Then her 15-year-old daughter, Hadiya Pendleton, was shot to death while seeking shelter from the rain on the way home from school.
"My life has been forever changed because of what someone else did," said Cowley-Pendleton, sitting in her Bronzeville condominium. "I'm not going to be extremely political, but if I can help someone else not go through what we've gone through, then I have to do what I can.
"These are the cards we have been dealt. If these are the shoes I need to walk in, I don't mind walking in them."
Hadiya's slaying on Jan. 29 turned her into a national symbol of gun violence in Chicago. Until then, Cowley-Pendleton thought that if she kept her children busy, paid close attention to where they were and taught them well, there would be no need to worry about Hadiya and her brother, Nathaniel Jr., 10, getting swept away by violence.
"We were just regular parents who were slapped in the face and had our child snatched away from us," she said. "The thought of her not being here because of guns is unfathomable."
Cowley-Pendleton, 37, and Hadiya's father, Nathaniel Pendleton, 42, sat down Wednesday for an exclusive interview with the Tribune, explaining how they have coped as a family in the aftermath of their daughter's slaying.
Along their block, purple ribbons around trees flutter gently in the wind, a simple memorial created by neighbors and friends. Inside their home, there are so many memories of Hadiya, memories that leave Cowley-Pendleton smiling one minute and crying the next.
Until this week, there had been no time to reminisce.
As Hadiya became the poster child for the problems of guns and violence, her parents were busy making sure her funeral was the kind of send-off she once told them she wanted. They were unaware that while they were cloistered inside their home mourning their loss, others were turning their daughter into a symbol.
At the same time, Cowley-Pendleton came to represent the face of grieving mothers left behind when violence claims the lives of innocent children.
"I had no idea it was going like that," Cowley-Pendleton said, adding that she and her husband had not followed early media reports about Hadiya. "By the time we found out about what had happened, it was already at the national level. I was so in awe."
In the days after Hadiya's death, the family found shelter from grief through a flood of activity. First lady Michelle Obama attended the funeral. A week later, the parents were in Washington, lobbying the Senate for tougher gun laws and sitting next to the first lady as President Obama talked about Hadiya in his State of the Union address. Cowley-Pendleton appeared in an ad sponsored by Mayors Against Illegal Guns urging Congress to pass the president's proposals for stricter gun laws.
Becoming active in the anti-violence movement helped the couple find meaning in Hadiya's death. And for a while, it gave them a reprieve from their grief.
"It kept us from having to think about what we knew was waiting," Nathaniel Pendleton said. "I didn't want any time to stop and think. But every time I walked to the White House, it hit me that I'm here because my daughter is gone."
Cowley-Pendleton was at her job as a customer service manager at a credit reporting company when she got a phone call from one of her daughter's friends telling her Hadiya had been shot. She called Pendleton, who runs a catering company. Initially, after talking with police, they didn't think Hadiya had been seriously injured.
But by the time Cowley-Pendleton got to Comer Children's Hospital, her daughter was gone. Neither parent had a chance to speak to her.
Relatives and close friends tried to build a cocoon around the Pendletons, sheltering them as much as possible from an onslaught of media from around the world. If not for those close to them, the people who make up what the couple call a "village," the publicity would have been overwhelming, they said.
Hadiya's parents were adamant about keeping the funeral free of politics and making it a celebration of the teenager's life. It would be a lively event, a suitable send-off for a girl who loved classical music and the British rock band Coldplay. It would be a time for her many friends to say goodbye.
"She always said she wanted her funeral to be a party," Cowley-Pendleton said. "She was a big fan of the 'Twilight' books and was on 'Team Edward.' She used to say she wanted to be cremated and have her ashes scattered over ('Twilight' actor) Robert Pattinson's grave."