CINCINNATI -- Kijai Khamisi held her 19-day-old son Ajani close as he took his last breath and his tiny body went from warm to cold.
"I didn't leave until his heart wasn't beating anymore," Khamisi said, blinking back tears. "I had to go home without my baby. I didn't know what to do."
She went to her bedroom, closed the blackout curtains and stayed in darkness for two days without eating. Her mom, Sherah Khamisi, finally told her: "You have to live."
That's when the strawberries reappeared.
Toward the end of Khamisi's pregnancy, when she was on bed rest, her mom would bring her trays of food. More often than not, strawberries were on the menu. When it was time to coax her grieving daughter to eat, Khamisi's mom served strawberries again. It turns out they were just the medicine Khamisi needed.
"Strawberries are natural. They're sweet naturally and juicy," Khamisi said. "They reminded me of Ajani when his cheeks started getting bigger and plump."
Khamisi decided to dip the strawberries in chocolate as a nod to her African-American heritage and to make them even sweeter -- like her Ajani had been. She gave the chocolate-dipped strawberries to family and friends who supported her during her darkest time. The berries were so good, people started asking for more. That's how, out of Khamisi's unspeakable grief, a business called Ajani's Gourmet Strawberries was born in 2014.
Now, the business has grown so successful that Khamisi has rented a storefront in Northside. She's been fixing it up and started a GoFundMe campaign to raise the last few thousand dollars she needs before she opens the shop, which she plans to call Ajani's Gourmet Strawberries Sweets Boutique.
'In it to win it'
Stephanie Stubblefield, for one, can't wait for the store to open.
Stubblefield owns Hair Options, a salon just a few doors down from Khamisi's location on Hamilton Avenue. Stubblefield said Northside needs a business like Khamisi's.
"I thought it was a good idea," Stubblefield said. "And once she let me taste the strawberries, I really thought it was a good idea."
The berries are uncommonly fresh and juicy, Stubblefield said, and Khamisi dips and decorates them beautifully.
Khamisi has berries that sparkle with edible glitter and look almost like Christmas tree ornaments. She calls those "bling berries." She has others that she dips in edible gold and still others that are rolled in crushed candy bars or cookie pieces.
Stubblefield has purchased platters of the berries for her loyal customers, and they were a big hit.
"Everybody is wanting the strawberries because I have spread the word for her," Stubblefield said. "We're all waiting on her patiently."
Khamisi hopes to open Ajani's Gourmet Strawberries Sweets Boutique before Thanksgiving but certainly by Christmas. She will have the berries, of course, along with other chocolate-dipped fruit, cakes and other treats made by her and her grandmother.
She has already spent more than $16,000 on the space, including rent, flooring, painting and her display cases. She's trying to raise another $5,000 through her GoFundMe campaign by the end of November so she can finish building out the space and pay an architect for the drawings she needs.
"It's been a struggle," she said. "But now that I'm in it, I'm in it to win it."
Khamisi, who is 32, has surprised herself with the strength she has found to create something positive out of something so awful.
It didn't surprise her mother, though.
Sherah Khamisi said Kijai, the oldest of her four biological children, has always been special.
Kijai wasn't even old enough to drive when her mom's cousin died, leaving six young children behind, including a baby who wasn't even a year old. Sherah Khamisi was the only family member with a big enough place -- and who was doing well enough financially -- to take the kids. But before she did, she asked Kijai, her sister and their two brothers about expanding the family.
"I remember asking her, being the oldest, and the rest, how did they feel about that," Sherah Khamisi said. "They were six boys. Even with that, she agreed. She understood this is what we need to do. She was a big help. I definitely couldn't have done it without her."
Years later, Kijai went with her brother to find their family's lost dog. They found the dog, but he had been hit by a car and was paralyzed. It was Kijai who took the dog to the vet and called her mother to tell her what had happened. And it was Kijai who held the family pet when the vet euthanized him to end his suffering.
"I loved that dog, but I don't know that I could have embraced him and held him when they injected him," Sherah Khamisi said. "That was the first of me really seeing what she was made of."
Sacrifices and dreams
The berries have become Khamisi's full-time job.
Her family is involved. Sherah Khamisi said they all are supporting her daughter and the business in any way they can.
"If she needs information, we'll look up information in regards to city codes. We've been up late and up early actually helping hands-on with the strawberries. Running errands, going to the store, picking up supplies, helping to promote it," she said. "Of course, we do the taste testing as well. Whatever she needs."
Even Khamisi's two older sons, 12-year-old Gyasi and 9-year-old Ayele, help their mom wash the berries by hand and, of course, help with taste-testing when needed.
The business also is teaching them about entrepreneurship and what it takes for a determined person to build something, said Sherah Khamisi, an entrepreneur who operates a traditional African dance company.
"There are a lot of sacrifices that come with entrepreneurship. They're making an adjustment young," she said. "They're learning to focus on what's important, to prioritize and establish a dream."
They're also learning about how light can shine in the darkest of places.
And as anxious as Khamisi is to move her business out of her house and into her Northside storefront, she knows there is something her sons will miss.
"They tell me, 'It smells so sweet in here -- like a chocolate factory,'" she said.
It's the sweet smell of their baby brother's legacy.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. She has been writing about women- and minority-owned businesses in Greater Cincinnati for more than 18 years. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.