an apology to tiffanie (1998-2015)
Here’s another thing that I think I may have never told you, or perhaps I’ve told you this before but its impact only hovered heavy and foreboding between us wishing to be unheard: In the summer of 2015, my niece, Tiffanie, overdosed on heroin and died. She was my sister’s oldest and only daughter. Only four years earlier, my other sister’s oldest and only son, Sean, hung himself and died. The year before that, cancer swallowed up our mother. It seemed that just as we had become accustomed to being orphans, we began to bury our children.
What is the name for that particular kind of bereavement when children die? What do we call the mothers, aunties and cousins that dead children leave behind?
I was 19 years old when Tiffanie was born, and due to her remarkable baby girlishness, her wispy baby coos and gurgles and sighs, I seriously considered not going to college. I didn’t want to miss anything. I loved the weight of her in my arms and her breathing against my chest too much. How could I leave her? Even though I would only be maybe 30 or 45 minutes away from home, it felt as far as China.
I wasn’t the only unreasonable fool transfixed by her arrival. We were all smitten. All of us were shattered by such a tiny little wonder. She was our first darling girl, beloved. With three aunties, a Grandma and Great-Grandma, she was well-rocked, well-fed and well-dressed. When my sister and her husband moved out of our family home to a home of their very own just two doors down the street, we saw it as an out-and-out act of treason. How could my sister take our baby from us? It was the most barbaric betrayal to hear us tell it, and so to appease us my sister would dutifully deliver Tiffanie to our house every morning for breakfast, lunch, and most dinners. It still wasn’t enough. Maybe intuitively we knew that we wouldn’t always have her with us. Maybe we sensed it, and that’s why we, usually cynical and jaded members of a collected brokenness, allowed ourselves to lose ourselves in our unabashed love for her. Tiffanie’s birth was our “finally something good,” and we could not help ourselves but to fall into this new but certain sweetness.
Later that year I went off to college, and when I returned home I was a different person. Less than an hour away from home everything changed for me. For the first time, I was no longer the only black person in the classroom. Boys noticed me for the first time ever. Some liked me because I was black and a few found they liked me despite my being black. No one knew anything about my schizoid mother or my alcoholic father or my drug-addicted brother. I took an African-American studies class and met other black kids who were as identity-confused as me. Everything changed, and I didn’t know how to go home and fit into the role I'd left there.
Tiffanie grew up and I lived my life elsewhere, never really knowing her. Twenty-seven years later, when my sister called to tell me that this time it was Tiffanie who didn't wake up that morning, I could only remember our little darling who came for breakfast every morning and sat in the kitchen on top of a stack of phonebooks waiting to be served one egg sunny side up.
Dear friends, every time we pray for our children I close my eyes and I see Tiffanie, small with braided pigtails and bright pink leggings capping her knobby knees. I see the slight dimple in her one cheek. When I’m with you, for some reason I am reminded that I was taught how easy it is to leave the sweetest of things behind. My father left us and then my mother drove each of us one-by-one to my grandparents' and left us. Both my mother’s and my father’s parents left an entire history in the deep south for the coal mines of West Virginia and a bit more freedom up north in Ohio. When I do the psychological math in my head, I figure if I keep subtracting each generation that left someplace to go someplace else, I'll arrive back at our beginning on the shores of a distant land where someone in our family line had no choice but to leave a whole country behind, because they were taken.
Perhaps, somewhere in me the reason I left home begins with this fact and so, of course, my inner compass keeps spinning, and I feel lost and panicked trying to find my way to true North. But if I'm honest with you, that’s only a sliver of a fraction of the truth. I know that I left because I didn’t know how to stay and become who I thought I needed to be. I never returned because I didn't know how to return to all the places that left me feeling lost, lonely and only. If I'm really honest, I left because it was way easier than staying in the thick of a heartache that seemed like it would never change.
One of my pastors told me that he once saw an Instagram post of a South American neighborhood with houses painted in different pastel shades of every color. Every front door was painted in a different hue and all the window trims and door frames. Everything was painted a different pink, or lavender, or sky blue, or butter yellow. He said the caption explained that this town, ravaged with poverty and violence, had grieved the deaths of many children. Every time a child died, the entire neighborhood would change the colors of their homes to show the bereaved parents that because of their child’s death, they too had changed—everything had changed.
Tiffanie died and everything has changed—everything. Prayers, hopes, dreams, expectations, understanding, compassion, birthdays, holidays, trips to the grocery store—everything. I changed. When we talk about our kids, I am thinking of Tiffanie, and I am thinking about how much she was loved and how my sister told her about Jesus and prayed for her and did the best that she could—all the things that you and I do safeguarding our kids. But she couldn’t save her.
I'm plagued by Tiffanie's Facebook page and all the things I never knew about her: her loves, her job, her dreams, her friends who regularly post how much they miss her. Most of all, I’m plagued by all I never knew about her fears and her griefs and her heartaches. How did she feel about her father who left? How did she feel about my mother, her felon grandmother? Did she have any idea how little a childhood her mother had? Did she know how much pain we had in common? Why heroin?
The name for people who are bereaving the death of a child is vilomah—a sanskrit word meaning against the natural order of things. In the bible, Naomi is vilomah after burying her two sons. Biblical commentaries, I feel, don't understand Naomi, and reserve little grace for her because she changes her name to Mara—the Hebrew word for bitter. I've heard bible teachers teach this as some sort of proof that Naomi had lost her faith or that she should have trusted God no matter what. I can only guess that those teachers have never buried a child. Naomi had no sons to bury her, and judging from the text, no grandchildren to remind of her of her sons. She'd lost her husband, and felt like a foreigner in his land, and wanted to return home to her people. She was bereaved and filled with sorrow. But wasn't it her faith that allowed her to wake up the next day and carry on?
Yet Ruth—companion in Hebrew—chooses to live with Mara the bitter and says, “Wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people and your God will be my God. Where you die, I will die. Nothing but death will separate us.” And the two women leave together, a bittersweet companionship.
I did not leave bitter but I did leave without the companionship of my family. But, I feel I had their blessing when they all came to see me off to college. Everyone in my family drove me to college. My sisters, brother, Grandma, Grandpa, brothers-in-law, nieces and nephews filled my dorm room. I was the first to go. I think they always thought I would come home.
Tiffanie was there, but too small to note my leaving. I remember holding her against me and promising to come home soon and see her again. And I did come home, but I was not the me that left her. In the years to come, that girl would disappear altogether. For that, I am sorry. I missed her entire life.
Tonight, we will light candles for my sister's oldest and only daughter who died three years ago from a heroin overdose. It's surreal, but tender. Thirty years ago, I fell hard for the tiniest bundle of joy. Like her, my leaving was accidental. I never intended to never return home.