She was more sister than cousin. Memories of my early years are filled with images of the frail, pretty girl whose infectious smile and large hazel eyes masked the pain and uncertainty she carried inside.
She was not supposed to live past five. When doctors first diagnosed her heart ailment soon after birth her prognosis was poor. She underwent open heart surgery at age two, the first of several invasive procedures she would endure throughout her life. Doctors were far from optimistic about her long-term prospects. They encouraged my aunt to have another child to lessen the pain of her eventual loss.
Courage is often defined as action in the face of fear. The way she conducted her life exuded such courage. As a child she refused to be constrained by her condition. She danced, played and lived as if no malady existed. My aunt would warn her to slow down, worried that physical exertion would place undue strain on her heart. But she laughed off such fears and continued dancing, never admitting or letting anyone know that there was anything wrong.
She travelled, befriended and loved. The photographs of her wedding depict her glowing with excitement and anticipation, as she entered the next phase of her life. Her marriage lasted more than a decade, surviving further surgeries, illnesses and setbacks. In the end, her marriage would not survive the stroke she suffered at the age of thirty, leaving her incapacitated, with limited movement over half of her body.
Still she carried on, never feeling sorry for herself, and never losing her sense of humor or thirst for life. Her laugh was infectious, and she laughed often. She remained the little girl we all wanted to protect, even as she entered middle age.
She struggled with her computer, which became her constant companion and allowed her to stay in touch with the many people who came to know and love her. And love her we did –how could we feel differently for one who exuded such mischievous innocence?
She was far from perfect. She was set in her ways and stubborn to the edge of exhaustion. But I firmly believe that it was precisely this quality that enabled her to endure everything that life threw at her. She endured because she believed, and she believed because she loved life.
Carmen died last week in a hospital bed, a few days before her fifty-third birthday. In the end, her frail body could no longer withstand the complications of her affliction, and she moved on, leaving behind a world of memories.
As I think back over her years and picture her as she once was, I recall the closing lines of the 1971 TV film, Brian’s Song:
Brian Piccolo died of cancer at the age of 26. He left a wife and three daughters. He also left a great many loving friends who miss and think of him often. But when they think of him, it’s not how he died that they remember – but how he lived. How he did live!
Carmen lived well beyond all predictions, touching the lives of all with whom she came into contact. How she did live! If time is measured by impact, rather than hours and days, then her life was long and fruitful. She lived beyond time and stretched five decades into a thousand years.