A year ago, Jacqueline Brown found her family homeless. She’d moved to South Carolina three years earlier from New Jersey and had trouble making ends meet.
She worked constantly, she said, trying to provide what she could, but she and her boyfriend found themselves without permanent housing. They bounced from hotel to hotel and realized they couldn’t spend money that way and save for a rental home's security deposit at the same time.
So they slept in their car, an old, barely running Ford LTD. Brown’s four young children — Jamire, Robbiana, Arnez Jr. and Ar’mani — squeezed in, too.
Brown's boyfriend, Arnez Jamison Sr., was the biological father of the two younger siblings, and he helped raise the older two.
The family stuck together until the crash that would tear them apart.
Winter was approaching. The nights in the car were getting colder.
And then came a bit of hope. A friend found them a mobile home — it had heat and lights and provided a roof over their heads. Their friend paid the first month’s rent so they could save up the security deposit, Brown said.
Things were looking up.
Fast forward a year. Brown still worked constantly but enjoyed her co-workers and the flexibility at the KFC/Taco Bell in Travelers Rest where her children often sat in a restaurant booth while she worked.
Her two older children, son Jamire Halley, 8, and daughter Robbiana Evans, 6, were in school at Gateway Elementary in Travelers Rest. They loved to learn, Brown said. Her third child, son Arnez Yaron Jamison Jr., 4, was in preschool at SHARE Head Start, and her younger daughter, Ar’mani Jamison, 2, was potty-training.
They’d replaced the LTD with a 2004 Pontiac van — nothing special, but it ran and they all fit inside. She’d saved enough to put up a tree and put presents under it. They finally had stability.
This Christmas was going to be sweet.
Brown said she was at home cleaning last Thursday evening, Dec. 6, when Jamison Sr. took the children with him to visit another one of his children in town. It was late — actually early Friday morning — when he drove them back toward home along country roads in rural Taylors.
Brown began to worry when they didn't arrive. She couldn’t reach Jamison. Each call and text grew more frantic. Eventually she ordered a ride from Lyft to seek her family but when the driver arrived, he told her there was a bad accident just a short drive up winding State 253 near Mountain Creek Road.
She said she knew it was her family.
Then the hospital called. They said she needed to rush. Ar’mani was there.
“I just thought it would be bumps and bruises,” Brown told The Greenville News on Monday in her first public comments since the wreck.
When she arrived, Ar’mani was on emergency life support. Ar'mani would be taken off life support and pronounced dead on Sunday, according to the Greenville County Coroner's Office.
The other three children died at the scene of the wreck.
Brown said it still felt unreal, an ironic nightmare that struck just as her family was beginning to gain traction.
They’d started with nothing, but they had each other. Then they had everything, Brown said.
Now, she said, she truly has nothing.
“I’m just incomplete now without them,” she said. “They were my everything — my heart, my blood, my breath, my motivation. They helped me get through everything I needed to get through.”
Now she’s left to plan funerals and pick up the pieces. Arrangements were still being finalized late Monday afternoon with Watkins, Garrett and Woods Funeral Home, but she said there would be a service in Greenville on Saturday and another in New Jersey, where she’s from, next week.
Jamison Sr. was injured in the wreck and hospitalized with a broken leg, Brown said.
He’s also broken, she said, and “taking it just as hard as I am.”
And she’s left with questions, some that may go unanswered and others she asks herself with regret. “What could I have done differently? What could I have done to fix it?” she said.
Jamison Sr., 27, has been charged with three counts of felony DUI resulting in death and one count of DUI resulting in great bodily injury, which will be upgraded to DUI resulting in death in the wake of Ar’mani’s death, the state Highway Patrol said Monday. He is also charged with driving under suspension and child endangerment, according to the Highway Patrol and Greenville County Detention Center records.
Asked about Jamison Sr.’s charges, Brown said, “My head’s all over the place. I’m not really focusing on that part.”
Brown said she’s drawing strength from her memories and from the community support she’s felt. A co-worker started a GoFundMe campaign that had raised more than $30,000 by Monday for funeral and burial expenses. Teachers from Gateway visited her in the hospital. Family came to town to embrace her.
Her son Jamire was her protector, she said. In the dark days of homelessness, she called him her little sidekick. She hears the words he said then ringing in her mind now.
“Mommy, it’s going to be OK.”
“I’ve just got to move forward, be strong,” she said. “I’ve been through a lot. It’s going to take a lifetime to heal, but I’m going to make it. I still have to do it for them. I’ve never been a quitter, so I’m not going to quit now.”
Brown has been staying with her mother in an apartment nearby. She hasn’t yet returned home to the modest trailer she shared with her family. The tree was still there Monday, though the electricity was out due to the winter storm that passed through over the weekend.
Brown said she doesn’t know if she can look at the presents now. Her children so looked forward to this Christmas.
A few days ago her youngest, Ar’mani, couldn’t wait any longer. While mommy showered, she ripped open a gift, a baby doll in a stroller.
Brown came out to see her little girl with an early Christmas present.
It was one final, precious gift.