I wrote the following post back in September, but it is just as relevant now as it was then.
In honor of Tarlie Townsend
I’m sitting in her coffee shop in Bloomington, Indiana sipping my Raz-a-taz latte with notes of blueberry and dark chocolate. I can see why she came here throughout high school and college. The place is eclectic, funky, homey, and there are people illustrating pictures, discussing science, books, and simply hanging out. I’m imagining sitting across from Tarlie as I sip my coffee and write this post because what I am about to write are exactly the topics Tarlie and I would talk about and reflect on.
I’m sitting in her coffee shop after a weekend celebrating Tarlie’s life, and the amazing, unique, thoughtful, joyful, quietly inspiring woman she was. Tarlie passed away in May after years living with a rare form of melanoma. We met back in 2013 before her diagnosis during the Luce Scholar program. She lived in Vietnam while I was in Indonesia, and we immediately formed a bond through our love for “deep talk.” She was one of the best listeners I know, always attentive on what I had to say, and always replying with another question to dig even deeper. She visited me in Bali, and she introduced me to where she lived in Vietnam. We had many more Southeast Asia adventures, but our relationship grew richer post-Luce.
Soon after I returned to the United States for my first recurrence of brain cancer, she was diagnosed with melanoma. She came to Boston to visit me during my radiation treatments where we spent days simply talking over a cup of coffee about life, death, identity, meaning, patient agency, and a million other topics I can’t remember.
I learned this weekend from Tarlie’s mom that they called those coffee conversations, “Long Coffee.” Simply sitting down with a coffee, maybe a pastry, and being completely present with one another. I think those coffees are what I will miss most.
When I found out Tarlie passed away, I was sitting in my car about to go on a first date. I was in complete shock because Tarlie and I had not been in touch that much during the pandemic (one of my biggest regrets), and I didn’t know her health had declined. I still went on the date because I knew Tarlie would have wanted that, but my mind was spinning. After what was an amazing date (with a guy I’m still dating to this day), I returned home filled with joy from my date, but also in complete shock from Tarlie’s passing. It didn’t feel real, and my body whether consciously or unconsciously went into defense mode.
When Tarlie passed, I had recently lost two other friends who I met in young adult cancer circles, and I don’t think my body was able to process any more meaningless death of beautiful people whose lives were cut too short. My consciousness built a steel box around my grief partly because I didn’t know how to process it, and partly because the only way for me to keep functioning was to not process it all at once. It’s f*#@!D up how many truly good people we are losing to cancer. Yet losing Tarlie was a bit different than when my other “cancer” friends have passed. It’s equally as tragic, yet for my cancer friend circles, I know that I’m going into a high uncertainty situation. Tarlie and I, however, met under organic circumstances. If anything, I thought I would be the one to die first.
Tarlie’s celebration of life was my first opportunity to process my grief, and it was beautiful. I am grateful to Tarlie’s family, Aunt Nicole, and partner for putting together a weekend to remember her and meet people from all different walks of her life. I was finally able to crack open that steel box holding my emotions and let them out in community, particularly when her partner spoke of their conversations (of course to Tarlie’s style on their first date) of impermanence.
As both Tarlie and my cancer’s progressed we often talked about what it would mean to pass away soon. How to balance being present and making the most of our time. We asked what it meant to leave a legacy, and what we thought of death. We shared the scientific mindset that since matter cannot be created nor destroyed, that we somehow wanted our bodies to become part of the Earth again. And Tarlie found a way to do it! Her physical body was composted and turned into soil that will replenish the Earth. My wish is to do something similar, but in the ocean.
Sitting in Tarlie’s coffee shop, imagining her and I having this conversation together right now over “long coffee” makes me cry, which I think is freaking out the people next to me, but at the same time feels relieving. This weekend has helped me realign parts of how I’m living my life. I wish I was there for Tarlie in the latter pandemic years, sailing together. I didn’t realize how much disconnection and “head in the sand” tendencies the pandemic had caused for some of my relationships, so I want to intentionally reconnect with those in my life. If I learned anything from celebrating Tarlie, and meeting her friends and family, it is that her greatest legacy (beyond her incredible achievements) were the relationships she formed.
So, if you are reading this, I want to follow in Tarlie’s footsteps and have a “long coffee” with you in person or virtually. Let’s just take a breather, perhaps with a delicious pastry, and be present with one another.
I love you Tarlie