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Facing Death

A tribute to Veronica Collens by Erline Andrews
Feature Writer • Women's Magazine • Sunday Express • 30 April 2006 • 783 words

“To live in the hearts of those you loved is not to die.”

These words, from the Badly Drawn Boy song "Take The Glory", was to me a sweet but dismissible sentiment until last month, when they took on weightiness. My friend and fellow humanist, Veronica Collens, died. Her body had finally capitulated to incursions from first breast cancer then complications from operations to stem the spread of the disease.

At Veronica's home the day following her cremation, friends and family gathered for what might be called a humanist wake. There was no hymn-singing, of course, but something probably even more life-affirming.

Veronica's husband, Shane, set up a huge flat screen on a side table. It flashed images of Veronica as Shane took guests through her life, from her childhood in London to just before her death after 25 years in Trinidad.

On the dining table were scrapbooks, craft work and other tangible output from Veronica's mind. She'd almost completed a novel and wrote a book to teach children how to type.

Before their current web design business, she and Shane designed furniture. One scrapbook held articles about the couple from the daily newspapers. Another had published press releases she wrote as the PR officer of the National Drama Association and the Family Planning Association.

On the big screen were pictures of her acting on stage, modelling, even fronting a band. She did all this while cultivating a stable, loving home life with Shane and their three sons. A hardworking and socially conscious person to the end, she was an invaluable member of the fledgling local Humanist Association.

I felt no sorrow but slight envy as I touched her little framed dried flower arrangements, flipped through photo albums and saw the love and pride in Shane' s eyes as her looked at pictures of his wife. "Isn't she a babe?" he gushed at a photo of Veronica in a bikini.

My mind threw up some questions. Who would talk about me like that if I were to die tomorrow? Who would care enough to set up such an amazing tribute? And what items would they have to display? What have I got to show for my 30 years? And what should I do with the next 30 - if I'm fortunate enough to get them - that will make my passing a cause for celebration at a life well spent?

Death - our own death that is - is probably the most significant event in our lives next to our birth. Yet it isn't something we spend much time thinking or talking about, with good reason I suppose. Our mortality is hard to come to grips with. I don't think we can. People who tell me they don't fear death I suspect of suffering from some form of mental illness.

Teen modelling

The day we got married

The FPATT days

The NDATT days


But I think there is value in pondering the encroaching secession of our lives. If we really accept that we are going to die, it will affect how we live. And how we live, I hope, can mitigate the trauma of dying by lightening the burden of regret.

I envision having mental checklist on my deathbed. And this is what I want it to look like, in order of priority:

I found deep, abiding love with another human being. Check.

I was firmly in touch with who I am - my likes, my dislikes, my values - and kept true to them. Check.

I maximised my talented. Check.

I learned as much as I could. Check.

I travelled as much as I could. Check.

I learned at least one other language. Check.

Of course living a fulfilled life is no guarantee that you'll go into the black night smiling. I'm haunted by David Rieff's New York Times Magazine account of the death of his mother, Susan Sontag.

A highly respected writer and thinker, she screamed, "But this means I'm going to die!" when told her last-ditch treatment for leukaemia failed.

She heaped money on useless treatments and never accepted her coming death, even towards the end, turning to a nurse's aid and weeping, "I'm going to die".

Veronica on the other hand chose to spend her final days basking in the love of those closest to her. She didn't let go of her concern for community and tried to maintain her usual cheerful disposition. The last time I saw her, as ill as she was, she gave me tips for organising Humanist Association events.

I'm hoping that by, every so often, facing the reality of my own inevitable passing, I can cultivate the acceptance that will give me the same dignity when it's my turn.

Erline Andrews is a member of
Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association

See "Fairwell & Celebration" from CARIBSCAPE

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