I caught up with Verlena Collentine recently to check in and see how she’s doing.
She is the woman who has terminal ovarian cancer and has stopped all medical intervention as of May. She wants to live out her last few months with intention, joy and love and share this time with others. She is a teacher for all of us, in this most universal of human experiences. I’m wondering if I’m loving this summer just a bit more because of her. The peaches seem more delicious and friendships more precious.
Verlena says she’s feeling better and stronger each day since stopping the chemo. The day I saw her, she seemed a little more frail, said she felt some dizziness and has occasional pain in her abdomen. She’s had a draining apparatus put into her abdomen since then, so she can control when she needs to drain the ascites, instead of going into the hospital to have it done. This is a relief to her, as the fluid buildup can be extremely uncomfortable. It also allows her some independence, another important factor for her.
She’s also been lunching out with friends and having “sleepovers,” where a friend brings dinner, they watch a movie, share conversation, spend the night and have coffee in the morning together. This way, Verlena can have deep time with good friends and have the comfort of staying home. She feels so happy with what she can do.
Her son David and 7-year-old grandson from Iowa were here for several days. They visited all the local sites: the fish hatchery, the Clayroom for pottery painting, Purgatory and Aztec Ruins. Verlena felt so happy to see her grandson Xander earn his National Forest Badge and was perfectly fine, sitting and watching all the activities at Purgatory while knitting and feeling great joy. She calls it all “building memories.” The acceleration of her time left makes her realize each memory and moment are even more precious.
She has felt some anger in the past month. While with her family in Alaska, she saw the hurt in her son Tyler’s face and heard it in his voice. And, she realized she won’t see her 5½-year-old twin granddaughters, nor her other three grandchildren develop into their full potentials. These things trouble her, rightly so. She cried, felt better and released it.
Things are getting simpler for Verlena. She is having more reasonable expectations of herself, apologizes less, is being less judgmental and more appreciative. She misses an occasional get-together because of not feeling well and accepts that that’s just how it is. No regrets, her attitude is so positive.
Her decision to stop all medical intervention is a 99 percent definite one. There will always be a “what if” she had tried one or two more types of chemo, but she feels sure of her decision. The past three years have been a wondrous journey, and the love and support and friendships she’s received have been overwhelming. Her doctors and health care have been excellent. No regrets, only gratitude.
At this point in time, Verlena is happy using hospice twice per week and has not decided yet as to try to obtain the medication allowed in Colorado to end her own life. She certainly fits all the requirements but also feels it’s difficult for doctors to give her an exact time frame. It may be prudent to give herself choices at the end. She will address this more as time goes by.
Her vision is that she will be actively dying for three days, her children will be with her and she will pass peacefully surrounded by love. She doesn’t know what happens after death – do any of us? – and wonders if we all become part of some collective consciousness. This way, her kids will be near her and she will become a “link in a beautiful chain.” The glow she emits tells me she is already part of some larger awareness.
Martha McClellan has been a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus now to the other end of life, and has written the book, The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.