It’s been a struggle for me and Juliet to write this as we all know that Caroline would without doubt be the best person to write anyone’s eulogy, but here we go.
It can be no coincidence that Caroline was born on Bonfire night, the 5th November 1977. Fireworks were exploding all around the VW beetle that took our mother, Margaret McCooey and father Andrew McCooey to the convent hospital where she was born. The same explosion of beauty, drama and electrified intensity that makes a firework what it is, also made Caroline who she was.
A deeply spiritual though rarely religious person, it also seems right that Caroline began and now ends her life near her beloved St Jude’s shrine. In times of both sadness and serenity, Caroline would regularly make her way to this same chapel to offer a prayer and candle to St Jude, the Patron Saint of desperate cases.
Caroline was born in Guildford and spent a brief period in North Devon before moving to Sittingbourne at the age of 5. She was a radiant, cheerful child who loved to dance; sensitive and caring and so protective of her shy younger sister Juliet. She attended Highsted Grammar School for girls and was well known as being the subject of hand written billboards from the Borden Grammar School boys, who would hold up ‘We love you Caroline McCooey!’ placards on the school bus when she walked home from school. She later studied English and Philosophy at Leeds University where she made dear lifelong friends, some of whom are here today, and where she honed her keen love of words and expansive ideas. She later trained as a lawyer in Nottingham.
I have fond memories of us sisters going on trips to Milstead woods as a child to see the bluebells with Bess, our giant Mastiff dog. We would all take turns at being pushed on a fragile tree swing. Our family recently discovered beautiful videos which Caroline had recorded of herself being in the most glorious bluebell woods at Ashenbank Woods in May earlier this year; in the video she says how grateful she feels to be alive and to witness such tranquility in those woods. Caroline was like a Magpie for beautiful things, collecting them in nature, gifts, people, poetry am spiritual musings.
She was a profoundly gifted and creative person, tranporting incredible paintings from her mind to canvas. She was a formidable wordsmith and took great delight in crafting anecdotes and telling riveting stories, the ghost stories she would spook our cousins with when they were all visiting our grandparents’ cottage in Scotland. Caroline wrote poetry that revealed such a generosity of spirit and eye for the treasured parts of those she met, often when they couldn’t see it themselves.
Caroline shared her creative talents with her pupils at Westlands and Borden Grammar School where she taught English in her later years. Although it was for only a brief period; her impact was lasting. Her year 7 class wrote “:English is amazing because our teacher is awesome. I thought English was hard and boring but it turned out to be very fun”. Another writes, “Miss McCooey is the perfect English teacher in all respects,” “the best thing about Borden is sharing the best teacher ever. She could turn the most hardened students at Westlands into ardent activists, asking them to write their own protest songs about their lives. Such was her sensitivity to young people and ability to inspire.
Caroline’s sense of humour and glee in practical jokes is something I will always think of when I think of Caroline. For instance, there was a particularly ingenious practical joke Caroline cooked up for an unsuspecting Danny Clarke, the now husband of Juliet when they were in their late teens. Caroline came across a luminous glow-in-the dark orb from the science museum that looked far too much like an alien’s head to be ignored. After some deliberating, she decided the best use for this orb would be to fit it into the hood of a huge black duffel coat then zip it up so it looked like she was a 7ft alien. She then conspired with me, Juliet and a friend to drive Danny for a nice ‘evening stroll’ with the dog in the woods one night.
She went ahead in her own car and hid in the woods. I had strict instructions to innocently lead the walk and then say I could see something odd ahead. Another friend meanwhile lay in wait snapping twigs and branches. Caroline then made her full appearance to the unsuspecting Danny, who ran away in terror, and later, white as a ghost, regaled his friends in the pub of the alien he had seen in the woods. Such was his ire when he realised this wasn’t quite true, that we all had to sign a card of apology to him.
Caroline’s incredible sense of humour also shone through in the emails she would send from the various parts of the world she lived in, for instance the ecotherapy and bird watching lodge she ran in the jungle in Peru; it reads: “Had to travel today with a Cayman (that’s a small crocodile) in the back of a Tuc Tuc to relocate it to the Lodge. It was thrashing in the back in very minimal water.’
Or ‘Had to tell the chef at the lodge that he should not be bbq-ing fish for the guests over a fire made with molten plastic, the smoke’s black and toxic!’; or
‘The staff are all scared of spirits in the garden so I’ve been out doing a patrol to show them that it’s manageable.’
We used to compete for the strangest articles to send each other, a taster of the ones she sent were titles such as: ‘barrister becomes a badger: cant face the stress’, ‘Cats sing silent night again’, ‘Hipster beard foliage’. I also can in a second conjure up her voice doing Alan Partridge quotes, favourites of hers being: ‘Smell my cheese you mother!’, and ‘I’ve pierced my foot on a spike’.
Caroline’s gleeful cackle was contagious as was her passion and enthusiasm for life during those periods where she was not grappling with her mental illness, which I’ll speak more of in a moment.
Equally, Caroline also was never one to mince her words, another email from her. Whilst living in Lima reads:
Most of the Lima trip was great, seeing friends, gorging myself on ceviche etc, until I went to check all was well with my documents and found a whole list of requisites that meant I had to trail around Lima, in migrations, with a notary, and with the national bank of documentation and registry etc. I just about managed to keep my cool, but flipped my lid after standing four hours in a queue one day and finding a girl my age arriving and jumping in front because she had had a minor cosmetic eyelid lift procedure. I said in the loudest tone of voice projection possible without actually shouting in Spanish ” your vanity is not a matter of life and death: save the queue-jumping for people with genuine disabilities.” But to no avail. After that everyone treated me as the spokesperson of beleaguered queuers, urgently nudging me every time a new opportunist tried to jump the queue. That is, until I eventually turned on the complainers too and told them to stop being passive and assert their own rights.
Indeed, even Father Brendan got his own dose of Caroline’s mind when she wrote a prayer request at this church that he become a better Christian. Caroline would also send Brother Robert from this chapel on regular errands for her, and would sometimes usher in people to sit them down for mass, whether they wanted to go or not.
As her Aunt Cynthia writes: “she was a unique young woman and was a breathe of fresh air at times, and a tornado at others. We loved her nevertheless.”
Caroline’s most joyous and formative years were the 9 years she spent in Peru, where she worked tirelessly for human and environmental rights. She was pivotal in reforming the law for police in Peru, increasing protections for native human rights workers in South America, and working to protect indigenous populations, particularly the Shapibo Conibo community. Many will remember her returning to the UK laden with gifts of multicoloured beaded jewellery, purses, handbags, llama finger-puppets and hats from these communities; and her sometimes taking slight offence if we chose not to wear these as part of our regular outfits!
Her good friend Leslie from Peru recounts, “I have too many fond memories of Caroline to count. Spending time with her particularly while travelling, inevitably included episodes, often around misunderstandings or scoldings by locals that made our faces hurt with laughter and tears stream down our faces. She was a constant source of joy and was a natural tour guide who revelled in sharing one her biggest loves – nature – with others. She befriended a group of Shipibo Conibo community members and kept up a friendship with them for years. They even joined us for Christmas dinner once at her apartment and welcomed us into their community. She mentored young people and took on issues as big as systematic violence and environmental threats, serving to amplify the voices if those who were unable to do so. For all her struggles with bi polar, she was always a loving and generous friend who helped me talk through personal challenges wither warm and calming voice and sound advice.”
This passion and dedication for human rights continued right up to the time of her death, as Caroline was working with a Guatamalan human rights activist, indigenous leader and a family member of several people killed in a massacre in Quiché by the military, to seek justice and reparation for his community.
Caroline was endlessly fearless, on one occasion in Peru sheltering women and children from machete-wielding neighbours in a dispute. She later marched out to confront them, unphased.
Caroline was endlessly fascinated with intriguing animals, ever snapping pictures of giant stag beetles, butterflies as large as your head, saucer eyed tree creatures and her beloved frogs. She would send photos of the market places in Peru where she would gather ingredients for her infamous dinner parties. Caroline will always be remembered for her warmth and hospitality, her love of having friends around her and pouring out affection and sage advice on them. Caroline’s Peruvian god daughter Ana couldn’t be here today but here is a small extract from a letter she wanted to share; she started this and every letter to her with: ‘dear sis’:
‘Dear sis, You were someone I could count on, the most caring and loving big sister I could have asked for. You listened to me, encouraged me, spoiled me and were always there for me. The mix of cigarette and incense always brought a smile to my face because even when you were no longer living with us, the best memories came to mind.’
Caroline showed such a deep love for, and pride in, her friends and family, and would often reel off their wonderful traits like a proud mother hen. She adored Ireland and the Irish people with whom she felt a deep affinity to and connection with. Many will have heard her cries of ‘yip’ at any musical moment, but especially when listening to Irish folk music. Indeed, she had been on a trip to Ireland with her very beloved Uncle James only this summer and visited some of her Irish roots. Whilst having no children of her own, Caroline was a most loving and gregarious auntie to Juliet and Danny’s children, Harry, Daisy and Flora, whom she loved dearly, and would cook up endless stories for them, costumes and share her love of fossils and insects with.
During her life, we grieved with Caroline in each loss that she suffered as a result of her internal battles with bipolar and depression and with alcohol. Caroline was proud of having run an AA group in the jungle in Peru and had great friends and fellowship in AA, some of whom are here today. There is a prayer read at every AA meeting. It is called the serenity prayer and says:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
I pray that as we grieve the loss of our dear Caroline, her life will yet call us into beautiful action. Long may her spirit of fun and unselfconscious delight inspire an ever-deeper joy and celebration in us.
May her death remind us of the precious gift of life we still have; to use that life to honour her by working to help the poor and marginalised, as she did.
Our relationship with Caroline was sometimes messy; may her life remind us to show grace and compassion to those we have with us, in good times and in bad.
And finally may her love for nature and beauty inspire us all to take more time to be in it; to watch ourselves rest in wonder at it; and to see the profound touch of God in it, as she did.
By Christabel McCooey & Juliet Clarke