July 12, 2008
At 23, This Lifelong Fighter Faces Battle for Life Itself
By Bill Johnson
She is upstairs, lying fast asleep on the king-sized bed, a completely still, tiny bump beneath the sea of blankets, from which only her head swathed in a purple floral scarf is visible.
Downstairs, 72-year-old Bob Wrapp sits in his chair, one hand still gripping his walking cane, struggling hard to find just the right words.
"Life is never fair," he finally says, before looking away. "She is such a good kid, always thinking of others. . . ."
He and his wife, Carolyn, 64, have had her for nearly 10 years now. She was a student in Carolyn's eighth-grade bilingual science class at Lake Middle School when a caseworker kept coming around to chat about the young girl.
Sitting in the living room of their Lakewood home, the Wrapps spell out how they came to this moment and, now, this very uncertain near-future.
The young woman was born in El Salvador 23 years ago, during the height of the guerrilla war there. Her mother, with a chance to flee as a refugee, offered the girl to her father. He declined.
She then promised her half sister regular payments from America if she would take the girl in and put her in school. A deal was struck.
But the girl, their daughter, Bob and Carolyn Wrapp recount, never went to school. The remitted money stayed with the aunt. The girl would be dispatched from the aunt's dirt-floor hut every day to sweep the sand from rich people's homes, to climb coconut trees with a machete and feed the fruit to the pigs. When allegations of abuse trickled to the girl's mother in America, she paid coyotes, human traffickers, to bring her north.
"She waded through rivers, was stuffed into the baggage compartment of buses," Carolyn Wrapp says. "They ran through the desert just to get here."
At age 13 and reunited with her mother, more allegations of abuse arose. Social services in Denver pulled her from the home. At age 13, she found herself seated in Carolyn Wrapp's classroom.
They had hosted foreign-exchange students before. It wasn't too bad. And besides, their three children were grown and gone. Sure, they finally told the social worker, they would take the girl.
Wary of past abuses by other adults, it would take the girl six months to warm to the couple. Only when Carolyn Wrapp showed more attention to a classmate as she helped them with a science project did the young girl accept her.
"She told me her only wish from the time she was little was to have a pencil and to learn to write," Carolyn Wrapp said, "that, and to have a mother who is a teacher."
She now calls Bob and Carolyn Wrapp mom and dad.
She excelled in high school, though forced to learn English on the fly, finally graduating from Green Mountain High School with a 3.8 grade point average.
Scholarships poured in. Bill Ritter, then the Denver district attorney, arranged a job for her at a prestigious law firm.
She enrolled at Metropolitan State College of Denver, garnering still more top grades and academic awards. The young woman who arrived in Denver unable to read or write soon began tutoring other students.
It was not quite spring, and she was working as a nurse's aide in Aspen when the first fall occurred. She hit her head hard on the ice. With no health insurance, she refused treatment.
Other falls would follow, the last one being a hard fall on concrete steps outside her Carbondale home. She went for tests.
There would be one series, and then more. In May came the diagnosis: cancer of the brain stem, in layman's terms.
For months, she kept the bad news to herself. Once told, the Wrapps and those who know her and about her - and there are multitudes - have arranged treatment for her, which now includes chemotherapy, and, of course, the daily regimen of pills.
"It's not good," Carolyn Wrapp says of the prognosis. "The cancer is growing tentacles. We don't know where this is going. Nobody does."
Alicia Valiente smiles when I walk in the room. She is groggy but invites me to sit at the side of the bed.
She waves me off when I inquire about her, as if she knows her parents have already told me the story.
"I'm a fighter," she said, her head buried in the pillows. "After all these challenges I have faced in my life, I guess I am ready to face this one."
She spends her waking hours on the computer, chatting with other cancer patients, telling them her story, urging them not to give up.
"You should tell people," Alicia Valiente says, indicating that I should write it down, "that they should live each day to the fullest, to appreciate the most simple things.
"Now, when I wake up, I like to lay here and listen to the birds."
Of not telling her parents initially about her cancer, she says she did not want to upset them.
"My mom just recently lost grandma. It was my way of protecting her. They have done so much for me, being with me on this roller coaster since I came here. They need peace."
She offers her hand when I tell her goodbye. I shake it.
"I think I am an old soul, you know," Alicia Valiente says as I reach the door. "I don't want people to know so they will feel sorry for me.
"It just means I think I have the upper hand in coping with and understanding things, in helping people and being there for them."
I'll keep to myself what I did when I left the room.
Originally published by Bill Johnson, Rocky Mountain News.
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