“Mommy, are you going to die?"
"No," Rosalba Ramirez told her girls when they climbed onto her hospital bed.
She was going to be fine, she told her daughters who were then 8 and 6.
They were going to be fine.
It had to be so.
• • •
These days, Ramirez is back at work picking grape tomatoes in Ruskin most every morning. Like many farm workers in Florida, it's the only work she knows and the only work that she can imagine.
She speaks only Spanish and doesn't have a driver's license, limiting her ability to find other employment. She took a day off recently to tell her story through a translator.
"It went so fast that I wasn't really able to process it," said Ramirez, 36. "So now I get a lump in my throat when I do talk. It was very lonely in the hospital."
It was the summer of 2013 when Ramirez started feeling poorly. Farm workers pick grape tomatoes while on their knees. You have to be fast to make money and it's typically hot.
Ramirez started feeling dizzy and weak. Her vision blurred and her head ached. A vein in her right arm swelled up to her neck. At night, she would wake sweating.
At a clinic, she was told it was stress. But she knew it was something worse, so she insisted on tests. The results proved she was right.
She had leukemia.
High doses of chemotherapy followed at Tampa General Hospital. She was in the hospital for three months, and while there she got MRSA, a resistant bacterial infection. Later, doctors told her they had not expected her to survive.
• • •
But Ramirez wasn't thinking about herself. Her four children were languishing. Her husband, Luis Perez, was working in Jacksonville and could only come home on weekends. His own mother, back in Mexico, also had been diagnosed with cancer at the same time.
Her children were getting skinny. Her quiet child got quieter. Her oldest daughter started losing hair. The younger one complained of pains. Her baby, 3-year-old Jonathan, was not talking and ate very little.
They had no family here to help.
"I was really worried about him," she said. "What would happen to him?"
The oldest, Brandon, was then 13, and sometimes left in charge after school. His sisters, 6 and 8, asked him every day if their mother would die, he said.
On weekends, hospital staffers allowed them to stay with her. Later, her doctor said the staff wanted to let the children have time to say goodbye.
But Ramirez knew how much they needed her. She says they are the reason she has survived.
• • •
This year, she went back to work in the fields even though she's still taking chemotherapy daily. In January, if her results look good, she will be in remission. Her family depends on her income. She wants them to feel normal and working takes her mind off her troubles.
"I feel my children's success is because of my hard work," she said.
In seventh grade, her son received a certificate for achievement from President Barack Obama, she said. Now, he's studying auto collision repair and paint refinishing at Tampa Bay Technical High School.
"I want them to move forward and have the opportunities we do not," she said.
Ramirez grew up in Mexico City and came here when she was 20, to pick tomatoes.
Now when she tells her story, she calls cancer a blessing. Her husband had lost his job trying to take care of her and the children. Then he got a better one. Her hair, which had fallen out in a week, grew in curly. Her nails are stronger and her wrinkles are gone.
• • •
When Venessa Rivera heard Rosalba's story, she wanted to do something special for the family.
"She's a warrior," said Rivera, who is a program manager for outreach wellness at Moffitt Cancer Center. "They need a respite and a chance for the children to celebrate their mother."
Rivera set up a crowd-funding website to pay for the family to go to Walt Disney World Resort. Earlier this week, the site had $80.
Coincidentally, the girls had recently heard stories from neighbor children who visited Disney. They had asked their mother when they would go.
They want to see the Disney characters, especially Anna and Elsa from Frozen.