Chasing Hope

They waited in the hall near baggage claim, holding happy-face balloons and straining to see through the glass. Jacqui's friends and cousins watched crowds of passengers come and go through Caracas' Simón Bolívar International Airport. Finally, her plane arrived.

Jacqui had decided to make the trip home when she couldn't bear la routina anymore.

"I told myself if I stay here, I'm going to die — not of sickness, but of depression," Jacqui said.

Returning to Caracas was terrifying. She had been living in a cocoon. "The closer you are to the hospital, the less people stare," as her friend Felix said.

Now her friends would see her. The thought quickened her pulse.

Will they reject me? she wondered.

As she walked off the plane with her father in mid-December, she wore a wig, prosthetic ears and a prosthetic nose. She also had picked out a special hat: a bright red Santa Claus cap.

In the airport, Rosalia, who had returned days before, spotted her daughter.

Her friends didn't recognize her. The wig, ears and nose looked plastic, like a mask. To her closest girlfriend from high school, Marvin Arevalo, only Jacqui's outline seemed familiar. Jacqui had always stood up for Marvin in school. Now Marvin looked at her friend's eye, at her hands. She gasped.

"At last I see you," Jacqui said, hugging her.

"I love you a lot," Marvin replied.

Marvin felt tears welling up. Seeing them, Jacqui's aunt clapped: Come, Jacqui, aren't you going to say hello?

Everyone circled around. Jacqui couldn't see the shock or the struggles to hold back tears.

During her three-week trip, some friends became physically ill when they first saw Jacqui. A few fainted. Her little cousin cried and ran away. Sharon Rengel, another close high school friend studying medicine, vomited and lay in bed for a day. At the airport, Amadeo's nephew walked away, repeating: "This isn't my cousin; this isn't my cousin."

Jacqui recognized people by voice. When one friend cried openly, she cried, too.

"It's OK — don't worry," Jacqui said.

We brought you a surprise, her cousin Yeli said at the airport — something green. They led Jacqui to her old Toyota Corolla.

"Mi carrito," Jacqui said, sighing. My little car. But she decided to ride home in Marvin's boyfriend's car, a tall Jeep. She refused assistance, climbed up herself and, as her friends protested, tumbled into the seat alone.

"That's when I knew it was Jacqui," one friend said.

The penthouse apartment was decorated with lights and a large banner in English and Spanish that read: "Bienvenido a Your Home." But it felt strange.

That night, Jacqui sat in her old room with her suitcase. She couldn't unpack alone. After years of running the household, she couldn't do anything without help.

"It felt like this wasn't my house," she remembers. "I felt like I was a different person."

Who Will Love Her?

Marvin went home to cry.

"Why didn't Jacqui die? Why has God left her to live like this?" Marvin asked her mother.

As teen-agers, the two friends had daydreamed together, inventing rich and poor husbands, counting imaginary children. Jacqui teased that Marvin would marry first.

"Who's going to fall in love with her?" Marvin now asked her mother. "How is she going to have a family?"

The next day, she visited Jacqui. More friends came over. Some cried. Jacqui consoled them.

"If she wants to live, then it's for something," Marvin remembers thinking. "I'm going to be with her until the end."

A few people never visited. Marvin's parents said they didn't have the courage. They wanted to remember Jacqui as she was.

The Striptease

At first, Jacqui tried cushioning the blow by wearing the wig and the false ears and nose, even around close friends. But the plastic parts felt heavy and stuffy.

You're among friends, everyone told her; make yourself at home.

When Yeli removed Jacqui's wig, Marvin's jaw dropped, but Marvin kept talking.

"I'm going to take off the ear," Jacqui said, and she shook her head, singing the music to a striptease.

She shook off one ear, then the other. Everyone laughed. "You're a clown," Marvin said.

Jacqui kept on the nose.

"This expensive nose, it costs so much, and it's so ugly," she complained.

You look like Pinocchio, Marvin joked.

The next day, when Marvin walked into the apartment, Jacqui had removed the nose. Marvin looked at her torn nostrils.

My God, she thought, give me strength.