Vera Madden was a wonderful, remarkable, and courageous woman who, for almost 15 years, was an integral part of our work. Vera died suddenly and tragically on March 9, 1999 at the age of 72. No one who came into contact with her will ever forget her; those of us privileged to know and love her have countless treasured memories.
The impact Vera had on AWARE was profound and immeasurable. It permeated all our work. With each new project we undertook, it was Vera's job to think up a jazzy, catchy name for it. Indeed, she was the one who devised the AWARE acronym. If we needed someone to interact with members of the general public, Vera was our woman - not because she was a phony schmoozer, but because she was the most genuinely charming woman you could ever hope to meet, and people loved her automatically and immediately.
Vera called herself AWARE's "Exhibit A". I came to know her in early 1980 when she struggled to overcome a drinking problem, which she did very successfully. She helped me start a local mutual support group for women with substance abuse problems which continues to this day. Vera was one of the group's facilitators and prime movers for many years. She was completely and utterly to be depended upon. She loved to look after women in the group and help them feel comfortable, for which she had a formidable talent, given a penetrating (and very dry) wit, a clear intelligence, and a boundless generosity of spirit.
We went on to establish AWARE in 1985 and Vera was at our first planning meeting in July of that year. She was at our first official Board of Directors meeting after we became incorporated in 1989. And Vera was at every Board meeting thereafter until her death. She was also our prime volunteer, putting in hours a week helping us with distribution and mail out of our publications, with phone answering, and with general office assistance. Vera also mothered us in her inimitable way. We adored her.
Vera's history also contained a central tragedy - the death of her beloved and ailing son, David. Vera nursed David at home for 16 years until he died in the mid-1960's. Vera's heart was broken and she never really recovered. It was after David's death that her drinking escalated. She was also given a range of prescription medications, mostly barbiturates and, later, benzodiazepines and antidepressants. She was prescribed some combination of these until she died; although Vera had made several attempts to reduce or eliminate the drugs, her sleeping pattern was so disrupted that something to help her sleep always seemed to be needed.
Her Public Legacy
Because of her use of prescription medications, Vera felt strongly that she wanted other older women to have the information they needed to use the drugs safely. Thus, she co-authored one of AWARE's major publications, A Book for Older Women about Safe Drug Use. This book was Vera's most public legacy. Because it was about older women, this was her pet project. For two years, we sat side by side at the computer all day long and wrote the text and formatted the content. We talked to over 200 older women and met with many, many groups to get their feedback.
Older Women and Safe Drug Use
After the book was finished, Vera then took over its national distribution and she lugged more fat heavy parcels to the Post Office than we could count. She even convinced Canada Post employees to help her carry packages from her car. And that's definitely not in their contract.
AWARE is mighty but we're a small, very shoestring type organization and we really depend on our volunteers. And Vera was foremost among them. Vera for many years took over the distribution of our different publications and resources. She volunteered countless hours to us in this capacity - starting with interpreting our handwriting (and crabbing at me for my poor penmanship), packaging up orders (while complaining that the manufacturer was making the padded bags incrementally smaller each time we ordered them), weighing each package (and griping that the numbers on the digital weigh scale were too small to read), and finally figuring out the correct postage on our postage meter (I leave it to your imagination the way in which she expressed her opinions on postal rate increases).
Desire to Help
Vera's generosity is what I will remember most about her - her willingness to share, her desire to help, all the big and little gifts she gave me over the years. Vera simply could not walk away from someone in need. For example, she always gave money to anyone on the street who asked for change. Just a few weeks before she died, on her walk downtown, she passed a youth asking for spare change. She didn't have any so she walked all the way back up the hill to our office, raided our petty cash of a twoonie, and slogged back down through the winter's frigid snow to the young person. She replaced our twoonie, by the way.
Every day at the AWARE office, there is some reminder of Vera. We all miss her sorely. Perhaps I miss her the most of all - but Vera is always with me in my heart.
Wendy Reynolds for everyone at AWARE