The Sound of Tara
Singer Tara Kulbatski gets vocal about losing her mother to AIDS
Text & Photos by Alina Oswald
[dropcap]I [/dropcap]met Tara Kulbatski on the set of Ron B’s show, Up Close and Personal [A&U, January 2016], at Manhattan Neighborhood Network in New York City. That particular taping took place right around Halloween of last year, hence some of the individuals Ron B. had gracefully invited on the show wore various costumes. Tara showed up as a vampire—maybe a vampire queen—and a very nice one, I might add.
The panel discussion was about journeys through life. There were several quite inspiring and candid journeys being shared. The story that I believe took everybody by surprise was Tara Kulbatski’s. She’s a singer and performer, born and raised in New Jersey, who, as a child (she was only ten or eleven years old at the time) also became her mother’s main caregiver, as her parent fought, and yet ultimately lost, her battle with HIV. That, while having to tell everybody outside the immediate family that her mother had cancer.
After the panel discussion, Tara and a few other panelists, artists themselves, performed with, and also without, Ron B. Intrigued by her story, and also by her voice, I caught up with Tara Kulbatski a few months later, eager to find out more.
She doesn’t consider herself either brave or tough, reflecting on her past. “People say that [I was brave] but what was I going to do? Walk away?” She sits across from me, in my photo studio, answering her own question. “She was my mom. That was my life.” She further explains that other family members—her grandmother and her aunt—and then a nurse did help, did all they could, but that her mother would mainly rely on her, Tara, to care for her.
For a long time, until recently, she didn’t give any explanations, unless someone would specifically ask. She remembers, as a kid, she was at school, in class, listening as her teacher was talking about HIV and AIDS. Her friend (and classmate) looked at her, and said something like, “this sounds like your mom.”
“I broke down,” Tara recalls, explaining that that’s how things were at that time. There was a big stigma attached to the disease.
Tara’s mother had contracted HIV, apparently sometime in the late eighties, when Tara was in kindergarten, at a time when not many would have thought that women could get infected. Looking back, maybe that was a reason behind her late diagnosis.
But HIV did not keep Tara’s mother from seeing her daughter perform, at the time in small school productions. Tara’s own love for singing, and, let’s be honest, her phenomenal voice and talent as a singer come from her family—her grandmother, and also her mother.
“I was very shy,” Tara says, speaking about her first attempts at singing and performing. “[My mother] never pushed me. I sometimes wish she had pushed me more. I remember once she came to my school play, in kindergarten. I did The Sound of Music, [and sang on stage] ‘The Long Goodbye’,” she adds. “As I’m singing, everybody’s getting off the stage, but I didn’t realize it. And I was [singing] ‘Goodbye, goodbye’ [she offers a taste of the performance] and I look behind me and everybody’s gone. And I’m alone.” She remembers that she screamed, dropped the microphone and ran off the stage to find her mother who couldn’t stop laughing, while trying to calm her down, explaining to her child that the show producers only wanted to let her sing the entire song. Today, Tara calls the experience her “traumatizing stage moment.”
Tara continued doing school plays and talent shows. In the fourth grade she performed “Like a Prayer,” by Madonna. “[My mother] would call me a Pre-Madonna. And I learned only years later what a prima donna meant, and I’d thought [all this time] that she was complimenting me,” she adds with a smile.
Tara’s mother would make her costumes. She would be there for all her daughter’s performances, all but a Christmas concert, in 1993. That was the first-ever performance she missed, because she became very sick.
Then, at the beginning of 1994, Tara was supposed to sing a song from The Little Mermaid, in yet another show. “And then I decided to change it to something else, as a surprise for [my mother],” she says. “And then she died. A month or two right before the show. I still feel bad that I never got to tell her that I [was going to] sing something else.” She pauses, apologizing for getting emotional. “What makes me sad is [thinking that] she never got to see any of it. The best she’s ever heard me do was silly things in school. She only got to see the little girl sing. She never got to see what I can really do. That makes me really sad.” And what she can really do is evident on her CD, Tara Under the Tree, produced by Reginald (Reggie) Todd, another singer and performer who was on Ron B’s show; she has a résumé that includes shows like The Rocky Horror Show and Rent, among others.
When Tara was in the fifth grade, her mother had a stroke. “I remember [my mother] having to take a lot of medications. I remember the AZT. I used to like the little unicorn [image engraved on the pills]. Even that [drug] was a miracle in itself. Biaxin was another one. It was yellow and smelled like vanilla.” She smiles, seeming lost in her memories. “That’s the stupid things that you remember.” She remembers because, as a child, she would write down all the meds and herbal supplements her mother had to take, in order not to forget which medication (and when) to give her mother.
Tara Kulbatski’s mother died in January, 1994, at the age of thirty-four. Tara never got to see her before she died. “The last time I ever saw her, I was leaving for school.” When she came back, she found out that her mother had gone to the hospital, because she wasn’t feeling well. But when she got to the hospital, Tara was not allowed inside her mother’s room. Nobody told her anything for a very long time, it seemed. But she could hear the buzz. She could tell that something was very, very [wrong]. “Apparently, they thought I shouldn’t be there because all that was going on,” she says. “All I got was, ‘Your mom may not make it through the night.’” She remembers, at the time, looking at a picture taken at the mall, a portrait of Tara and her mother. “I looked at it, and something just went [she slaps her palms] and I knew she was gone.” She adds, “I never had a father in my life, and I remember thinking ‘I’m an orphan. It’s not fair.’”
Relatives didn’t know how to deal with Tara, with a child who’d just lost her only parent. Her mother’s
coworkers tried to comfort her. “You just need to know,” one of them said pointing to her at the funeral home, “that’s not your mother. That’s what the disease did to her.” And then, pointing at a picture of Tara’s mother, saying, “This is your mother. This is who she is.” That meant the world to Tara, and, in some way, helped her stand on her own.
After losing her mother, Tara experienced what is known as survivor’s guilt. “You take care of someone for so long,” she explains, “and now they are gone, and you don’t have to care for them anymore. At the same time, you’re relieved of that burden, but you also feel guilty about it.” She started to better understand that only years later, when in college, studying counseling.
“I lost my mom twenty-two years ago,” Tara says. “At some point, I have to stop using this as an excuse for [being] so clingy.” She goes on to say that, as a child, your parents seem invincible. Until the very end, Tara thought that her mother would eventually pull through. After all, she was her mother.
“It’s amazing what is [available] now, all the medications and technology,” she comments. “People are living so much longer. I’m almost angry because so many people have died, and [only] now this technology [has become available].” She mentions that there’s still stigma, however. “I feel that because all these [medications are available] it doesn’t mean that HIV/AIDS is not serious anymore. Because it is. [And stigma persists.] Maybe [some] people are still closed-minded about it.”
I asked Tara what she would tell an eleven-year-old whose parent has HIV today.
“Don’t be afraid to hug, kiss and hold that person, because they’re still the person you love,” she answers. “They’re not any different because they’re having this disease. Stand by that person. Do your research. Don’t let ignorance, fear, stigma stand in your way and your love for that person. Because your parent has [HIV], there’s no reason to be ashamed of that person.”
She comments that the highest rates of HIV infections are among youth. She remembers her teen years. She’s never done drugs, “never tried anything,” being so paranoid of getting infected with the virus.
In 2009–2010 she played Maureen in a creative production of Rent. And she remembers people
making jokes, like HIV is no big deal. And she also remembers getting really mad, because HIV was a big deal during the years the Rent story takes place. “I even talked to the director,” she says. “I said, ‘look I went through that with my mother.’” She even offered to explain to them what an HIV diagnosis used to mean not so long ago—people didn’t know how they could “catch” HIV; they didn’t know if they could hug or kiss someone who had the virus; and also that she never worried about that, because she’d been told how HIV can be transmitted, and how to prevent it. She wanted to offer all that she knew about HIV to the production of Rent, so that they could treat the subject with a little bit more respect. The director thought that it wasn’t a good idea. That it was too intense.
After her mother’s funeral, everything was a blur. And so, Tara ended up not holding on to too many of her mother’s things. A few years later, when she was sixteen or seventeen years old, she found a letter from her mother, in a jacket of hers that Tara had kept. It wasn’t exactly a good-bye letter, but when she found it, she knew that it was something of importance.
During the interview, Tara offers to read a sample from her mother’s letter.
“My Dearest Tara,” it begins, “There is only one way I can begin this letter, and that is to tell you how very much I love you, and how proud I am to be your mother.” It goes on, “By now I’m sure that you have grown up into a beautiful young woman. Tara, there is a big world out there waiting for you, filled with all the joy and love life has to offer….Always remember that there are two sides of every story, and as your grandpa always said to me, greet everyone with a smile.”
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.