A note for my readers about my recent absence and today’s post: nearly two weeks ago a dear friend of mine lost her eight month battle with breast cancer. The fact that we knew it was coming did nothing to decrease the pain and hurt of her untimely death. Initially focused on the planning of her memorial and ensuring she was sent off properly I have said little. I just didn’t have the words. But over the past week the following piece came to me, driven by the memory of the day I met her decades ago…
It is late August 1994. I’m in the Commons (cafeteria) at Franklin High School, waiting to get my ASB card. As a socially awkward incoming freshman I’m uncomfortable, my nervousness exacerbated by the fact that my ace wasn’t next to me. Too shy to speak with the packs of girls roaming about, I avoided eye contact with most. You were in front of me in line, head crowned with a halo of smoky black curls, richly hued cinnamon skin glowing. You were alone, but unlike me you didn’t seemed to be bothered by that at all. You exuded such warmth, goodness and positive energy that I did something which usually terrified me: I struck up a conversation with a stranger. You didn’t remain a stranger for long and cheerily told me your name: Tiffni. By the time we received our ASB cards we were smiling and laughing together.
On the first day of school I walked up the boulevard, listening as the sounds of Notorious BIG’s debut album Ready to Die bumped from the cars of the upperclassmen:
I was still anxious, but glad to see your welcoming face in when I entered Mr. Nagel’s room for Law and Society that morning. Just knowing that I had one class with you, the sweet girl I met at orientation, gave me a sense of relief.
From that point on you were a close friend, a particularly special and cherished addition to the tight circle of people I trusted. Like myself you were a ‘church girl’, which meant you understood and related to my world in a way that my more secular friends could not. You were the one I could pray with, the one who shared my love of Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond. You were the friend who slept over on Saturday and happily attended church with me the next day, impressing everyone with your angelic voice and charming demeanor. My Grandma adored you from day one, going as far to tell you that you had an open invitation to our place. That was the Tiffni effect though. You were so loving and kind that people couldn’t help but love you.
We made so many memories together in high school. I still see you in your cheer uniform during our junior year, yelling out “Danielle ain’t got no draws on”, a joke that Michelle put you up to. I was so damn mortified…but your laugh was so infectious that I couldn’t stay mad for long. I remember our shared sense of apprehension the night our football team played a school on the East side-and were greeted by Confederate flags. And how I remember how vivacious and stately you were at prom months later.
Balancing higher education, family and love in adulthood pulled us in opposite directions at times. However by 2009 we were in the same city again, and picked up right where we left off. Indeed, as we all did our hair and makeup on that August evening it felt just like old times! Between raccoons mysteriously appearing on the deck of the club and Michelle spotting my ex at the bar and angrily stomping away in her heels to confront him we had a wild and hilarious time that night.
I thought that night was just the beginning of the grown memories we’d have together. Now in our thirties we were approaching our prime. Like me your firstborn was a girl, and I looked forward to us watching them grow up together. Even as I type this there’s a picture of all us on my mirror, taken in December 2013. It was Christmas, and you invited us to a Mom and Me event at the mall, where our girls could have tea and get their nails done. Since baby girl is a total princess we eagerly joined you. We had no inkling that less than two years later you would be gone.
I was parking my car when I first heard of your diagnosis this summer. When Natalia uttered the words “stage IV breast cancer” I screamed out loud.
“No, no, no; this CANNOT BE RIGHT! Tiffni has CANCER? NO!” I knew what cancer does to people. It couldn’t happen to you. The news was such a shock; a cruel and unfair blow to the most genuine human being I’ve ever known. Desperate, I secretly spent nights on my knees doing that which I thought I would never do again: tearfully bowing my head in prayer. You did your part, going along with chemo even though it left you constantly drained.
When I visited you that first time in July it was reassuring. Yes, your beautiful crown of smoky black hair was gone, but that was the only major difference. Your skin and eyes were bright as ever and you were not frail. The kind girl I met twenty-one years ago was still there. You didn’t want to talk about your illness in detail that day but did state that the tumors were shrinking. I understood and didn’t press you. Buoyed by the knowledge that the chemo seemed to be working we instead devoted our time to joking and reminiscing. When we hugged as I left your room I began to think we just might beat this back.
It was not to be. The tumors mounted an aggressive comeback. On a Friday in October I left work early, deeply worried by a text that your husband sent about your current state. In spite of all the pain you were experiencing you smiled when I walked in. Once again you avoided talking about your ordeal, instead wanting to know how my daughter and I were doing. After being satisfied that we were good you held my hands, bowed your head and launched into a long prayer for the well-being of myself and Z! I bowed my head with you, hoping that your eyes were shut tight enough to hide the sight of my tears. I was so awed by you that all I could do was smile and nod when you said ‘amen’, because I didn’t understand how you could do that! You were on your deathbed, confronting your mortality and the bitterness of knowing you would have to leave your beloved children…but you were still genuinely concerned with and praying for others. That was a testament to the kind of person you were…
In the summer you confessed some of the turmoil. “I can’t tell you that there aren’t days I sit here and wonder why”, you said, looking down at the tiles on the floor, “and I just feel so angry…but you know what? Sitting around feeling sorry for myself ain’t gonna change anything.”
It was those words that played in my mind as I stood at your bedside when you passed way. By that point there was no more denial. The weight of your impending death finally hit me as I showered that morning. As the nurse began the process of removing you from the ventilator I debated whether to watch the monitors or your angelic face. I looked up at the monitor but immediately looked down as your oxygen began to drop. I refused to count your last breaths, choosing to only focus on you and happier times. The monitors beeped loud and steady, the number symbolizing your oxygen intake now a blue question mark. You were gone, your brilliant light taken from this world forever.
A fierce bitterness and anger burned through my body, my rage threatening to drown me. I wanted to yell, scream, sob, and destroy things! How could you be dead at 35? Why didn’t they find your cancer sooner? Why was it so aggressive? How could you be so alive and healthy last Christmas, then gone before Thanksgiving of the following year? Why did all happen so quickly? And what about your three babies? I didn’t think I could keep it together. But I remembered your testimony, your steadfast refusal to allow yourself to succumb to anger. Because of your example I quelled the impotent rage that nearly overwhelmed me.
I won’t lie and say I’m dealing with it well. My anger may be on simmer but it’s still present. Z often tells me that “life isn’t fair”. Most of the time I dryly tell her that YES, life isn’t fair and she needs to get over this fact. But Tiffni since you passed I can’t easily tell her to get over the unfairness of life. How can I tell her that when I am striving to fathom that as well? For if there was anyone who was entitled to a joyous and prosperous life it was you! Never have I encountered an individual who was a good, pure and nonjudgmental as you were. Though you were a devout Christian you never changed and treated me differently when I departed from our faith. I admired you and often wished the church was filled with more believers like you. You were a true friend and sister to me, and you will be truly missed by all who knew you.