Susan Klenner has been friends with Tara since the mid 80's in Los Angeles, California. This is her story.
Time is tricky, inconsistent, perhaps non-linear. Sometimes these events seem to be veiled half hidden in a shadowy, fragmented past. Then for a moment the shadow lifts and there in bright, morning sunlight the event appears whole and clear. In that brilliant yesterday when I took a few tentative steps toward running for exercise and pleasure on the rutted dirt track at El Camino Real High School I met Martha Evans. She was slim, athletic, vivacious, pretty. Very few women were running in those days, and Martha ran with a gaggle of men ‘round and ‘round the quarter mile oval. Those guys talked mostly about money. Martha once observed that they measured their manhood by the size of their bank accounts. When I showed up, Martha and I bonded instantly. She was my role model, my mentor and in her footsteps my running began to improve. We ran at a conversational pace, and we did indeed talk, but not about money. Mostly we talked about our kids, about their accomplishments and about our dreams for them. Those were the times when Martha worked at, I believe, Nordstrom and began to reach out into the world beyond her life as wife to Bob Evans and mother to two daughters and a young son. She began to study interior design.
As we grew more comfortable Martha proposed entering a 10K race, and a local opportunity appeared. The Brahma Run consisted of ten thousand meters entirely on the campus of Pierce College, a real agricultural school back then. The beginning was a gentle reasonably level trot followed by a stinky trip through the pig farm and then a steep climb up something Martha said was known as “puke hill”. The May morning had grown warm, and Martha glowed with sweat. Her hair lay wet against her forehead. As we descended and caught our breath Martha began to laugh. “Do you think,” she asked demurely, “we smell as bad to those pigs as they smell to us?”
Martha suggested that we switch from running on the track to a more interesting routine of running on streets and exploring local neighborhoods, and as we pushed our distance out, we touched ever so gingerly on the thought that it might be possible for two forty-ish suburban ladies to run a marathon. We didn’t always run together, but we did compare notes. Martha accomplished a ten-mile run first and challenged me to do the same. Magically that little thought of a marathon became a commitment. Martha decided to conquer the classic distance early in the month of August, and eventually I would understand why. Her target was the Bakersfield marathon, because, she said, it would be a flat course.
We consulted Runner’s World Magazine and adopted its training program for first time marathoners. As our distances grew, our conversations expanded, as did our friendship. There were hints of sadness, nuances of the pressure of time.
The roads offered occasional bits of adventure. One warm morning we were cruising up a long, gentle incline. We hadn’t learned to carry something to drink, and when we were a few miles out, we passed a house with an unattended open garage and a coiled, green water hose. “Oh, look,” Martha exclaimed, “let’s just get a drink from that hose.” We did, and just as we turned off the water, out of the house came a rather upset man. Martha turned the full light of her southern charm on the fellow, and by the time she was finished with him, he was wishing us all sorts of good fortune.
In accordance with the Runner’s World program our maximum training run once each week was to be 20-22 miles combined with shorter runs and one day of rest to make a 60-mile week. We decided to celebrate Independence Day (July 4th) by running straight down Ventura Blvd. where we could enjoy some window- shopping—just glimpses, of course—and see the American flags waving from every light pole. We were running up Chalk Hill when we encountered a young man who was picking up bottles from the gutter and throwing them at passing cars. Martha called out to him to stop, but of course he did not. She recognized that the man was endangering himself and others. Running uphill and a little bit breathless she said “we’ve got to get help for him”. We reached the top of the hill and descended the other side. The disturbed man was still there when we stopped at a big motel. Ever so politely Martha asked the attendant at the desk to call the police, and once a police officer was on the line, Martha explained what we had witnessed. When we emerged from the motel, the man was gone and we continued our run without seeing him again and without seeing any sign of the police.
We reached our destination, a side road where there is a center island that was home to a heritage oak tree. We were 11 miles from home. Martha celebrated by dancing around the oak, and we headed off on our return always watchful, but we saw neither the bottle-throwing man again nor a police car. Now and again over the years Martha has wondered aloud what became of him. Several years ago after a heavy rain, the oak tree toppled over.
For a few weeks we continued to train, and Martha completed the Bakersfield Marathon. Then, while I continued to prepare for the Santa Monica Marathon, Martha told me that she was about to move with her husband, Bob Evans, to Saudi Arabia where he would be employed by the kingdom and they would live in a closed community of British and US nationals. By the time I ran the Santa Monica she was gone, but before she left, she found among a small but growing group of ladies who ran on the track a new running companion for me. She introduced me to Trudy with whom I continued to run for years.
For a short time I received a precious few letters from Martha about life in Saudi Arabia. She established a running club there and wrote that it was not possible regardless of the heat for a woman to appear bare legged in public, as the moral police would swoop down upon her and spray her legs with green paint. Once she ventured out from the safety of that gated community, encountered a pack of feral dogs and fortunately made it home uninjured.
Then abruptly Martha’s letters ceased. The silence was not golden. I continued to run, of course, with Trudy and a little group of ladies. Now and again there would be a moment when I would think, “Oh, I can’t wait to tell Martha about this,” but something would snap me back to the reality that Martha had vanished into the Arabian Desert.
Those months of silence became years, inhabited always by the wistful hope that she was out there somewhere safe and well, and then magically she reappeared. Neither Martha nor I ever determined what had gone awry, whether a letter had been written and posted and “lost” in the mail. I had traveled a bit in the Third World and posted letters from such places, so I knew that sometimes workers remove the stamps, sell them end destroy the letters.
In any event Martha had fetched up in Richmond Hill soon to be married to Mark Lamport-Stokes. We had a lot of catching up to do, so when she invited me to the wedding I welcomed the chance to attend and made travel arrangements right away. A flight to Heathrow and a train ride to Richmond were all that stood between us. Martha, now called Tara, was well and truly gone; the woman who picked me up at the train station was a statuesque, long-haired blond with a remarkable transformative story to tell.
We settled on the comfortable L-shaped sofa in Tara’s light-filled living room. It was there that Tara told me that she had found life in Saudi—she always cut it short omitting Arabia—interesting and productive, but she wanted more. Lacie and Kathryn were in school in the UK, and Robert was in school in northern India, so Tara was free to travel. She went to Tibet where her adventures included a trek to the Everest base camp. She told of being alone on a narrow trail face to face with a yak, a generally ill-tempered bovine. Of all the experiences that befell her in Tibet, the important one was her immersion in the Nyingma school of Buddhism. She practiced Buddhism for all the rest of her life, and I believe that her faith was the source that helped her prevail over the adversities that later befell her.
Bob Evans had a heart attack in Saudi, and when he was able to travel, Tara, a kind, dutiful and generous wife, brought him to Florida to recuperate. She organized and managed all of the complexities, paid all of the bills, and when all was said and done, he accused her of stealing from him. He imported a new wife, a submissive Asian woman, and Tara divorced him.
Tara, needing to be self-supporting, worked at several city and golf clubs first in Florida and then internationally. She was working in Durban, South Africa when she met a handsome sports journalist, Mark Lamport-Stokes. They became inseparable, except, of course for the times when their busy careers kept them apart. Eventually they re-settled in London and Tara applied her interior design skills to create a comfortable nest in a small apartment in Richmond Hill.
During those busy, precious days just before Tara and Mark’s wedding she and I found time to re-capture the past as we ran together in the lovely dappled light on the trail beside the Thames. She was golden, magical. In retrospect I think it may have been a hint a foreshadowing of things to come, but Tara, who had always been a better runner than I was now seemed to grow short of breath sooner than I. I convinced myself that it was “nothing” but the fact that she was too busy to keep up a consistent running schedule.
Always thinking of others before herself, Tara organized various entertainments for her wedding guests. She took us on a boat trip on the river. In my mind’s eye, I see her standing at the rail beside Lacie, their blond tresses lifted by the breeze. How very much alike they looked! Our destination was Hampton Court, where we spent time exploring the gardens and marveling at the chimneys.
Of course there was the wedding itself. A light rain was falling as the wedding party processed on foot to the registrar’s office. Rain on a wedding, Tara observed, was thought to be an omen of good luck. Tara was radiant in a diaphanous, multi-layered, sheer silk dress of the palest shade of chartreuse, a delicate ice blue stole and silver sandals. Mark smiled joyfully in his tux and black tie. The civil ceremony was brief and concluded with the signing of official documents, and finally the registrar turned to Mark and said, “you may kiss the bride,” which, of course, he did. The wedding party processed again through the picturesque streets of Richmond to the site of the reception—the elegant upstairs salon of a flat that belonged to Tara and Mark’s neighbors in Richmond Hill. The rain had stopped, the sun had come out, and the salon was filled with light. Wedding guests, including the vicar of the nearby church, nibbled on delicate canapés and little sandwiches. Lacie was slim and stylish in black and white topped off by a broad brimmed hat of finely woven straw, and Kathryn was smiling in a black and white printed frock as she kept an eye on her children. Tara circulated among her guests showering them with smiles and kind and gracious words.
The wedding cake, a two-tiered fantasy of white fondant frosting topped with a rose was displayed on top of the piano. It was too pretty to eat, but Tara and Mark cut the cake and eat it we did (except, of course, for the top tier, which was removed and squirreled away for Tara and Mark to enjoy on a future wedding anniversary). This was my introduction to the traditional, fruit filled British wedding cake, delicious and so much more interesting than even the best Victorian sponge.
Digression: As I enjoyed the videos and commentaries from Tara’s memorial event, I was struck by how similar they were to the wedding. Perhaps there was a time warp. It all seemed as if Tara had planned both events. How bittersweet it was that Tara was not present to enjoy her memorial.
After their wedding day there were a few more festivities, an informal dinner at a restaurant and a picnic supper beside the river. Mark and Tara were busy preparing for their imminent relocation to Moscow, where Tara would be working for an urban club. I visited with other London friends, and then flew home to California and the heat of August.
Over the next months and possibly a few years, Tara and I corresponded until—surprise of surprises—she called from Santa Monica to tell me that Mark, who was employed by Thompson Reuters, had been transferred to Los Angeles. After a bit of discussion, Tara and Mark decided to settle in Woodland Hills not far from where she had lived in the early days of our friendship. For a time, they rented an apartment, and then they purchased a spacious townhome near Warner Center Park. Tara put her interior design skills to work and made a lovely home.
We re-captured the remains of our running lives with frequent jogs around the perimeter of the park. I think on those jogs I first noticed that Tara’s physical stamina had begun to wane, but as we jogged and walked we fell back into the rhythm of our old running conversations. We also shopped together from time to time. I remember a visit to Nordstrom’s where Tara had once worked in the cosmetics department—her first departure so long ago from being a stay-at-home mom. She brought samples to her friends. I kept one little bottle of Joy eau de parfum for years long after she moved away, unwilling to open and use it, because just having it reminded me of her.
During those years in Woodland Hills Tara told me the story of how her Buddhist teacher who had walked into deep water and very nearly drowned in Florida had re-named her Tara. As I recall it her U.S. Passport was issued to “Martha Evans”, and she needed to clear up the confusion of having two identities. In order to accomplish that she needed to have her name changed legally, and when it came time to appear in court she asked me to accompany her. I was humbled and honored to do so, and together one hot valley day we visited a federal courtroom in Van Nuys and Tara forever shed the vestiges of her old identity. Martha became Tara officially and forever Tibetan savior and goddess of mercy.
When Tara visited me at my house, she developed a friendship with Kaos, my big Beauceron dog, and after a while she and Mark decided to adopt a dog of their own. That was when Bailey joined their household. A Maltese-Poodle mix, I believe, he was curly and the color of Irish Cream, and he grew just a bit protective of Tara. Tara often relaxed on her creamy white sofa with Bailey perched keeping watch above her on the sofa back.
Once we went together to the annual July 4th celebration and fireworks display in Warner Center Park. It turned out to be a bit loud and crowded for Tara’s and Mark’s taste, so after that we enjoyed the fireworks from their patio/deck. They had a barbecue on that deck, and Mark presided over fabulous grilled pork chops, while Tara set the dining table and managed the groaning board of trimmings. During those Independence Day events invariably either Tara or I would say, “I wonder what became of the guy who was throwing bottles…”
Gradually during those years in Woodland Hills Tara became more and more limited by the autoimmune arthritis, which appeared to run in her family. It broke my heart to see the woman who had mentored me to my first marathon unable, herself, to walk her dog. Even though she had to travel to Rochester, Minnesota for treatment, she received excellent care at the Mayo Clinic. After plenty of diagnostic work it became clear that the first priority would be replacement of her, I believe, right shoulder joint. It was done and after a brief recovery in Rochester, Tara came home to Woodland Hills. A visit was arranged. There she was comfortable, smiling and optimistic—always smiling and optimistic—on the sofa. I recall she was wearing an over sized, blue and white striped “big” shirt. She showed me her “railroad tracks” badge of courage—a long perfectly sutured scar. Mayo does things right, she observed. Perhaps she knew, but I did not, that it would be the first of several such scars, and that I would come lightheartedly to call her the bionic woman.
I know that Tara abhorred the use of opiates and certain other drugs that reduce pain. She didn’t like what these drugs do to the mind. Neither do I, so I understood her resistance. Now in retrospect I wonder how much pain she concealed beneath her smiles and optimism, and this begs yet another question. Did Tara’s Buddhist practice make it possible for her to deal with all of the pain?
During those Woodland Hills years Ed and I decided to change our landscape to a drought tolerant California native plant palette. We had, I think, four thirsty rose bushes, which we set about removing. Tara made it her mission to save one of them, so Ed dug up and preserved as much as he could of the root ball, and Tara re-planted it in a little patch of exposed ground beside her garage entrance. It survived, touched, perhaps, by the goddess.
Those were also the years when our bond expanded to include a shared political consciousness, and my memories include time on that white sofa—Tara, Bailey and me—watching election results.
Those few years when Tara and Mark lived in Woodland Hills passed altogether too quickly. Robert, a respected Microsoft employee—not a contractor—settled in St. Augustine, Florida. I understood, but was dismayed and disappointed, when Tara told me that she and Mark were preparing to move to Florida in order to be closer to Robert, with whom she had an extraordinarily close bond.
It seems as I look back that I measure my friendship with Tara in arrivals and departures or perhaps in the spaces between arrivals and departures. After they moved to Florida we kept in touch by phone. Tara was enthusiastic about their house there, single story, full of light, and surrounded by the garden. She invited Ed and me to visit, and now I am full of regret that we did not. We did, however visit by telephone, and she kept me informed as to Robert’s interesting life, his unusual relationship with the woman who would be the mother of Bentley, Robert’s son and Tara’s grandson. I wondered aloud what it would be like for the little boy to bear the name of a luxury automobile.
It was in those telephone conversations that Tara told me about her second shoulder replacement, and her hip replacement. She never mentioned pain, never. She always talked about the benefits. The old optimism never waned; the smile never vanished from her voice.
Just as she had once been my running mentor, she was also my model for dealing with the health challenge that my breast cancer presented. I adopted her optimism, and as I returned to running modest distances, I took her with me on the streets of Woodland Hills and told her afterward where we had run.
As Tara’s health declined, our conversations grew less frequent. When she told me that she had been in the hospital, that she had experienced a heart attack, her durable optimism was still very much present, but she seemed surprised by what had happened to her. I think she must have known that her time in this life was dwindling. We talked very little after that. She wasted no time on trivia. She withdrew in a sense, I thought, into family.
When I received the news from Mark that Tara had passed away, I was not surprised, but filled instead with an immense sadness. Mark had solicited video messages to be posted on Tara’s memorial website. I begged to be allowed to send a writing instead, and graciously Mark agreed. I began this memoir at once and sent him the first portion. Later when I visited the links Mark sent, I was honored to hear my words in Mark’s voice.
Something in me still expects to answer the phone and hear Tara’s up tempo voice saying “Hi, it’s Tara!” or to respond to the gate bell and to see her deep blue Honda CRV out there and Tara at my gate for a surprise visit.
Now and again she visits me in my dreams and I awaken happy and full of that old optimism.
I miss you, Tara. I always will.