Remembering Coleen, the girl of joy

family cousins Coleen Joy Remedio
What is now a paved road outside my parents' house used to be uncovered soil with stones and weeds. This rough plot of land, with only trees on one side serving as a sort of boundary and a concrete wall on the other, welcomed the restless feet of 8- and 10-year-old children jumping and thrashing against the hard ground.

Among them was Coleen. She was a short, frail-looking girl with a pair of sad eyes. Her appearance was a sober contrast to the meaning of her complete name: Coleen Joy, or a girl of joy. But appearances can be deceiving.

During one of our games of catch or hide and seek with the neighborhood children—Manny, Toto, Nonoy, Christine, and Alwin—Coleen would come out of her house pale and tired. She must had had one of her "nebulizer sessions" to ease her asthma attacks.

I was among the eldest in our playgroup and I was familiar with the nebulizer machine, a dreaded white thing, because my father and younger sister are also occasionally attacked by asthma. I was young at the time, with so much energy to dispense and with less care to understand the gravity of the disease.

But Coleen, with the spirit that was left in her after she inhaled her medicine, still came out and hit the ground with us. When we played, I often saw her thin hair teased by the wind.

The thinness of her hair was an episodical topic between my mother and I. Following the long line of women and men in our family who are bestowed with thick black hair, Coleen was a divergence. She always had thin hair; she was born that way. We thought that since she was almost bald when she was born, she would be so for a long time. Fortunately, she grew a bit of her hair during her toddler years, along with her height.

Coleen may have been small for her age but it was her bright smile that made her tall and won us over. She punched jokes with proper timing, something she most likely inherited from her father Ben, my mother's brother, a known prankster during his long childhood years.

But Coleen was witty and shameless. She twisted my serious words and made them sound funny. She dropped criticisms like how she threw with fervor a rolled up handkerchief for our playground game similar to four square, and she said them with an easy smile. I admired Coleen for her honesty, sensitivity and will to live and waddle her way through years of frequent moments of labored breathing.

The college instructor who dared to tell Coleen that she was not bright enough to be a teacher must not have been in her right mind. She did not know Coleen and perhaps did not even bother to know her at all. Otherwise, she would not have spoken those hurtful words to my cousin. Unbeknownst to this instructor, the negative criticism coupled with praise in my favor affected my cousin deeply.

When I belatedly learned about it, I was struck dumb for a couple of reasons. One, I know the instructor since Coleen and I went to the same college. It did not occur to me that she could say something like that. It was perhaps something she would easily chalk up as a teaching method. But it was, to me, a poor and ineffective strategy.

Two, I believe in reasonable comparison. In this case, though, one cannot compare an orange with an apple. I am older than Coleen by two years. I jumped to a communication degree after a year in a civil engineering program that drastically honed my analytical skills and developed my interest in numbers.

I was also physically fit, with only a painful body brace to treat my scoliosis, which was practically nothing compared to the nebulizer machine that Coleen had to breathe through when she suddenly and unpredictably could not breathe. The family shared the inside joke of transforming the portable machine into a pendant of a necklace because of the frequency of usage at anytime anywhere.

My cousin was fond of children—if she was not, she would have made an unremarkable progress as an intern-teacher—and she grew up with a strong sense of responsibility, having to help take care of her nephews and nieces. She was youngest of five children, whereas I am the eldest with only one sister, seven years younger than me, to worry about.

This is why that college instructor should not have unreasonably and insensitively compared Coleen with me. I may have appeared a better academic performer. But my survivor of a cousin, if she had taken an EQ test, would have ranked higher than any people I know, including myself. In this rapidly changing times, one's emotional quotient, I believe, makes living more worthwhile.

After her college graduation, still stumped by that unconstructive criticism, Coleen went to work in a call center instead of a school. The agenting job proved to be tiresome for someone with a weak bodily system like her, but she insisted on earning her keep. She woke up, took a bath and sometimes skipped her first meal of the day, depending on the time of her shift. Soon this lifestyle took a toll on her body and she contracted a series of asthma attacks.

When you see something that happens all the time, like the attack of asthma and battling it successfully with the subsequent plugging of a treatment machine many times over, you would likely not expect the worst case scenario. 

It has been five years since Coleen died. Her bones have been moved out of her tomb late last month, as the practice goes. Her death was sudden and unexpected. Because it was so, I never fully thought of her as someone who is completely gone. I know she is dead. But I cannot remember her as dead. When I think of her, I remember a child who knew how to smile in the midst of physical and emotional pain, who played with me, argued with me and laughed with me. I remember a girl who was a joy to her family. 

(This essay by Nancy Cudis-Ucag was first published on on May 19, 2017.)


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