Sunday, August 12, 2012

Goodbye, Corina the great survivor

Corina suffered from Werdnig Hoffman, which made her limbs deformed and lifeless. Her mother, Madam She Hieng Kim, selflessly and lovingly tended to Corina's every need. -- ST FILE PHOTO
I had just reached Hong Kong after a 15-hour flight from New York when I received an SMS telling me Corina Zheng had died that Friday afternoon.
I walked over to a quiet corner of the departure lounge, struggling with jetlag and the shock. From where I sat, I could see the aircraft which would take me home to Singapore. One thought came, lodged itself into my head and refused to leave: Corina - a newsmaker who had become a special friend - had never ever been on a plane, not once in the 50 years she lived.
In fact, except for ambulances, I doubt she had been in many moving vehicles in her life.
You see, Corina could not move. Her limbs were deformed and lifeless; she could not even turn her head. One of seven children, she had Werdnig Hoffman, a rare disease in which the spinal nerve cells and brain cells degenerate, leading to atrophy of skeletal muscles and paralysis.
Five of her siblings, including a twin, succumbed to the same condition. Three died before they turned two, one at six, and another at 22. Corina lived the longest, and died after a week-long struggle with a debilitating chest infection.
Her brother Poh Huat, 53, is a driver. Adopted sister Teow Hoon, 58, is deaf-mute and works as a hotel chambermaid.
I got to know Corina eight years ago. I was actually trying to track down her father, a kindly ice cream seller, for a story. But when I finally got his contact number, I learnt that he was suffering from excessive fluid in his brain and fighting for his life in hospital.
When I called again a few weeks later, he was dead. I decided to pay Corina and her mother, Madam She Hieng Kim, a visit instead. It was a humbling experience.
Corina might have been imprisoned in a lifeless body but her spirit was anything but. She was bubbly, mischievous even. She loved collecting wedding pictures because "everyone always looks beautiful in wedding pictures".
Although she never went to school, she spoke English, Hokkien, Cantonese, Mandarin and a smattering of Malay. She loved to talk, had a rollicking sense of humour, was self-deprecating and never felt sorry for herself.
I once asked her how she spent her days. She replied: "Oh I read, do some financial planning, figure out how much we need for the next month's expenses and ways to scrimp and save."
Corina never let her disability get in the way of life.
Last year, when her sister Teow Hoon had breast cancer, Corina took charge. She informed her sister's employers, helped her apply for medical aid, and even arranged for a social worker to take her for chemotherapy. When her father was alive, she handled his accounts. She even taught her illiterate mother - who selflessly and lovingly tended to her every need - how to type 10 years ago.
Corina told me: "I told her to look at each key on the keyboard and tell me what it reminded her of. She said the letter S reminded her of a snake, C a half moon and ? an inverted fish hook."
Together they worked out a system and her mother would help type the notes Corina loved sending to her friends.
I would get one every couple of months; they were usually filled with her whimsical thoughts. Once, she asked me what a turkey drumstick tasted like and told me her Christmas wish was to gobble one all by herself.
On my birthday, I'd get a special letter, one which came with a red packet and a 4D ticket inside.
Over the years, I became good friends with Corina and her mother. Madam She told me that when Corina was born, her father told her to put the baby in a box and throw it away.
"She was tiny, barely 1.8kg. Her elder twin brother was 3.5kg. She had no hair. Her skin was almost transparent, you could see the organs in her body," she said.
Madam She had to use cotton wool to dribble milk into her baby's mouth for one month before the infant could breastfeed.
I once asked Madam She if she thought Corina was a burden, and if she ever resented her.
"No, what is there to resent? I brought her into this world, I had to love and care for her. She is a special child."
Indeed she was special. She certainly brought out the best in the friends I took to visit her. One got her a StarHub subscription when he learnt that she loved Cantonese serials. He also fulfilled her Christmas wish by sending her a turkey drumstick.
A fashionista friend would occasionally pass along money she had set aside for dresses, saying Corina deserved it more.
I ended up writing about mother and daughter, first about Corina and then the incredible woman who watched her children die one by one, and cared so hard for the one who survived. On both occasions, I received an avalanche of e-mail from readers, all expressing admiration and concern for the pair, many offering help.
It's not hard to fathom why. Corina's will to live, and her love for life were both touching and inspiring. She reminded people not to sweat the small stuff and to count their blessings.
For the last two years, one reader has been sending the family a cheque for $1,000 every month. When he learnt of Corina's death last week, he pledged $5,000 to help with the funeral expenses.
Corina was cremated the day after she died: No fanfare, no wake, no rituals - just a simple ceremony conducted by a church worker.
There were just seven of us - her brother and his wife, and five of her friends - who sent her off. Her adopted sister had stayed home to look after their mother, 79, who is still trying to come to terms with Corina's death.
As the simple white coffin was wheeled off slowly at Mandai Crematorium, my heart ached for my special friend. I wished I had been around when she fell ill; I wished there were more people to send her off and celebrate her life.
And yet, I know Corina would not have complained. She probably would have smiled and said: "It's okay; I am off to a better life."
The first time I met her, she told me she was not afraid of death.
"It's like paying a very long bill. It's not easy to pay, but once it's cleared, all your debts are gone."
You are debt-free now, Corina. Rest in peace.