PLANT CITY — Tamara Geltmaker had the trip planned. She would fly from Tampa to Los Angeles to visit her brother, never mind the cough or the pain.
For a year, she had suffered with the kind of brutal lung cancer that late actor Dana Reeve had — a disease that finds even young, nonsmokers and appears with little warning.
Despite it, she went for walks and watched sunsets at the beach. She dreamed of retirement as if life had no end. And she remained determined to fulfill her travel plans.
But things got worse. A few weeks ago, knowing her personality, doctors told a friend to take the keys so she couldn't travel.
Ms. Geltmaker died Tuesday in Tampa. She was 54.
"She was hellbent in her own stubborn way," said her brother, Ty Geltmaker. "It has everything to do with the life she led."
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Ms. Geltmaker was born to a working-class family in Peoria, Ill. Her father drove a Pepsi truck. Her mother raised five kids.
At piano recitals, she danced with her sister to the song Moon River, wearing frilly dresses their grandmother made.
When she wanted something, she made it happen.
Her parents raised her in Catholic school. As a teen, she rebelled. One morning, her mother insisted she go to church. To call her bluff, Ms. Geltmaker donned hot pants and started walking there, her mother trailing behind in the car.
"That was her strategy not to have to go," said Ty Geltmaker.
She spent a summer as a perfume girl at Lord & Taylor in New York City before going to the University of South Florida. There, she studied dance and taught disco to senior citizens at the YMCA.
Her wanderlust was heavy.
"She was just very adventurous," said her sister, Dee Dee Flynn, 52. "Always looking for something different, something exciting."
In the 1970s, she took up with the circus, working as a show girl. She traveled, popping circus tents and rooming with clowns.
Between shows, she snuck to Nevada in search of bigger chances. She donned 35-pound headdresses and auditioned. Eventually, she got a job performing at the Golden Nugget in Reno, opening for acts like Red Skelton, Mel Tillis, Liberace and Conway Twitty, her family said.
She lived above the elephant barn and cared for the same animals she rode and swung from during shows.
The excitement sustained her for a while. But eventually, a slower life beckoned.
"I think she started relishing the simpler things," said her mother, Milly Geltmaker, 75.
Without the bright lights, Ms. Geltmaker let dancing fall by the wayside.
Back in Tampa, she married and settled down, running a plant business with her husband. She eventually divorced, got a job in insurance and moved to a bungalow in historic Plant City.
She found an outlet for her artistic energy: her three kids.
She pushed for them to attend Blake High to study arts in the magnet program, even though they had to wake at dawn to ride the bus from Plant City.
"She passed on that performance ability to those kids," said her brother, 56. "They're all musically inclined, and her impetus really influenced them."
At home, she enjoyed the company of close girlfriends and visiting the corner store for vegetables and organic food. She hand-made intricate quilts for her friends and family.
When she felt ill or sorry for herself, she'd reflect on her parents and their work ethic. Then, in the face of cancer, she'd do what she always did — be stubborn and strong.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.