But Shawn Jones is 11, an age when the one and only goal is to get through the day without public embarrassment. So, it's safer to watch "The Jeffersons." In front of the unseeing television, he is like everyone else, like he used to be, before last summer.
It has been eight months since three pit bulls yanked Shawn off his new blue
mountain bike in his
neighborhood. Upon finding the bloodied and mangled boy in a thistle field, the dogs' owner left him for dead, never calling 911. Then he hid the dogs. Because Shawn survived, police were only able to charge the man with a misdemeanor - which provoked such outrage that the state legislature changed the law in September to allow felony charges in
Shawn has no ears. His face, virtually torn off in the attack, looks like a mask. His skull, arms and hands are rutted and roped with scars. He can't smile because his jaw muscles are gone. His speech is slow and slurred. He has little use of his right hand because the
tendons were ripped out.
His life is an endless series of doctors' appointments:
psychiatrists, surgeons and physical therapists. He can't attend school. He brushes his teeth carefully to avoid hurting the damaged tissue inside his mouth. He has to change his shirt after every meal because his grip isn't strong enough to control the fork.
He steels himself for the next surgery and the next and the next, as doctors try to
reconstruct some semblance of who he was.
"I can tell by his voice when he wakes up if it's going to be a rough morning," Arnett said over breakfast at the Buttercup in Oakland. On rough days, Shawn refuses to go to therapy or see another doctor. Sometimes, he shuts himself in the bathroom and howls.
"His personality is like a roller-coaster," Arnett said. She took over as Shawn's legal guardian soon after the attack when her sister became overwhelmed with the medical decisions. She was caring for an 8-year-old, mentally handicapped nephew when she took Shawn in last September, after his three months at Children's Hospital.
Her living room now houses a huge filing cabinet to keep track of Shawn's doctors (20 so far), education, prescriptions, medical supplies, trust fund, social-services personnel, Social Security, Medi-Cal, Catholic Charities and lawyers. People look at Arnett's Day Runner date book covered with appointments for Shawn, and they marvel at her devotion. But she says most of the time she feels inadequate, lost and exhausted.
"If I had to do it again, I wouldn't be available," she admitted. "I'm tired. Just tired. I do a lot of crying and a lot of praying. The crying relieves the pressure, so when I walk out of the house it's (with) a smile and my head up."
Shawn's mother helps out, staying with Shawn when Arnett has to be out and taking Shawn on Saturdays so he can play with his brothers and sisters. "I never would have thought this would have affected the family in the way it has. We don't know what to expect from day to day," said Arnett.
Sometimes Shawn's stepfather or a neighbor takes him fishing, though lately Shawn has declined the invitations. "The doctor says we need to get out for more activities, but Shawn never wants to leave the car," said Arnett.
I called Arnett the morning after our breakfast. She sounded more drained than the day before. "I have four appointments today," she
"If it were up to me, sweetheart, I'd stay in my pajamas. People want to tell me I'm a hero. I'm no hero. Shawn's the hero."
As Diane Whipple's family and friends heard testimony in the sensational dog-mauling trial in Los Angeles, Shawn's family and friends wait for neither resolution nor justice. No one will serve time for the grisly attack on an 11-year-old boy trying out his new bike. Punishment for the crime falls only on Shawn and his family, and, as they now have come to understand, it's a life sentence.