Not a single moment goes by that Antoinette Brown isn’t thinking about her son.
With every head she shampoos, haircut she gives and appointment she takes down, Brown can’t shake the reality of not being able to talk to someone she used to laugh with every single day.
The local hair salon Kingz and Queenz that she owns in Detroit doesn’t feel as warm as it once did, ever since her son Wendell was detained in China 14 months ago.
“His contagious smile is what I miss the most, our jokes that we crack together and we’d have a lot of good laughs,” Brown said. “Those are the things that I miss the most, just being able to talk to him every day like I used to.”
Her son Wendell, former linebacker at Ball State, was detained in a Chongqing jail after the now 30-year-old got in a bar fight more than a year ago.
In September 2016, Wendell was living in China working as a football coach when he attended a party at a bar and was arrested for hitting a man, causing the man an eye injury. Although Wendell had no prior arrests and denied the charge, saying it was self defense, he was sent to jail and has yet to be released.
“It was very devastating for all of us,” Brown said. “Wendell has been such a positive leader. Everyone that knows Wendell or has met Wendell knows he is a loving person of so many different cultures. He was there doing positive things and it’s unfortunate that in their country, laws are different and they don’t expect you to throw your hands up in defense to protect yourself.”
In an effort to stay positive, Brown spends her time away from the salon at her home looking for any sparks of hope in her situation.
Brown and her 10-year-old grandson Wendell Brown Jr. stay hopeful through the only communication they have with Wendell – a monthly letter they exchange with him through the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
“I just received [a letter] the other day and he sends his gratitude to everyone helping to make [others] aware of his situation, and all of the support and love that he’s been getting in letters, he is truly grateful for that,” Brown said. “He says he is proud of me for all of the things that I’m doing and how much he misses his son.”
Another struggle Brown faces is watching someone so young suffer the same way her and the rest of the family are. Every phone call Brown receives from her grandson asking “Is Daddy home yet?” motivates her more to bring her son and his father home.
“He was very upset and he is a very bright young man, and is only in seventh grade,” Brown said. “He is an honor student and gets all A’s. I send Wendell a copy of his son’s report card, a message from him that says he loves and misses him so much and different things that his son has to say.”
When President Donald Trump stepped in to assist three UCLA basketball players who were caught shoplifting in China on Nov. 7, Brown regained hope and continued to reach out to public officials. Trump was able to get the players released from the Chinese jail and returned safely to the United States.
Brown has spoken with staff members in Rep. John Conyers’s office, Sen. Gary Peter’s office and Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s office. The Brown family has not received any immediate responses or solutions to the issue. The Daily News reached out to Conyers’s office and was unable to speak with the congressmen.
In the meantime, not a day goes by when Brown isn’t wondering what her son is going through while sitting in a jail cell.
“It’s constantly on my mind to know that he’s not here,” Brown said. “I constantly think about what he’s doing, what he’s thinking, what he’s going through and what he’s eating. It’s a lot that stays on my mind.”
A life that once revolved around traveling to Ball State football games to cheer on Wendell and the rest of the team is now devoted to working and spending time at home trying to fix the tragic situation.
“It was fun for us, going to every game and rooting for the team,” Brown said. “I loved it there and Wendell had an awesome career there. He graduated with a degree in criminal justice.”
Wendell’s alma mater has also expressed its support for him and his family.
“On behalf of Ball State University, members of the board of trustees have been in touch with Ms. Brown to express support for Wendell’s safe return home,” Ball State university spokesperson Kathy Wolf said. “They have offered assistance with generating awareness about their desire for his safe return home and are following up with the appropriate channels.”
Memories like his time as a football player and coach are what Wendell wants his mother to remember of him. When he writes to her, he expresses how he wants her to stay positive and try and live a normal life.
When it comes to the next step for Brown and the family, there’s nothing to do but wait for an update concerning the hopeful return of Wendell. As the holidays approach, Brown hopes to be able to spend this year with her son right next to her.
“We just miss him so much,” Brown said. “The good memories are what I think about. I try to have happy and good thoughts. We’re praying they can work to get my baby home by Christmas.”
Contact Kara Biernat with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @karabiernat.