2015 Annual Competition Winner - "Valeria's Team"
By: Shaoli Chaudhuri
At 5 AM, Valeria wakes, heart thumping against her chest. It’s been two days since the surgery for her cancer—the one that began in her kidney, then threw its satellite tumors into her left leg, her columna, her right arm.
A petite girl in a short white coat stands in her doorway.
“Ms. Ramos? Good morning! I’m Jean, and I’m a student on your medical team. How are you feeling this morning?”
Her medical team. Valeria’s Team. Sometimes she dreams her team is a troupe of superheroes who might whisk away the cancer, bring her back the stolen weeks of hospital stays, of nights away from her children. Valeria smiles at the girl, timid but eager to please, allows her to examine her wound, listen to the steady but racing lub-dub of her heart, the labored respirations.
“Do what you need to do, Linda,” she says kindly.
The next member of Valeria’s Team, a nurse named Ana, arrives with ice chips and green jello. Valeria has never been so happy to see the neon gelatinous goop before. “I’ve been so hungry,” she confides to the nurse, who smiles and draws some blood before Valeria began to eat.
At 7 AM, her doctor and sidekicks (or so they seem to Valeria), come by to talk to Valeria about plans, the goals of getting her to walk around, the goal of watching her blood levels in case her quick heartbeat is from anemia or a bleed. Her chemo treatment for later on. Shyly, Valeria asks if she can be out of the hospital by the end of the week.
“I have a family event this weekend,” she explains quietly. Her Eduardo is graduating high school and she would move heaven and earth to be there, though she hesitates to say this to the imposing woman with her rectangular glasses. But the face framed by the glasses softens.
“Ms. Ramos, your goals are our goals. You need to go to that graduation--that’s a special day. Our team is going to make sure you can do what you want to do.”
Valeria lips turn up gratefully. In the way back of her mind, she wonders if any physician would be as lenient and kind with a woman who has more than a September to live.
At 9 AM, the physical therapy people come, slowly walking her around the room like their delicate china doll. Her bones are fragile, she knows. She wonders if her Team has any flying capes or carpets that might overcome her breakable bones.
At 11 AM, Valeria is distraught with pain. 10/10 pain in her arm, crushing, radiating, throbbing like the cancer wants to erupt from her bone. She stifles a cry and rings Ana into the room, trying not to beg for Dilaudid, but begging for Dilaudid nevertheless.
At 12 PM, Valeria does not eat. The pain is consuming her, not the other way around.
At 1 PM, she asks to see the hospital chaplain. The pain is fading, an unpleasant pulse in her arm, but her head hurts now from her anxieties. He enters her hospital room and pulls up a teal chair. He is a soft-spoken old man who lets her just talk about the worries she has—about what will happen to her children when she is gone, the doubts she has about a religion that would give her such trials, about her need for answers. About the wall of despair she encounters from time to time.
At 3 PM, the chaplain leaves and Valeria pulls the bed covers close around her and faces away from the door. She loves her team, but she needs to cry right now.
At 3:30 PM, the most important members of Valeria’s team arrive. “Mamá, you dropped jello on your gown!” Priscilla laughs, greeting her mother with a hug. Valeria’s only grandchild sits restfully in Priscilla’s belly, swelling it up each and every day like a balloon. Valeria rubs her daughter’s abdomen for luck. Eduardo looks at his mother over his glasses . “Y tu, porque no estas en la escuela?” she demands.
“Ma, I got out of school early today, chill!” So Valeria chills; but not before affectionately tugging on her son’s ear. When their father left so many years ago, Valeria didn’t know if she could raise two children on her own. Well, here was her proof, one with a college degree and a baby, the other about to graduate high school. I’d say I did pretty well, Valeria thinks to herself.
At 5 PM, Jean the medical student returns to check on Valeria. She makes perfect small-talk, of new restaurants in San Antonio, of the beautiful flowers Valeria’s family has sent.
“How are you doing overall, Ms. Ramos?” Jean asks again.
“I’m okay. I’m okay,” Valeria repeats. “I’m going to fight this thing,” she whispers, half to Jean, half to herself. Jean places a hand on her non-tender arm. And wishes she could be on her team for a little while longer.