By Dawn Onley
Verlia Carter was not diminished in her darkest hour. She illuminated.
In late October, Ms. Verlia enlisted the help of her children and threw herself a belated birthday bash for the ages. In a packed room inside one of the poshest restaurants in town, her family, former co-workers, classmates, church and childhood friends came out to celebrate her turning 74 a month prior. They came out in droves to show Ms. Verlia how much they admired her courageous fight to battle death while still choosing to live.
And how she never lost her joy. And how she never stopped dancing. On that day, donning a floor length white dress, Ms. Verlia performed a liturgical dance to Walter Hawkins’ song “Marvelous” and wooed the crowd, looking like an angel.
You gave that I might live.
You gave that I might be set free.
Exchanged your life for mine,
What a marvelous thing you’ve done.
People stood to give heartfelt tributes to her life. A constant theme was how selfless she was, how much of an inspiration, how she mothered an entire community’s children, how she exhibited great faith, how unique and beautiful and adored and generous she was. How she was always the sharpest dressed. How she radiated light and strength and hope. How her smile could brighten any room.
The attendees gave Ms. Verlia her flowers while she could still enjoy them. They gave her a portion of all that she had given to them.
“I think her whole life was a celebration of life,” said my Aunt Karen Hall, who attended Asbury United Methodist Church with Ms. Verlia and who would call and check on her, particularly as her health declined. “When Verlia would talk to me about her cancer, she would say maybe three or four sentences about how she was feeling, but it was always with the attitude that it is what it is. She wasn’t in denial about it at all. She just wasn’t into complaining or talking about it at length.”
While many people would have withdrawn into themselves and detached from others facing a similar fate — and they would be perfectly justified in doing so, I might add — Ms. Verlia used her time and energy to help others, through song, by mentoring and supporting the children, by running her church’s youth choir, through her dance ministry. Even as her physical body grew weaker, she extended herself until the very end, which sadly came this past Sunday.
Tomorrow, Ms. Verlia’s funeral will be held in the ornate Weinberg Theater for the Arts in the heart of town – an unusual site for such an affair, but a fitting one. Ms. Verlia has sung here before with a gospel group called The Guiding Lights. “We felt it was a perfect place for her final celebration,” said her daughter, Rochelle Greene.
Ms. Verlia was sweet and kind and had an insatiable love of life. No cancer could ever take that away. Even when it ravaged her body, cancer could not kill her spirit.
Her joy was infectious. She passed her legacy of hope down to her children.
“She was an inspiration. She was a role model. She always had an encouraging word. No matter how sick she was, she gave you encouragement,” Aunt Karen said.
This is how I want to be remembered. This is how we all should want to be remembered.