’t been taking such good care of her, she probably would have died years ago,” says Joseph Thomas Vitale, Vaida’s primary care physician. “With Vaida, it’s obvious there’s someone looking out for her.”
A night earlier, Quai had made it home from practice around 7 and spent the next two hours tending to Vaida. He then stayed up until 2 in the morning doing laundry and finishing his English paper on Oscar Wilde’s novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”
He would be up at 7:15 that morning for seven hours of classes and three hours of football practice. The commute to school is another 25 minutes each way. Through it all, he carries a 3.5 grade-point average.
“I’m so proud of him,” says Vaida, 45. “God gave me a wonderful angel.”
For the past 11 years, from the time she was diagnosed with MS, it has been like this.
Quai and Vaida, looking out for each other.
Vaida and Quai, taking care of each other.
Relatives and friends come and go, but Quai and Vaida know they only can count on each other.
“She’s truly my heart, my rock, my stone,” Quai says. “Like, that’s all I have.”
In tough times, he thinks about what he and his mother often tell each other: “Adapt and overcome.”
The words sustain Quai as his long days blur together, as the challenges mount and as those closest to him worry there’s too much on his plate.
Rather than focusing on friends or relaxing, Quai says, he’s consumed by thoughts of his mother. How is she feeling? Is she comfortable? Will she get better? Who will care for her when he heads to college next summer?
For now, there’s only one answer.
Adapt and overcome.
• • •
The 7-pound, 11-ounce baby was born with what his mother calls a football-shaped head and huge eyes that took in everything. Vaida and the boy’s father, Seth Davis, picked a unique name: Quai.
“I wanted him to have a name where when you called his name, only he turned around,” says Vaida, who has been a single parent the past 14 years, even though she says Davis recently has made an effort to be around more.
Vaida, who worked as a design assistant for the clothing company Jones New York until she got sick, says she exposed Quai to everything a curious little boy might love.
He took art classes, piano lessons and tap dancing.
He competed in judo and played baseball, basketball and tennis.
He also modeled, appearing on a billboard in Times Square and in ads for the Gap and Toys “R” Us. His photo was even on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Vaida says.
They moved from Queens to Clifton when Quai was 4, then to West Paterson, now known as Woodland Park, a year later. It was during one of their long walks through the neighborhood that they first noticed Vaida’s problems. Without warning, they say, her legs would give out and she would fall.
“I just remember her crying,” Quai says. “At first I wasn’t too aware about it because she was still walking and driving.
“Then things started getting worse.”
Vaida would wake up feeling sluggish. Everyday tasks exhausted her. Soon she walked with a hitch. Then, a walker. Then, not at all.
By the time he was about 10, Quai was cooking, doing laundry and helping his mother use the bathroom. He would get rides to the store and shop for groceries. Nurses taught him to check Vaida’s blood pressure and inject her twice a day with Copaxone, a drug to ease the effects of MS, an incurable autoimmune disease.
“He really has taken on a parent’s responsibility,” says Regina Kay, a close family friend. “It’s like role reversal. He’s doing everything his mother would do for him, and he doesn’t give it a second thought. It is their normal.”
• • •
On this Thanksgiving morning at 10, two great high school football programs will meet in front of thousands of fans at St. Joe’s. Quai’s team is 9-0 and ranked No. 4 in one national poll, giving the Green Knights a shot at a national championship. Their opponent will be Don Bosco Prep, also a national power, despite four losses this season.
Quai, with his commitment to Delaware, is among the dozen or so college-bound players on a loaded St. Joe’s team that some say might be the greatest in New Jersey history.
Tony Karcich, the Green Knights’ grizzled coach, keeps his team on a tight leash.
His players practice 2½ hours each day, lift weights every other day, come in before school twice a week to watch film and study more tape at home. But the coach constantly must remind himself not to ride Quai the way he does others.
“I don’t want to be too quick to cut him slack,” Karcich says. “But in the back of my mind, I also know this kid has a whole lot more on his plate than the next guy.”
That was apparent, Karcich says, starting with freshman orientation.
Just before the session began, dozens of parents and students were seated in the gym. The door opened and Quai walked in, carrying his immobile mother in his arms. Tiny and frail, Vaida clutched his shoulders, child-like. The 14-year-old moved with a sense of duty and maturity past the slack-jawed crowd, Karcich says.
“My principal saw that and he said, ‘That’s it. Whatever financial aid he needs, he gets,’ ” Karcich says.
This season, Quai has scored five touchdowns, often without his No. 1 fan because Vaida’s health has kept her away from more than half the games.
But even as her health deteriorated — as her bedsores worsened and her cheeks sunk into her face — there was one game Vaida kept telling people she wouldn’t miss.
It would be her state championship and a chance to share the field with her boy: Senior Day, Nov. 9, against Ramapo.
Not many people were expecting to see her there.
• • •
Quai grabs a pack of frozen pork chops, defrosts them under running water and digs out a skillet, pots and measuring cups to start cooking the chops, dry rice and frozen green beans.
The chops sizzle in a skillet as he sprinkles on Goya Adobo All-Purpose Seasoning. In time, he has three burners going. Once dinner is ready on this October evening, Quai heaps the food onto a plate and lays a spoon in the rice.
Next, he gets his mother out of bed, where she has spent another quiet day, alone with her TV and her view of the mountains. Quai helps Vaida put on a fresh T-shirt, then carefully lifts her into her wheelchair and points her toward the kitchen table.
She sees the food and her eyes light up.
“Quai, that’s really nice,” she says. “You did a great job.”
Vaida digs in after her son cuts her pork chop into tiny bites. She holds her spoon with her entire hand as if she’s clutching a baton — an effect of the MS. Soon, she ditches the utensil and plucks the pieces of pork and green beans with her fingers.
“Did you take your medicine today?” Quai asks.
“How’s the rice?”
“You want water or something?”
Vaida says she struggles with the demands piled on Quai. But for now, she only qualifies for six hours of nursing care a week, as she awaits word on whether she’s eligible for Medicaid. Financially, Vaida says, they’re down to her Medicare coverage, Social Security and money Quai put away from his modeling — savings he dipped into to buy a used car this past January.
“It used to bother me that I had to depend on him as much as I did,” Vaida says. “But I’ve learned this gift of MS isn’t just for me, it’s for me and the people around me like him, and it helped him to mature.”
Few people really know the realities of Quai’s home life.
He says he doesn’t share much with friends or teammates, and he has never gone to a counselor or anyone else to talk. He confides only in a small group of adults and female friends, and even then he doesn’t say much.
“He’s told me a couple times it’s gotten bad,” says Lou Taylor, Quai’s youth football coach and one of the family’s closest friends. “That’s all he’s left it at. It’s almost as if he doesn’t want to talk about it. I think he represses or swallows a lot of the things that are bothering him.”
Adds Ronnie Nochimson, another close family friend, “I have never seen him fall apart. I think he is accepting that this is the situation, and he just takes it on as, ‘This is my life and my mother and I love her.’ ”
Julianne Becerra, Quai’s close friend and a St. Joe’s cheerleader who attends an all-girls school in Bergen County, is one of the few to understand Quai’s responsibilities. She wrote a letter to The Star-Ledger once she learned Quai was being interviewed.
“There were countless times that he could (have) given up or backed down, but he didn’t,” Julianne wrote. “He chose to be different, to be a man with a story, to be an inspiration.”
To adapt and overcome.
• • •Â
Football season has been hard on Vaida, and not just because she’s missing Quai’s games.
Over the past few months, with little feeling from the waist down and barely able to move, she developed potentially fatal bedsores. The wound on her sacral bone — the “butt bone” — is diagnosed as stage four, the most severe. She has more sores on her legs and hips.
Vitale, her doctor, says Vaida’s greatest danger is developing an infection. That means Quai’s most important job as her primary caregiver — cleaning and bandaging the wounds twice a day — is most crucial to Vaida’s survival.
“You can’t underestimate what taking care of those ulcers is doing for her,” Vitale says. “Some people pass out by the smell. They pay nurses big money to do stuff like that.”
The sores look like craters in her flesh, Quai says, with exposed bone, muscle and tissue. Wearing gloves and holding his breath, he removes the old dressings, gently cleans the wounds, applies prescription ointment and bandages them.
“You wouldn’t wish that upon your worst enemy,” Quai says. “To see a loved one have to go through that is just dreadful.”
• • •
By the first week of November, Vaida has been moved to a rehabilitation center in Wayne. Senior Day and her big moment with Quai now seem like an even bigger long shot.
Eight days earlier, on Oct. 30, a nurse stopped by the apartment to check her sores and noticed the wounds had a particularly foul odor. At the nurse’s urging, a friend drove Vaida to St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson, where she stayed nearly a week before transferring to Wayne View Care Center.
Before she can go home, Vaida says, she needs insurance to approve a Clinitron Rite Hite Air Fluidized Therapy Bed — a roughly $60,000 machine that circulates air, sand and heat. Vaida calls it the “Cadillac” of hospital beds.
She lays in a Clinitron at the rehab center and the bed hums softly as she talks with visitors.
“You got air pumping up through your tushy,” she says, smiling.
Quai and Vaida remain optimistic she will get better and perhaps even walk again, despite the grim outlook many MS patients face. Vaida talks often about a recent dream in which she saw herself on her feet.
“That’s God’s way of telling me I’m going to walk again,” she says.
In the meantime, Vaida passes the hours at the rehab center thinking about Senior Day and Quai. “I miss my boy,” she says. But with the game less than 48 hours away, friends are saying it’s not a good idea.
The weather will be too cold and her body is too weak to travel.
But Vaida is determined.
• • •
The proudest football mom in New Jersey is bundled in a fuzzy jumpsuit, a thick brown jacket, heavy boots and two pairs of gloves when she and her friend pull up to St. Joe’s just before 11 a.m. on a spectacular fall Saturday.
Vaida Jefferson’s lips have been coated with red Chanel lipstick and her outfit is complemented by a fancy white scarf and a matching bonnet with two fabric flowers on the side.
At a glance, no one can tell what she has conquered to get here. She had to persuade friends and nurses to let her out of the rehab center for a few hours, and she’s still nursing bedsores. Her urine catheter remains attached.
Adapt and overcome.
Grill smoke wafts through the air as volunteers stock the concession stand. Vaida and the other parents wait nearby, chatting excitedly as their sons warm up on the field. Vaida has a huge smile for everyone.
“Today is a great day!” she says.
About 12:45, players and parents take their positions for the pre-game ceremony — players near the goal post and parents on the sideline.
“Now for our senior football players!” a voice calls from the loudspeaker.
Vaida can feel the tears building.
One after another, the names of the 25 seniors are called.
Then, it’s their turn.
“No. 1, Quai Jefferson!”
“And his mom, Vaida!”
The crowd explodes as Vaida extends both arms.
Dressed in his forest green No. 1 jersey, Quai walks over and hands his mother a yellow rose. He moves behind her, grabs the handles on her wheelchair and pushes her up the field, along the sideline. Her smile lingers and her emotions crest. All eyes in the stadium lock on mother and son.
Vaida begins to weep.
They find their spot on the field and Quai looks down at his mother and she looks at her son.
He takes off his helmet, leans in and kisses her on the cheek.
“I love you,” he says.
“I love you, too,” she says.
In minutes, the ceremony ends. The cheerleaders start cheering, and the players buckle their chin straps for a simple game of football.
For Vaida and Quai, all that’s left is life and its mysteries.
How long will Vaida be forced to stay at the rehab center? What will happen next year? Can Quai handle being 140 miles away from his mother?
No matter, Vaida and Quai say. They will take on those challenges as they have all the others, together.
Adapt and overcome.