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In this 2012 file photo, LeKeshia Matthews smoothes down daughter Keoshia Ford's eyebrows. Ford's family rose bright and early to take her to a doctor's appointment at Erlanger on the day this photo was taken.
It's been — oh my God, it's been rough. It's been a rough journey.

Before the shooting, Keoshia Ford smiled all the time.

She posed for photos with her hands on her hips, head tilted to the right, lips lifted in sassy, gentle smiles. The 13-year-old talked about sleepovers and boyfriends, about getting her hair and nails done, about looking forward to opening the gifts under the Christmas tree. She played basketball and ran track.

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Keoshia Ford, 17, died Tuesday after being shot in the head in March 2012. (Photos provided by Lekeshia Matthews)
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Keoshia Ford, 17, died Tuesday after being shot in the head in March 2012. (Photos provided by Lekeshia Matthews)

But then on March 17, 2012, Keoshia was shot in the head during a shootout between two groups of gang members in Highland Park. An innocent bystander, she was playing outside near 2012 Bennett Avenue when the shooting started; the conflict spilled over from a large block party nearby.

When the bullets stilled, a neighbor rushed outside and found a young girl cradling Keoshia as her blood spilled onto the pavement.

Her body was limp. Her smile gone.

Keoshia survived, but she was comatose. She could no longer pose for the camera. She could no longer stand, sit, eat, move. She couldn't speak, couldn't smile.

When she was released from the hospital, Keoshia needed a nurse's care 24/7. She slept in a hospital bed in her room, decorated with "get well soon" cards and Hello Kitty stickers. She sat in her wheelchair, gaze distant. Sometimes her eyelids fluttered or her foot would wiggle.

Her life became regimented: the nurses followed a careful schedule as they changed her diapers, moved her body into different positions, changed her tracheal breathing tube.

Keoshia's mother, Lekeshia Matthews, held on to hope that her daughter would make a full recovery. She clung to every kick, every twitch, every little movement.

"It's been — oh my God, it's been rough," Matthews said. "It's been a rough journey. When she got shot, the things she did, she couldn't do anymore. She couldn't walk, talk, couldn't do anything for herself. It was hard to see your child suffer like that. If she was in pain, she couldn't tell me, she couldn't do anything."

Keoshia, who also went by the nickname KeKe, grew from a girl into a young woman in her hospital bed and in her wheelchair. She turned 14, 15, 16 and then 17. Each year, Matthews planned a birthday party and bought a new outfit for her daughter to celebrate the day.

Earlier this year, Keoshia began to respond to voices. She could shake her head for yes or no, and she could squeeze her mother's hand when prompted. She began to recognize Matthew's voice, and the voices of her sisters. She didn't know friends' voices, unless they came by often.

In a video Mathews posted on Facebook, Keoshia sits in a chair in a hospital gown. Matthews and Keoshia's nurse stand on either side of her, and ask Keoshia to turn her head and look at Matthews.

Keoshia, instead, stares straight ahead, toward her nurse. Matthews says she's being stubborn because the camera is on.

"I know you just want to look at my sexy self," the nurse jokes.

Immediately, Keoshia shakes her head vigorously — no — and the room erupts in laughter.

"I ain't sexy though?" the nurse protests.

The progress left Matthews nearly breathless.

"It was just good to have this moment of her life," she said. "I was like, 'Oh my God, KeKe is coming back for sure.' To see her respond when you asked her something it was just amazing."

But during these last few months, Keoshia struggled with respiratory issues. She was in and out of the hospital. Early Tuesday morning, about 5:30 a.m., she died.

Matthews hasn't made funeral plans yet. The county medical examiner will determine whether Keoshia died as a result of her shooting injuries, and if so, the district attorney will decide whether to bring a homicide charge against the accused shooter, a man who was 17 in 2012 and was sentenced to two years.

But Matthews isn't thinking about all that now.

She's thinking about Keoshia's smile, about how it disappeared after the bullet lodged behind her left ear.

She's thinking about one moment, after the shooting but a while back now, when Keoshia was in her room with her sisters and song came on the radio, a song that the old Keoshia — the Keoshia who crumpled on March 17, 2012 — had loved.

The song came on the radio and in her hospital bed, Keoshia's face lit up.

And for just a moment, she smiled.

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com with tips or story ideas. Follow @ShellyBradbury.

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