October 16, 2019

Cindy Carlson had tucked the two youngest kids into bed. The two older kids were entertaining themselves in their rooms. It was about 7 p.m. on a Friday in January — cold, cloudy and long since dark — when a Beaverton police officer knocked on the door.

“Do you have a daughter named Tabitha?” the officer asked.

“Yes, I do,” Cindy said.

“Can we come in and talk to you?”

Carlson welcomed the officer in, her mind racing. The police had come looking for Tabitha before. Perhaps she had done something, or seen someone else do something wrong. 

When the officer told her Tabitha was dead, it didn’t sink in.

“What do you do?” Cindy asked later. “You sit there. You don’t know. You’re angry. You're heartbroken.”

Cindy afforded herself just that moment of private grief before turning to an equally painful task: how to tell Tabitha’s four children.

Tabitha struggled with uncontrolled diabetes, chronic kidney disease, asthma and hypothyroidism. She had also used methamphetamines for the past 15 years. But when Cindy gathered the kids together the next morning, she told them the simplest truth: Your mom got sick. She fell asleep and she never woke up. 

A stretch of Glass Plant Road, where Tabitha was found dead of an overdose.

The 17-year-old cried, but the three younger kids, ages 12, 9 and 7, had barely known their mother. Cindy, their grandmother, had been their rock from the moment they were born. And she was raising them the way she had raised Tabitha: to be strong, work hard and get dirty. 

“She was a happy-go-lucky kid,” Cindy said of her daughter. “She liked to fish and garden and swim.”

Tabitha loved growing reliable crops such as carrots, tomatoes and lettuce. She loved her Strawberry Shortcake bike, complete with a little seat for the Strawberry Shortcake doll herself. And Tabitha loved the days when Cindy would pack peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and they’d drive out to a slough to catch monster catfish. 

But Tabitha had a learning disability and struggled through school. With her mother advocating for her, Tabitha graduated through an Individualized Education Program at age 19 with a third-grade reading level. 

As an adult, Tabitha longed for freedom and left her rural Washington County home for an apartment in North Portland. By 2001, less than two years after she graduated, Tabitha had developed manic depression and bipolar disorder, become addicted to methamphetamines and given birth to a son.

Cindy babysat whenever she could. At least then she knew the boy was safe. But one day while Cindy was babysitting, Tabitha called. She had been driving with a man in a stolen car. They had wrecked and the man had split.

“The only thing to do is to turn yourself in,” Cindy said. Cindy thought a stay in jail might wake Tabitha up, but it was only the first in a revolving door of incarceration. The boy never went back to his mother. 

Over the next 13 years, Tabitha faced charges in a series of crimes resulting from her addiction and mental illness, including unauthorized use of a vehicle, reckless driving, criminal mischief, forgery, theft and burglary.

Tabitha got sober at least three times, each time coinciding with a pregnancy. Cindy would learn Tabitha was pregnant, bring her home and help her stay off drugs until the baby was born.

“I didn’t give her a choice to leave,” Cindy said. “It kept the baby safe.”

Living with her daughter could be a war when Tabitha flew into manic rages. And it was frustrating when they fought over housekeeping and clutter. 

Cindy stopped trying to change Tabitha, stopped fighting over the disorder, the mess. Eventually, she stopped trying to rescue Tabitha. Because Tabitha had to choose, she said. 

“You will forever and always be my baby. But now I have these little people who depend on me, like you did,” Cindy said, as if talking to her daughter. “You have to do what’s best for the little kids. I had to save the kids.”

Cindy watched Tabitha slip away after her youngest son was born. She was badly injured in an auto accident and won a $25,000 settlement. She went through almost all of it in four months. But she did buy four little quad all-terrain vehicles for the kids. They’re still in the garage. 

“I don’t have the heart to get rid of them because it’s the only thing she ever did,” Cindy said.

Tabitha was 37 when her body was discovered on Jan. 3, 2018 in a trailer parked along Glass Plant Road. She died from an overdose of methamphetamines and methadone. 

Death is a hard thing to forgive when it comes too soon, or when it feels like it was a choice.

“She made choices that were so about her that she forgot about them,” she said. “I’m angry. I raised her better than that. I sacrificed so much when I was younger. I’m angry she’s not here right now. I’m angry that I’m an older person. If something happens to me, what will happen to these kids?”

Today Cindy is raising them on her disability check. And she is raising them by example: Don’t let people down. Finish what you start. Pick yourself up and step up. Do what you’re supposed to do.

“I think that’s part of life. You step up. You just step up. It’s just what you do,” she said.

Cindy looks at her daughter’s life and sees the wreckage. But she also sees her little girl. And she hopes that’s who others will see when they pass someone on the streets. Someone’s daughter. Someone’s mother. 

Tabitha was both.

“We always think of the legacy we leave behind,” Cindy said. “I don’t want hers to be that she was a homeless person who died on the streets. I want her legacy to be her children.”