My friend Aileen would have been celebrating her 39th birthday three days from now. But she never went past 32. She died six and a half years ago from a lingering heart ailment.
I had known her since grade school but it was in sophomore year in high school that we became particularly close. She and I, along with a handful of other girls from our section, discovered we liked hanging out together. We named our group Teen Petite because at that time we were teenagers and, well, liked to think we were petite.
Among us all, Aileen was the most independent. She was the youngest child in a brood of five. Her mother had died when she was a baby. Her siblings were all much older than she was—when we were in high school, only she remained a student. All of them had graduated college and had jobs and lives of their own. Their father lived in another place. I remember her living with relatives near our school. No wonder she was the most mature among us, always ready with advice on anything: clashing with your elders, maintaining your grades, and trying to get yourself noticed by your crush.
It was at her relative’s house that their LPG tank exploded. Aileen suffered third degree burns and had to miss many weeks of school. When this accident happened, she already knew she had her mother’s frail heart—a condition she shared with three other siblings. I remember thinking, “Quota na sya! Why did it have to happen, still?”
All these did not stop her from giving much of herself. On her best days, Aileen was an active leader, steering club activities and participating in outreach projects. At our graduation, she received the leadership award.
She started college—behavioral studies, if I am not mistaken—but did not finish, her sickness making it impossible for her to sustain the energy for the daily commute aside from the demands of school.
Our group kept up during college and beyond, and we used to kid Aileen about her being NBSB—no boyfriend since birth. She did not seem to mind. It was often at the condo unit she shared with her older sister where we met. The rest of us stepped into the so-called real world. Aileen must have felt she was but an onlooker, but she was good-natured about it. She was still always ready with advice that was always so lovingly given you would not resent it. She was the elder sister we all wished we’d had.
In 2008 her condition turned for the worse and one day she was gone.
I was sad at her passing, but I felt sad AND angry for her sake that she had gone so soon. I felt she was cheated. Cheated out of life, out of its fullness. Aileen has never experienced many of the things we took for granted -- getting a degree, going out late at night, meeting people,making mistakes, having a job, “settling down,” becoming a mother. And it was through no fault of her own. I thought it was unfair.
Our barkada still gets together regularly even as we are no longer teenagers (now pushing 40!) and only one has remained petite. We have regular events like Christmas lunches and the summer getaways, but in between these we take spend time with each other, just because.
Sometimes we bring our kids along (out of these meetings, some of our kids have formed friendships among themselves and it is just lovely). We gab about what has happened to members of our batch, and share the ups and downs of the superwomen that we are. All these take place with food as backdrop.
Every now and then we would remember Aileen and wonder: If she were around, what would be her opinion on this and that? What piece of advice would she dish out? Would she, as always, emerge as the right and wise one?
Years hence, and I think I have reconsidered my view. I used to believe that my friend had been so disempowered by her illness that she missed out on many things. I used to be indignant at this injustice—how come other people are given very long lives when they make nothing of themselves and are a parasite to other people while she was only given 32 years?
What occasioned this epiphany, I do not know. But now I do not anymore feel that my friend had been cheated out of life. She was, after all, able to do as much as she could given her limited time. She touched many lives and inspired us to be as wise, as levelheaded, as uncritical of others as she was.
My friend, Aileen, was an awesome woman. I have stopped thinking about what she could have been and instead now celebrate what she was during her time with us.