TAMPA — Ron Tomlinson chain-smoked outside the funeral home, dreading what awaited him.
He had been here before. Worn a suit, clutched a tissue, kissed a casket.
A casket that held one of his children.
In 2005, he buried 13-year-old Stephen after the boy was murdered in a neighborhood park.
On Wednesday, he said goodbye to 18-year-old Cherie, who died after a night out partying. The cause of death is pending.
Two children gone within five years. Tomlinson, 50, struggled to understand.
"You think it would be you first before your kids," he said. "But it happened again."
• • •
The father blamed himself for his son's death.
He wished he had stopped Stephen from riding his bike to Carrollwood's Logan Gate Park on Dec. 8, 2005. Or that he had been there to protect his son from the community college student who strangled him at dusk.
But Cherie blamed herself, too. The siblings, born to different mothers, were the same age and often inseparable. But when Stephen asked her to go to the park that day, she said no.
"She wished she went with him," said an aunt, Patsy Driggers. "I told her, 'It's not your fault, baby. It's not your fault.' "
Cherie sat by her father during the televised murder trial, hugging him close when the guilty verdict came and Stephen's killer was sent to prison for life.
Away from the cameras, Cherie struggled. She dropped out of school. She drank and abused Xanax and Roxicodone.
"After her brother was murdered, she just didn't care," Ron Tomlinson said. "It took so much out of her."
Tomlinson, a single father of four who receives disability payments, tried to get her professional help. But she would leave drug rehab and go right back to hanging out with the same people, he said.
At 16, Cherie gave birth to her son, Jose. She adored the baby.
In recent months, she seemed to straighten up, Tomlinson said. She enrolled in an online college and was interested in a nursing degree.
Exactly what caused her death on Nov. 19 is unclear.
According to the medical examiner's report, Cherie returned home about 4 a.m. after drinking with friends. She complained of stomach pain before going to bed. Around 9:30 a.m., her boyfriend woke up and noticed she wasn't breathing.
Tomlinson won't know what killed his daughter until toxicology reports are in. But the familiar feeling of guilt already rages inside him.
As with Stephen, he could not save Cherie.
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Inside the funeral home's chapel Wednesday, the minister said he didn't know how much pain a father could possibly bear.
Ron Tomlinson's siblings and friends worried about him. He wasn't eating enough. He looked lost. The day after Cherie died, he had suffered a heart attack.
"I just couldn't take it no more," Tomlinson said.
Doctors put in three stents. After he got out of the hospital, one of his sons was in a crash while driving Tomlinson's car. It was totaled. Having sold his other car to help cover funeral costs, Tomlinson drove a rental to his daughter's service and burial.
At the cemetery, the minister asked the mourners to support Cherie's family through its grief.
"Don't let this family sit at this table alone," he said.
Stephen's mourners had released white doves into the sky. For Cherie, Ron Tomlinson ordered 36 balloons in a rainbow of colors and brought markers so people could write messages he hoped would somehow find her.
"Cherie," his balloon read. "I love you with all of my heart. See you soon. Love, Daddy."
He stood in an open spot of the cemetery, holding 22-month-old Jose on his hip.
"Ready?" he asked.
"One, two, three," someone counted.
Swept up by the chilly breeze, the balloons floated skyward. Tomlinson watched them, saying nothing, then walked back toward his daughter's burial plot.
Dirt from her freshly dug grave spilled onto the neighboring granite marker. It covered all but the person's last name and date of death.
The grave belonged to Stephen Tomlinson. Once again, he and his sister would be side by side.
Colleen Jenkins can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3337.