Valentine’s Day is admittedly a commercial deal when we spend bucks on candy, cards, flowers, and whatever our loved ones like. Although the top theme in advertising is romantic, many of us also acknowledge it as a day when attention turns to love of all sorts.
We are lucky indeed if we are loved, and one person who, in the span of 30 years, was loved as much as I think a human could be was a young woman named Tara Newton Richardson.
I first met Tara through my daughter Jennifer shortly after we moved to Jacksonville. Jennifer had transferred here from her college in South Carolina. I worried at first because Jenn had so many friends back home. Once she started classes at the university here, I hoped she’d make new friends to fill the void.
I’d ask Jen, “You meet anybody interesting?” And one day, she said she did. “I met this girl named Tara.”
That was the beginning of a friendship that would span more than a decade. Our whole family came to know Tara, and long before she engaged in a battle for her life, we saw her as a fellow sister warrior. Capable, smart, outspoken, and very focused, Tara was just the sort of person you always felt was just so together.
In time she earned a master’s degree and accepted a job as a mental health specialist with Wounded Warrior. Tara loved her work and her work loved her. Most who came to know her, in fact, loved her.
I know that because on the day friends and family came together to celebrate a life lived with purpose, the room was filled to overflowing. On a cold, rainy day in Northeast Florida, every chair was taken and people stood around the sides and back of the room.
Co-workers talked about her courage and kindness, sharing that even in the aftermath of painful medical treatments, she still showed up for work. Friends and acquaintances spoke. One woman whose son served in the military said Tara had been “such an encouragement to us.”
Tara played as hard as she worked. Athletic and muscular, she loved soccer, crossfit, scuba diving, and anything that challenged her strength. One of her teachers noted her “zeal for life.” She was the kind of person who decided to parachute from a plane simply because it was something she hadn’t done.
If anyone sought to max each and every day in her life, that would be Tara.
I think of her often because she was part of our family. When my daughters performed in Jacksonville, Tara would be there whenever she could. Rebecca, my younger daughter, wrote a song she called “Tara’s Song.” It was about a breakup with a guy. Guys, of course, were a topic of conversation anytime the girls got together, but that wasn’t all they talked about.
Tara and Jennifer shared an apartment for a while before each of them married the loves of their lives. I can still see the two of them sitting in the dining room, sharing a glass of wine, and laughing about school, work, rescued pets, and whatever else came to mind. Tara loved cats and she had this one cat, a female, that had a meow that would fit right in a horror film. Every time that cat issued a guttural other-worldly meow I’d jump even thought I knew exactly what it was—that’s how unique the sound was. Jenn had rescued a small dog and the rescue loved to harass that cat. I can still hear music in the laughter of those two girls sitting there in an apartment they had made charming and comfy.
In 2012 Tara had a minor car accident that ended up being a transformative moment in her life. She wasn’t seriously injured, but because she’d hit her head, the doctors decided to do imaging.
I wrote about it in 2012 as family and friends rallied in an attempt to help raise funds for what we knew would be an expensive challenge:
“The doctor came into her room to explain the results of the imaging. ‘When she came in,’ Tara recalled, ‘It was pretty straightforward. She wasn’t abrupt. She talked softly. And she went into the whole explanation.’
Tara had what appeared to be an abnormality in her brain. Doctors thought that abnormality might not be associated with the injury. More testing would need to be done, and more imaging. Ultimately there would be blood work, visits to a neurologist and another specialist, spectroscopic imaging with and without contrast, a biopsy. And adding tension to the process, the waiting in between, wondering what the doctors would say each time something was done.
Weeks later, after the biopsy, a doctor approached Tara, her mother, stepfather and father at the hospital—‘It was like an entourage,’ she quipped. The doctor looked at them and said, ‘Let’s go to the conference room.’
In a ‘very frank, straightforward’ manner, the doctor told Tara she had a brain tumor, a Diffuse Astrocytoma Grade II, commonly known as a low grade glioma. It was the word ‘diffuse’ that added even more concern because this type of tumor is known for spreading, tentacle-like. Once removed, such a tumor can begin growing again.
‘I was pretty numb,’ Tara said. ‘My main concern was in trying not to lose it, not to lose control, thinking I don’t need to break down right now. I need to go back to work.’”
That final expression summed up Tara. There she was learning about this tumor and what would certainly be a fight for her life on this Earth, and all she was thinking about was the need to go back to work.
After that day, Tara engaged in an ongoing war with that despicable tumor. Jared Rush, a wedding officiant and public speaker who founded a charity to help the homeless, called her his “warrior sister of awesomeness.” And war she did, from the moment treatment began until the moment her body released a spirit as bright as any you will find in this world or the next.
In the span of four years after the diagnosis, Tara continued to work, do crossfit, socialize, and marry Anthony who set an example most men would not be able to emulate. Anthony married Tara after learning she had cancer, and their affection and kinship brought smiles to faces of those of us on Facebook who connected with them as ‘friends.’
Anthony and the rest of Tara’s family—mom, Susan, dads Cliff and Clay, sister Tiffany—kept us informed about her treatments and condition throughout her illness. For the first couple years, it looked as though the tumor she named Timmy might retreat. Then came the dark days when we all knew the physical battle would end.
Tara’s turn for the worse came as my daughter delivered our first grandchild. I remember being so happy about the baby and at the same time, grieving for Tara who was still very much alive but in the throes of a prognosis no one would welcome.
Although we knew her body would leave us, it still comes as a shock when you lose someone you love, especially when that person is young. I told my mother when Tara passed and she remembered her as so “determined.” Tara had visited my family with Jenn and my mother happened to be in the final stage of cancer treatment for a different type than Tara had. “Tell her mother I am so sorry,” my mom said. “No parent should have to ever bury a child.” My mom spoke from experience because she had buried a child herself.
Tara’s family arranged a beautiful celebration of her life the first Saturday in February. I kept feeling like she would walk in any minute because Tara was the thread that bound every one of us in that room together. Otherwise, many of us would never have met. People spoke about her, and there was a humorous moment when those of us who knew her smiled because it was a so-Tara moment.
Jared called a friend to the front of the room and took a selfie. Tara loved photos and selfies. Now those of us who aren’t so big on photos know how important it is to take them and have a tangible record of those we love.
Jennifer expressed her feelings in a Facebook post:
“Tara and I went through heartbreak together, life changes, the happiest of times. She was and always will be family. She was a sister to Rebecca and me. When I want to pick up the phone to call her, to tell her something funny my baby girl did, or vent about something I think is absurd, I’m reminded that I can’t, and I feel her absence. But then I see pictures, or one of the countless gifts she gave me over the last thirteen years, or I hear her in my head laughing with me or telling me she’s there if I need to talk, and I know she isn’t gone. Her spirit is everywhere. I know I’ll see her again one day.”
Tara was Christian, and the pastor who spoke cited a favorite verse of mine from Proverbs, the third chapter:
“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.” (Verse 5)
In a blog post at her site My Journey with Timmy the Tumor, Tara wrote:
“I see things in a different light, with a more tender and understanding heart; I feel more forgiveness than I ever have and it is comforting. I see the yellow flower on a cloudy day, the one that stands alone among dead grass, loose dirt…I see the flower that otherwise by all accounts should not have survived where it grew and realize that on that day I saw that single, lonely flower on that nasty, cloudy day it was God. It was God showing me that I need to remember Him in those times…in the times when there seems to be no hope and remember He is the answer, He is the way, He is the life.”
On the day we all converged to celebrate her life, we all felt Tara’s presence. Outside it was cold and rainy, a dismal day. I thought about a saying some of the old folks had when I was a girl in a small Southern village and we buried my youngest brother. “It rains when you bury somebody, you know they’re goin’ to heaven.”
We said goodbye to Tara’s body that day, but we will remember her spirit as long as we live. She will be part and parcel of stories my daughters tell their own children, and we will say her name aloud on her birthday as is the custom in our family.
Rebecca wrote about her feelings for Tara on Facebook. Besides cats, Tara loved the stars in the night sky. Rebecca wrote:
“I will go on as if at any moment you will walk into a venue Jennifer Day Thompson & I are playing, and start singing along to our lyrics. I will live as if at any moment, you and Jen and me may meet for a glass of wine. And when I look at my phone to check a Pinterest message notification, the thought will always be it is you sending me a pin of a fabulous party idea for Jen’s baby shower, or a workout routine that is a must-try. Your absence I will never face because in my mind, you are one Prayer, one dream, one shooting star away.
I love you, Tara Newton Richardson. Sweet dreams and good mornings forever.”
Well said, for all of us honoring a spirit who gave so much, lived so passionately, and faced a personal war with courage and faith. Heroes are those we think of in the sports arena or battle field, but the greatest heroes are those who don’t grace the pages of pop culture magazines for doing some outrageous silly thing.
The greatest heroes are those who, despite overwhelming odds, quietly continue to keep themselves, to make a difference in the world, determined to fight another day. Her body may be gone, but for many of us, Tara’s spirit remains heroically staring us in the face and telling us to live well, to help others, and to err on the side of kindness always. In one sense, Tara’s life was an ongoing valentine to all of us, and like the holiday we celebrate, sends a greeting of love, the greatest gift of all.
(In Memoriam for Tara Newton Richardson; by Kay B. Day/Feb. 13, 2016)