Tuesday, April 22, 2008

SCSU mourns, celebrates life of graduate

Cristina Cortese and her courage were an inspiration to many

By Eliza Hallabeck
Special to the Register

Before there were lime green wristbands and before Courage for Cristina became a slogan known across the Southern Connecticut State University campus, Cristina Cortese was a beloved daughter and friend to many.
On Monday, about 150 family members, friends and members of the SCSU community gathered at the rugby field to celebrate Cortese’s life. Cortese died April 13 from thymic carcinoma, the rarest and deadliest form of thymus cancer. She was 22.
Cortese graduated from SCSU last year, months after she learned she had a terminal disease. On Jan. 7, 2007, doctors told Cortese, of Tolland, that she had had the cancer for a year; until then Cortese thought she had bronchitis.
But “cancer wasn’t all that Cristina was,” Cortese’s mother, Lisa, reminded the crowd that gathered Monday.
By the time Lisa Cortese spoke, “Amazing Grace” had been sung and friends had already spoken about her daughter.
“You have been one of my life’s greatest treasures,” Lisa Cortese said, speaking the words to her daughter.
Last May, when Cristina was about to graduate, the SCSU community came together to create Courage for Cristina. The fundraiser was put together by her friends to raise money for expensive treatments.
Lime green wristbands and shirts that said “Courage for Cristina” started showing up around campus. The event brought eight performances, ranging from musicians to comedians, to the stage of the SCSU Lyman Center for the Performing Arts.
“Even though we knew it was coming,” Lisa Cortese said, “I can’t believe it just happened.”
During her college career at SCSU, Cortese played on the rugby team.
“I couldn’t ask for a better group of girls to surround her,” Lisa Cortese said.
The team attended her funeral and the gathering Monday.
Kate Marsland, an assistant professor of psychology at SCSU who was close to Cortese, said, “In addition to her electric smile, what I remember about Cristina was her approach to life,” her clear goals and vigorous determination.
“Along the way I have learned far more from Cristina Cortese than I ever taught her,” Marsland said.
Lisa Cortese said over the past year there have been at least 10 to 12 people at her house every day, and hundreds have stopped by to support the family.
“Our Southern family came to our home,” Lisa Cortese said. “We will never forget the love you have shared with our family.”
The family gave lime green flowers for the female members of the rugby team, and distributed cards of gratitude from the Cortese family.Cortese’s aunt, Debra Maccoy, who couldn’t attend Monday’s gathering, said by phone Monday that she was an “unbelievably wonderful child.”
Maccoy is donating a copy of “The Giving Tree” to the New Haven Public Library in Cortese’s memory. The Student Government Association at SCSU also will present a scholarship in Cortese’s name for the first time next month. The Relay for Life, which will take place May 3 at the Jess Dow Field at SCSU, has been dedicated to Cortese’s memory this year.
The last days for Cortese were tough. Lisa Cortese said her daughter spent the nights crying from the pain. For 21 days, she went without food and water at home because she didn’t want feeding tubes, and finally, her mother said, she let the family say goodbye.
“She knew if she could bear the pain long enough for us, then we would know it was her time to go,” Lisa Cortese said.
Cortese told her mother last month, Lisa Cortese said, that she couldn’t die.
“I know,” Lisa Cortese responded.
Cortese then told her mother that she was the rock that held the family together.
“I know,” her mother responded again.
Eliza Hallabeck is a Register intern.

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