Two months after Tatum Hopper passed away at age 24 from vasculitis, I greeted her parents, Jon and Angie, on Zoom. I had an inkling of their daughter’s spirit. In her obituary, Tatum is likened to “pure sunshine. The kind of sunshine you can bask in…and feel like God is smiling down on you. The kind of sunshine that is good for the soul.”
When I asked Angie, her mom, what she remembers about Tatum as a little girl, she said, “Strong willed. Funny, bubbly, smiled a lot. She was an old soul who saw the unseen.” Her dad describes her as bringing sunshine to everyone she met. “She would be the one to see a server in a restaurant or the person at the checkout at the grocery store–jobs we sometimes gloss over because we’re in a hurry–and she would take the time to learn their names. She could have the worst waiter and she would just remind them, ‘You’re doing great. Take your time. Keep up the good work.’” Tatum wanted everyone to see their beauty.
It was Easter of last year when Tatum’s parents couldn’t help but see she was noticeably out of breath on vacation in Arizona.
Tatum had moved away from her hometown in Nebraska to military bases across the country where her husband, Logan, worked in the U.S. Marine Corps. Logan and Tatum grew up in the same town, went to the same church, and had that rare kind of love where they found each other when Tatum was just 12 and Logan 14. Angie and Jon still laugh when they tell the story. Tatum wasn’t allowed to date until she was 16, but they got a call one day from Logan. He asked if he could come talk to them after dinner. Jon told him he could come at 6:30pm and he was there, on the minute. He knew Tatum wasn’t supposed to date for four more years. Nervously, he asked, “Until then, could Tatum and I just be special friends?”
Angie has slowly begun to go through Tatum’s old room in their house. She recently found a stuffed dolphin and called Logan: “Is there a story behind this?” she asked. Logan said, “The stuffed animal’s name is Larry.” When he and Tatum went to their junior high church camp, she would bring it to the campfire and set it beside her. He would sit on the other side of it and they’d hold hands underneath so no one would know.
“Oh, young love,” I said.
“Young, forbidden love,” Angie smiled.
Last Easter, Angie and Jon encouraged Tatum to get her breathing checked out. She went to see a doctor on the military base, who said it was asthma and gave her an inhaler. By Memorial Day weekend, when Angie went ahead of the rest of the family to see Tatum, she knew something was more seriously wrong. On June 7, doctors found a blockage in her throat; the doctors feared it might be cancer. But when they did a scope of her trachea, they didn’t find a tumor. Instead, her trachea, which should have been the size of a half-dollar, had narrowed to the size of a straw. This is why she couldn’t breathe. They cleared her trachea with a laser.
By October, when they, once again, had to laser out the new scar tissue, she was diagnosed with vasculitis. “Limited GPA,” they called it. At this point, she was seeing a rheumatologist, who put her on high-dose prednisone, and was getting care at Georgetown University Medical Center, in Washington, D.C. The doctors assured her she would be fine. Tatum saw her diagnosis as an inconvenience, but nothing more. She was under the impression that if she took the prednisone, in eight or nine months her body’s immune system would be strong, again, and she’d be all better.
In February of this year, Tatum’s parents could hear that she had a cold when they spoke to her on the phone. She wasn’t worried: it was Wednesday morning; she had called her doctor, who was going to fit her in on Tuesday morning. “I don’t think she ever thought it would cause her death,” Angie said. “I was with Logan this past weekend, cleaning out the house, and there were brand new swimming suits on the floor. She just had no idea.” Angie paused to scroll through her phone and read me a text from Tatum from shortly before she got that cold: “My pulmonologist is very happy with my diagnosis from the rheumatologist,” she wrote, “and is very supportive of my medications and thinks we’re very much in the right direction.”
Tatum passed away on Saturday morning, three days before her doctor’s appointment. Mucus had blocked her narrowed trachea.
“Don’t sleep on it,” Jon said, thinking about other parents going through this with their child. “Take it for as serious as it is.”
Of course, none of this is their fault, but it’s hard not to imagine the “what ifs.” “I work in medicine,” Jon said. “I’m a physical therapist. I feel guilty because I never heard of it. I researched it a little, but it said people live with vasculitis every day. Looking back now, the seriousness of it…maybe I didn’t want to believe it or think this would happen because she was getting medical care.”
Angie jumped in: “Tatum trusted her doctors. We trusted her doctors. I’ve figured out more on the Vasculitis Foundation’s website since her passing than I knew all along.” She urges other parents to get informed and use the VF’s resources. “If we had the information, we could have done a lot more.”
Galway Kinnell, the poet, has written, “…sometimes it is necessary / to reteach a thing its loveliness / to…retell it in words and in touch / it is lovely.” This was Tatum’s gift to the world: she reminded each person she crossed paths with of their loveliness.
Her friends describe her as, “the drop-everything-to-come-help-you kind of person.” “The one who made me feel like I was never alone.” “My reminder to be kind and love every moment.” Tatum wasn’t afraid to love big.
In July 2021, Tatum became a mother to Penny Mae. Angie smiled when I asked her about Tatum as a mom. “Oh, she was amazing. She took the role very seriously. She researched and studied and wanted the very best for her. They would light up each other’s world.”
Tatum bought affirmation cards for Penny and placed them around Penny’s mirror. “Since she was very, very young, after her bath, Tatum and Logan would read the affirmations to her.” She wanted Penny to grow up knowing who she was, in her core.
Today, Logan, Tatum’s husband, describes Penny as “the spitting image of Tatum and her personality, silly and goofy as can be.” Logan created an email address for Penny. He’s been collecting stories and memories and emailing them to her so she’ll have them one day. Together, they’ve continued the nighttime affirmations. “I tell her she’s strong, she’s brave,” Logan said. “I want her to know and understand her worth.”
When I asked Logan what advice he has for other fathers and husbands in similar shoes, he offered a reminder: “Be intentional with your time,” he said. “Take the pictures, take the videos. Write the notes to each other. Save the notes. Be a hoarder of all the stuff of your relationship.” Cherish your love.
“There’s a lot of not love in the world,” Logan told me. “Tatum always wanted to raise a kind human because we need more kind humans in the world…I want Penny to know the love and the passion Tatum had.”
In Tatum’s celebration of life video, one of her friends speaks directly to Penny: “Penny, you will one day grow into the next shining light because your mama is in you.”
Her mama will always be the seed of love and kindness within her because her mama knew the secret: life has no higher calling than to love.
Tattooed on her wrist like a guiding message was the Latin phrase: “Veni, Vidi, Amavi.”
“I came. I saw. I loved.”
Author: Ashley Asti