I didn't think I'd ever be writing this. But here I am.
On Tuesday, March 17th, I lost my cousin Tara. She won her battle with cancer. For as hard as it was to type that line...I typed it. I've been trying to type that for the past few days and I just couldn't. It's hard for me to think of her in the past tense because she's always been here. She was here before I got here. So, I've never known a world without her. Until now.
Tara is my cousin. My dad and her mom (my late Aunt Brenda) were siblings. We're cousins...only by name. She's like the big sister that I never had. We would have celebrated her 50th birthday this coming September. It still seems unreal that she's not here. For the past few days, I've contemplated writing a post on Facebook or posting a series of tweets about her. Honestly, i couldn't find the words. I'm not sure if I have the words now. So forgive me if I ramble.
Tara was born and raised in Newark, NJ. She was the 3rd child of my aunt's 5 children (Tammi, Tonya, Tara, Robert, and Timbi). She was a loving spirit. She was smart, witty, and funny. She LOVED to laugh. I think she loved to laugh more than anything. I can't ever recall us talking and not laughing really hard about something. She would tell you that she "had a quick tongue..." but she got that from my Aunt and our grandmother. She was a beautiful lady. She was strong with her faith and her belief in God. She was tough and street-smart. She grew up in Newark...so she had to be. Tara always had strong drive and level of determination. We were always close as kids. Although we'd see each other a few times a year because I lived in South Carolina and she lived in New Jersey, we always picked up where we left off when we would see each other. She lost her father...and then Aunt Brenda...while she was a young adult. But she still finished high school and came to Atlanta to attend Clark Atlanta University. I had moved to Atlanta so we connected here as young adults. Tara graduated and moved back to Newark for work. But our connection remained strong. When she was here we'd hang out together and laugh. Tara would also teach me so much about our family and the history of our family. She could go back about 5 generations of our family and could tell you about each branch of our family tree. I'm not sure how she knew all of this but she did. She would always say "Our last name is Dowling. That means something!" She told me she would always tell people her last name because...according to Tara... "you never know who you may know, or who you may be related to." She loved her family. And she loved being a Dowling. I remember before we had Deion she told me "You gotta have a boy so you can keep our name going." And then she'd laugh really loud. She meant it. But she always found something or someone to laugh at. And she always made me laugh. That was Tara!
For the better part of the past 10 years, she battled cancer. I don't think she ever mentioned the word cancer to me. She just said she was doing chemo. She made it sound effortless. She had beaten it before. But then it came back 2 years ago. She told me she didn't feel light fighting because the last fight took so much out of her. But we both knew that was a lie. She's a fighter. And always has been. She fought it. Because she fought it so well the first time, I figured she'd do it again. That's just how much I believed in Tara. When we talked, we never talked about cancer. I knew it was there but it never came up. Our conversations were always about something that made us laugh, family, or the future. Just a year ago, she told me that she was looking to adopt a child. This wasn't a surprise to me because Tara LOVES kids. While she didn't have any kids of her own, she loved every child like they were hers. She was a teacher and she really loved the little people. There was no doubt in my mind that she would be a great mother. She was a great aunt and a great role model to her nieces and nephew as well as her cousins. One of the things that I'll miss most about her is that she was always there for EVERYBODY! She found a way to do it all. I don't know how she did it but she did. One of my lasting memories of her was the time that we spent together after our grandmother passed away in 2017. After Grandma's funeral, we went to the home of our cousin, Kori. The whole family sat around and talked. In the middle of the room...was Tara. She had a HUGE photo album that she was passing around and explaining who each person was in every photo. She made sure that she let my kids know who their cousins were and where they came from. She was extremely proud of her family. She loved us. And we loved her.
"Hey cuz! I called you earlier. I was going to leave a message but your voicemail is full. I didn't want anything. Just checking in on you."
I knew it. My heart didn't want to believe it but I knew she wasn't doing well. She didn't respond to my text. She would talk to my Dad a few days later by phone. He told me "Tara said she's going to call you. She said she got your text. She's just going through a lot right now, son. Pray for her. Keep her in your prayers."
We would always send pictures of ourselves or with the family. It was our way of showing each other how much we were growing and what our family looked like. She always marveled at how my kids were growing. I remember looking at some pictures of her as a child and I noticed how much my daughter, Skyler, looks like her. After praying for her, I sent some recent pictures of me and the family to her. I sent them knowing that she wasn't going to send me any pictures back.
Three weeks ago, my Dad called me and then asked me to call my brother, Damon. I called him. I knew when he asked me to call Damon that he wanted to talk to both of us about Tara. He explained that the doctors had said they had done all that they could do. The chemo that she was taking was slowing the cancer from spreading but it had destroyed her kidneys in the process. They didn't give her much time to live. Just hearing the news crushed me. I cried and I was hurt. How could I live without Tara? This wasn't how it was supposed to go. We'd lost Grandma in 2017. Then in 2019, her nephew (Tonya's son) was senselessly murdered in Newark. Now, we're about to lose Tara? This can't be. I wanted to call her but I knew I'd have to be prepared for everything once I made that call. I held out hope that she could get better but I knew it wasn't going to happen.
I got a message from Timbi on Monday. She said the doctor said that Tara had less than a week to live. I called Damon and told him. Then we called Tara together. I wasn't nervous. I knew what I was going to say. She was awake and alert. It sounded like she greeted our voices with her signature smile. We both thanked her for all that she had done for us. I said a joke and she chuckled. We chatted for a few minutes. Before we got off the phone she said..."I'll see you on the other side." We ended the call...as we ended every call we've ever had with..."I love you." I hung up the phone and cried even more. I knew I wouldn't ever speak to her again. But I'm thankful for that final phone call. I called my Dad and told him to call her as well. And he did.
The next day...Tuesday...March 17th....I got a phone call from my cousin, Marc. It was in the afternoon. I just let the phone ring and didn't answer it. About 5 minutes later, my Dad called. I didn't answer it either. I let the phone ring. Then I noticed that my Dad had left a message. I knew why he called and I knew what the message was. I didn't need to hear it. I knew she was gone. I finished my work for the day and waited a few hours before I listened to the message.
My beloved cousin is gone. And it hurts. I'm not one to talk about a lot of private stuff publicly. But I had to write this. I haven't been ok these past few days. I've buried myself in my work and podcasts to ease the pain. It's been tough. My heart aches for our family...especially Tammi, Tonya, Robert, and Timbi. They've lost their sibling. Tara was the glue to our family. She meant so much to so many people. I'm crushed. I scrolled through our text messages and I cried. And then I laughed. I laughed because I could hear her voice in each message. She was truly a special person. When I think about all of our laughs, I can't help but laugh. I know Tara wouldn't want me to be sad. She would tell me "You've always got to keep moving forward." And that's what I plan to do. While I'm selfishly sadden by us losing her, I'm thankful that we had her and I know she's in heaven...laughing at all of us and telling jokes.
"You know we are always gonna look out for each other. We are DOWLING's and that's what we do."
You're right, cuz. I'll see you on the other side. I love you, Tara
September 30, 1970 - March 17, 2020