Editor’s note: This column was written before Verlena Collentine’s death Aug. 16 from ovarian cancer. It is the third of a four-part series on her life and death. The first two articles appeared in the July 8 and Aug. 5 issues of The Durango Herald.At a recent outing when Verlena shared her journey with others, someone asked her where she got her strength, resilience and perseverance to live out these last few months of her life with such joy and openness. Interesting because I’ve perceived this incredibly strong woman and not even considered where it came from.
Turns out, Verlena had a difficult childhood in foster homes, a rocky time with her mother and the feelings of never having enough, either materially or emotionally. She quickly learned that if she was going to enjoy good things, it would totally be up to her to work for them.
The frightening college classes, the hard work to get good grades, the applications to jobs she felt she wasn’t good enough for, all grew Verlena into the person she is today. Her appreciation for even small things now is so abundant because they came with difficulty, not ease.
Then, I had this great good fortune and generous invitation from Verlena to spend some time with her three adult children and converse with them about how they are doing going through the last few months of their mother’s life. They were all visiting from afar. Would they rather not know about her stopping the medical interventions and her imminent death from ovarian cancer? No, they all three feel so grateful and blessed to have this precious and conscious time with her.
Tyler, 38 and living in Alaska with his wife and two little girls, tells me this time with his mom shows the level of closeness and honesty they’ve always had. It is a chance to start the grieving before the death, and balancing this along with the joy is a true test of courage. People don’t really change as they age; we only get more who we really are. Why should Verlena be any different?
David, 40, has a 7-year-old and operates a marina on the Mississippi River. He says Verlena has always handled everything well in life and even now continues to make her own decisions. This has made him look at his own life to see what’s really important and ask himself, should he go back to school? Tyler also took stock and switched his work from the oil fields to working with wildlife, a more heartfelt career.
The older sister, Janna, is 51 and lives in Golden with her family. She is the feminine, the nurturer in the family, the communicator and also very stoic. She has a close bond with Verlena, from their 12 years together before the boys were born, and they look very much alike! Janna works in the medical field and has had some experience with hospice so understands how serious the ovarian cancer diagnosis was and all the different emotions they are all feeling. She has stood by her mother and totally supports what she’s doing.
She describes Verlena as strong, resilient and having lots of common sense. She takes Verlena’s words from childhood as wisdom: “There is no right or wrong way to do something, only an easy and a hard way.” And, “Always be able to support yourself and your kids with dignity by having a good job.”
What legacies Verlena is leaving to all her children! The importance of living in the moment, strength, common sense, honesty and the awareness of reality. No falsities, no denial; only pure, honest time together in these last few months.
So here is this extremely close family going through probably the most difficult thing, and they all remain calm, grounded, open and authentic. It’s fascinating to me how Verlena’s challenging childhood resulted in such a strong family of her own, with all this love and generosity.
How does one gain resilience in the face of adversity? How does one overcome such obstacles as Verlena has done? It is truly a testament to her life well lived, and the love she’s been able to give to the rest of us.
The reality of death has forced everyone, including us readers, to think about the end of life, engage with the deepest of existential questions and ponder what we want to leave our children, grandchildren, our community and the Earth.
Verlena says, “Life doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful. It truly is about attitude and gratitude.”
Martha McClellan was a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus now to the other end of life, and has written a book, The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game. Reach her at email@example.com.