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Roberto taps the thermostat on the wall with a work-roughened finger. The needle does not move. He frowns and jiggles a wire. The needle refuses to budge.


TENDER MOMENT: Roberto comforts his wife after arriving home from work one October evening. Though their lives have settled into a semblance of normality, Ana Garcia Serrano admits there are moments when she's overwhelmed with sadness for all they've lost.

At his side, Ana peers up at the offending box.

"Why don't you ... ," she begins, and is hushed by an impatient gesture.

"But what if we ... ," she starts again, prompting a patronizing tisk.

"Man's work," Roberto says curtly. Ana rolls her eyes.

"How can it be work when all you do is stare?" she points out practically. "I am thinking," Roberto corrects her. "Well, think faster," she shoots back.

Roberto pivots toward her, hot words at the ready. But as he looks down at his wife, her hands fisted on the arms of her wheelchair, chin tilted at a rebellious angle, his face suddenly softens. His anger evaporates and he shrugs.

"OK," he says. "I'll take it to the shop." Then he heads out the door for his tools.

Ana wheels herself to a window to catch a chancing breeze. A mischievous smile curves her lips.

She misses their old heated rows. The way they used to charge at each other, tempers blazing, arguing foolishly over a burnt meal, a missed appointment, a ruined shirt. It made their reconciliations so much more passionate.

In the wake of the illness that nearly killed her, Roberto has calmed greatly. And his touches are sweeter, more reverent. Still, Ana pricks him at times, just to let her spirit flare.

But, she admits, she prefers the tranquility of the present. The maelstrom of the past nine months makes this hard-won serenity a gift to be cherished -- like their new home.

JOY AND CHAOS: Roberto's arrival from work one October evening spurs a festive welcome. Residents, touched by the young family's struggle, helped them get a larger home.

It is a little house with three small bedrooms, a kitchen, living room and full yard. It is more than they have ever had, and they are proud of it.

It took much of what was donated to the fund to make the down payment. Roberto's new job as a lawn-sprinkler installer will pay the monthly mortgage and utilities.

With his shoulder now healed and Ana now finished with treatment, they spend their days settling in.

Roberto scours swap meets to find discount nursery items for the yard. The neatly trimmed trees and mowed lawns are his pride and joy.

Such was his determination to begin life anew that Roberto says he initially fibbed to co-workers who recognized him from news reports. That was another man, he insisted, afraid to see pity in their eyes. Later, he says, he confessed.

You cannot erase the past, Roberto mused one steamy afternoon as he relaxed with Ana and his sons on the bare floor of the living room.

But you should not bury yourself in it, either. You hold in your heart the good memories, learn from the bad and let go of the rest. Then you go on. Because life demands it.

A whisper in his heart tells him this is so.

Besides, life is good now, he says. There is a new menagerie of pets. Homing pigeons for him. Goldfish for the boys. And one day -- rabbits.

Ana smiles ruefully. Sometimes, she feels she has four boys.

Her life is full now, caring for her family and the new house. She must hang curtains on the bare windows -- a soft blue, she's decided, to match the landscape of her dreams. And while Roberto is at work and the older boys are in school, she putters about, cleaning, making beds, and cooking the way she was taught in rehab.

Her shiny prosthetic legs lie unused in a corner.

With no insurance, Ana does not have access to the physical therapy she needs to master the limbs. And with no training bars, she cannot practice safely on her own. Occasionally, Roberto and the boys have time to help her maneuver the narrow hallway. But such sessions are too sporadic to be of much use.

It is a loss Ana keeps to herself. Once the thought of walking was all that had sustained her, giving her hope of being a whole woman again. But that notion has given way to another belief. That she is complete just the way she is: a beloved mother, a desired wife, an attractive woman.

So though she still eyes the legs wistfully, she has gently pushed aside her old goal to focus on her life at hand.

Fidel and Daniel have their own room now. Tito still sleeps with Roberto and Ana. The boys will likely rotate into the third room as each grows older.

Their favorite pastime after school is jumping in the wading pool Roberto put in the back yard. Ana scolds them when they forget to take off their socks.

She smiles when she does it. She is simply too happy to be angry for long, she says.

She knows many don't believe her when she says there are days she awakens feeling absolute joy.

True, there are rough moments. Times when the doorbell or Tito's sudden cry still makes her muscles clench for a run down the hallway. The lack of motion jerks her back to reality. And a few seconds must pass before she can blink away the tears and put hand to wheel.

But more often are the times when her sons accidentally spill a drink, or get sticky fingerprints on the wall, and she can laugh at their innocent exuberance.

She is happy, she says simply. The kind of joy that comes from reaching a destination after a long journey.

She used to think happiness was going dancing with Roberto, or taking a long walk alone, or buying a new dress to show off her slim legs. She knows now those were just fleeting moments.

True happiness is being alive. Being with her boys and Roberto. Feeling God loved her so much, he gave her back to her family. And gave them all a place to call their own.

When Tito turned 3 this summer, the Garcia Serranos celebrated quietly.

At home.

Rosalva Hernandez and Leonard Ortiz
spent seven months reporting this story.
Readers may E-mail Hernandez at:
Ortiz can be E-mailed at:

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