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She was a stranger in her own home. That was the problem. That's what no one could understand. All those days and nights in the hospital, yearning to return to her own bed, her walks with the boys, her vegetable garden, Ana had not counted on life going on without her.

HEALING LAUGHTER: Tito and Daniel Garcia Serrano playfully bump heads. Their antics, coming shortly after their mother's surgery, bring a rare smile to Ana's face.

Her world had stopped that cool morning in February when she stepped into the mist. Now, just two month later, it had all but disappeared.

Her garden had been paved over for her wheelchair. Roberto was handily performing all her household chores. Her sister-in-law was shepherding Fidel and Daniel to and from school. And her baby, Tito, was running to his father with sticky candy kisses.

All Ana could do was close her eyes and think of the dreams.

She called them her visions. They had come to her every night during those first horrifying days in the hospital.

They seemed so real. Some of them beautiful beyond belief. Others so terrifying, they made her tremble.

There was the one where she was on a wooden swing. The hills, valleys and trees were all blue. When she swung into the air, hands reached for her, then faded when she swung back. Angels pulling her into heaven? Ana had stayed out of their reach.

The one with the rabbits horrified her. It was raining and she stumbled in the mud. She looked down. And saw a rabbit buried alive.

She wanted to scream, but no sound came out. Wildly, she looked around. But she was alone. In a field of half-buried rabbits.

She grabbed the legs of one and pulled it out. Then another. And another. And when the dream suddenly ended, she was still running across the field, desperately trying to save them all.

Ana believed that the dreams had pulled her across. Each had been a choice. And each time, she had chosen life.

She clung to that as she struggled to cope. There were days of victory -- when she surprised Roberto with a meal she cooked by hopping about on her artificial leg. And there were days of despair -- when her sons, accustomed now to minding only their father, ran to him with their scraped knees and hugs.

On those days, Ana withdrew and felt cowardly doing it. She had always been a fighter, never afraid to speak her mind.

But now words wouldn't come. Sometimes hurt and confusion boiled inside for days until she released them in a burst of anger. Roberto was often the target.

Urged by him to forget the past, she lashed out.

"How do I forget? I have only to look down and I am reminded of what I no longer have. How do I go on? I cannot move about on my own and wouldn't know where to go even if I could. Tell me what do to," she demanded, "tell me."

He'd fall helplessly silent. Then Ana would suffer his torment along with her own.

Finally, where dreams had once saved Ana's life, memories came to rescue her spirit.

She recalled her father's painful, lingering death from a ruptured ulcer. He had suffered in silence to spare his wife and children worry.

He called Ana to his side two weeks before he died. She was just 18. He handed her his hunting rifle. Your brothers are away, he said. You must learn to defend yourself.

She had been frightened of that rifle, hated the feel of it in her hands. But her father had looked deep into her eyes and made her vow to use it should the time come. Sometimes, he told her quietly, you must fight a foe all alone. No one else can save you.

Ana had become very good at shooting that rifle. She'd practice for hours. She had left it behind when she came to California but carried its memory with her.

She raised that memory now. As a weapon against her despair.

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