Friendships through adulthood come and go. As people age and life marches forward, everyone gets wrapped up in playing the leading role in their own personal lifetime movies. Once you get married and have kids, it’s really easy to do. I think more about what I need to cook my kid for dinner, or reminding myself for the thousandth time to set the alarm on my phone so that we make it to school on time, than I do checking in with my friends. Nobody does it on purpose. I know I don’t anyway.
As I’ve aged my circle of friends has become smaller and smaller. I’ve kept the relationships that were important to me and I tossed out the rest. The people that remained in my life were those who were the most valuable. They were the kind of people who I could call weeks or months later and we would have the kind of conversations that made it seem like only a day or two had passed us by. My friend Tiffany was one of those people.
She would see something I wrote on Facebook and then my cell phone would ring on some random Wednesday. I’d be in the middle of driving myself home from a health crisis or on my way to get groceries. I’d pick up the call and it was her voice that was on the other end of the line.
“How are you holding up?” She’d ask me.
I would pop off with a generic answer and mid- conversation Tiff would stop me.
“No. Tell me how you’re REALLY doing.” She would say sternly.
Just like that she was my shoulder to lean on. She was my sounding board for medical drama. Most of all she was the person holding my hand from another state while I cried my eyes out on the side of the road in frustration. She sat, she listened, and she helped me lace my boots back up so I could keep moving forward. I tried to do the same for her but Tiff was amazing at lacing up her own boots.
Tiff’s personal life was a mess; People closest to her would hurt her in the worst ways. She never deserved it, and incredibly Tiff was able to forgive. Not forget. Not be a doormat. Deeply rooted, loving forgiveness. I once asked her how she was able to find it in her heart to do that after all she had been through and she told me that it hurt her more to hold onto the anger than it did to let it go. I couldn’t do it. Not the way she did but her strength was inspirational.
On a sunny day with my windows down and my music maxed out in my SUV, my phone rang. I picked up the line to hear Tiff’s voice on the other end asking me if I was able to sit down somewhere because she had something she needed to tell me. She had cancer again and my heart broke. I cried and she told me not to be sad.
“I beat this before. I’m going to kick cancer’s ass Lish! Don’t be sad for me. I’m going to beat it and then I’m going to live my life doing all the things I love.”
20 years of friendship with this incredible woman taught me that if anybody could beat cancer for a second time… it was her. She lost her eye to cancer as a child but she kicked its ass. Despite the odds then, she spent her high school years being friends with me and several other amazing women. Tiff was fearless. Sometimes when she was struggling she would withdraw into herself to protect those around her, I knew whenever I hadn’t heard from her in a while that she was struggling. I also knew I needed to give her the space she needed to deal with it because… I’ve been there. Not with cancer but with my own health battles.
I finally got the call that I had been praying for. She finished radiation; they thought they got it all in time and all felt well in our worlds again. It was short lived. A persistent dry cough was bothering her. She assured me it was nothing but she decided to get it checked out. It was cancer for the third time. This time it was more aggressive and it was on her lung.
When she told me what was going on, I had this awful feeling twisting up my gut. I mentioned life expectancy and she told me that she refused to go there. She was in it to win it and no mindset otherwise would help her get to that goal. So we never talked about it again. We talked about throwing up (something I’m familiar with) and about trips to chemo. We talked about things she wanted to do and short term goals that filled her with joy… like going to Disney World with her family.
She meet the love of her life, a man named Ty. Tiff finally found a man worthy of being with her. He took her to doctor appointments, held her hair when she threw up, and had her overflowing with happiness. She wanted to marry him and I was grateful that he was the sunshine to her cloudy days. She deserved all the love this life had to offer her and I was thankful that he provided that.
About a week and a half before Christmas day, Tiff sent me voice recordings on Facebook. It was unusual. She had never done that before but I was so thankful to have heard from her. We spent two days sending messages back and forth for hours at a time. It started before her mom picked her up for her next chemo treatment. She asked me questions about Gastroparesis- the stomach illness that nearly killed me. She found out that because of chemo and the medication she was on, that she had it too.
“How did you do it? How did you get through how horrible it feels and how painful it is for as long as you did?”
Nobody ever asked me that before. No one ever validated me in that way. Here she was, the woman fighting cancer despite the odds and she took the time to validate me. That’s the kind of person Tiff was. Not just for me, but for everyone else too. She was one of a kind in more ways than I can write about. Some of her life stories are only hers to tell which prevents me from going into too much detail, but believe me… Tiff was special.
On Christmas day I got a call from our mutual friend “Ashley” informing me that Tiff’s body was rapidly declining and she decided to enter hospice. I knew how angry tiff was when the doctors mentioned hospice the last time. She could no longer call anyone. She hadn’t held food down in days. The day or so prior to this, she married the love of her life in a non-legal ceremony to avoid saddling him with her medical debt. Ty will forever in my mind be known as Tiff’s husband. My beautiful selfless friend passed away 15 minutes after all of her family members arrived to say their goodbyes on Christmas Day.
I spent the rest of the day trying to focus on my family, and slipping out of the room to cry. I cried during dinner when I couldn’t hold the flood of emotions in any longer. I cried during the movie we tried to watch together as a family. I cried on the phone with Ashley, and I cried alone in the hotel parking lot before calling my mom to cry some more. Tiff was so loved that when her family posted the go-fund me page for her end-of-life expenses… within 6 hours over fourteen thousand dollars had been raised.
I was able to forward some of her voice recordings to Ashley, and Ty. Ashley forwarded them to Tiff’s family members for me. I was so thankful I had them. I think she knew in her own way that people would need them. I deleted Tiff’s number from my cell phone. Not because I didn’t want to remember her anymore, but because I didn’t want to out-of-habit text or call her. I knew in my gut that I would. Something would come up and I’d think of her and instinctively out of muscle memory… I was going to grab my phone to share it with my soul sister. Only eventually I’d hear some random person attached to her number and it would break me.
Tiff lived to be 34 years old. People gravitated to her like planets around the sun. She spent 34 years defying the odds. She died fighting to live. Even after enrolling in hospice she was asking if she could leave once she got better. Cancer never won because Tiff never gave up. Her memory will follow me until I follow her and it will be that way for everyone who knew her. She would have been pissed at me for spending Christmas crying over her rather than finding joy in my loved ones but I just couldn’t stop. Even knowing in advance that this time might come… I still felt caught off guard. Tiff was going to win. I didn’t have faith that cancer wouldn’t take her, but I did have faith in Tiff’s strength. She won the war in my opinion and as Tiff always said… F*ck Cancer anyway.