This Beautiful Life
I had to sit in a hospital all day long yesterday, seeing doctors, having tests and getting another iron drip. The tests that are being run aren’t pleasant–though painless, they are frightening. I remember sitting in the waiting room yesterday, watching the people who all have cancer around me, and consciously exhaling through my mouth. It was then I realized I’d been holding my breath without even realizing it…. and that scared me. It scared me because unconsciously holding my breath was a technique I used as a child to survive very frightening experiences. As a way of distracting myself, I stood up and walked over to the window of the office and looked out. I didn’t see lush gardens in the local park. I saw a parking lot with dozens of cars in it and people walking to and from them. There were a couple of skinny, scattered trees; even the sun appeared to be hiding behind an overcast sky. The dreary conditions outside seemed to match the solemn mood of that waiting room. Restless, I walked back to my seat and sat down to wait my turn like all the other quiet, thoughtful grown-ups that were there. Only, I didn’t feel quiet on the inside. I didn’t want to be thoughtful, either.
My name was called back for the iron drip and when the nurses saw me, two of them literally ran and tried to hide behind the nurse’s station, exclaiming, “The Magician is back! Nooooooo!” (I’m called The Magician because my veins “disappear” when they try to get an IV started. Every, single time). It was silly and it made me laugh. It helped me relax and, as I sat in the recliner and pulled my fuzzy white blanket over me, I was very thankful to those playful nurses. It took awhile but, eventually, an IV was started and I tried to relax. I’d brought along a book, I tried to read. I looked at Facebook. I dreamed of my next, as of yet un-thought of character. I was the only person receiving treatment at the time—it should have been easy, especially with all the medication I’d just been given, to go to sleep. But instead, I sat and stared at the walls, turning one word over and over in my head: beautiful. It only took a few moments of focusing on that word, imagining the letters dancing in my mind, for tears to fill my eyes.
I thought first of the letter B…. in my mind’s eye, I drew it in bubble letters, then decorated it with hundreds of colorful butterflies. At the Aquarium in Chattanooga, they have a butterfly garden. It’s one of our favorite rooms. Inside, there are hundreds of butterflies and some of them are huge—-as big as my hand! Every Spring, the girls and I order caterpillars; we spend weeks watching them eating and growing, then stand in wonder as they build their cocoons until finally we ooohh and ahhh as they emerge into something the mind could never have created unaided. Butterflies represent a lot of things: transformation, freedom, fragility. They are one of the most beautiful and timeless things about this world; they are one of the many things that remind me of how precious, fleeting and gorgeous the gift of life is.
The E came next. I drew it in my mind’s eye in bubble letters, too. It was colored in a rich shade of green, the shade of evergreen trees. When I was still in elementary school, my teacher gave each student a sapling. A baby tree. She told us to plant it and watch it grow. I didn’t have a home, not one that we were going to stay in for more than a few months, but I cared about that tree. My great-grandfather, W.A., agreed to let me plant it in his yard. Every time we went “downhome,” I’d get excited about checking on the growth of that tree. I wanted to see it tall and strong. Even today, when I see a huge, ancient tree with a huge canopy of brightly colored leaves, something in my heart pauses. Time stands still just for a few moments. Trees represent so many things: life, a cross, protection from the heat. Most of all, they represent life. The tree I planted will continue to grow even after I’m dead and buried. Their strength is the stuff legends are made out of. One of my favorite stories of all time is The Giving Tree in which a tree offers everything she has to a boy she loves until she’s been chopped down and nothing but a stump remains of her. Still, she straightens up at the end so that the boy, now an old man, can have a place to rest. I’ve walked out on fallen trees over water and giggled from the excitement of feeling like Baby in Dirty Dancing. I’ve climbed trees, just because I could, as an adult because I wasn’t brave enough to do that as a child. My girls will sometimes see a tree, go up to it and hug it, because it was a time we played when they were little “tree huggers.” Trees make my heart leap; they are magnificently beautiful.
The next letter in my mind was A. In my mind, I drew it tall and also in bubble letters. This letter, I decorated with dozens of bright red apples. Every Fall the girls and I go to the apple orchard and pick them from trees and every time we do, I’m amazed at how God created a world that provides for our every need. Grocery stores make things easier, but if we did not have them, we could find food to eat. All sorts of fruit and vegetables; if we were patient and skilled, meat. Life in the big city, with its never-ending stream of smog and cars and people and buildings and hustle and bustle, makes it easy to forget that there’s more to the world than magazine ads and work. There’s fields as far as the eye can see; fields of wheat and rice; fields made for us to run in and roll around in. There’s trees with apples and bananas and peaches and blueberries and blackberries. I’ve been given flowers before…. there are dandelions and daisies and bluebells and, my personal favorite, pink roses. My daughters still “collect” any kind of flower they come across, no matter how small. They’ll pick it and then put it in their pockets. We’ll go home and, even if they’re smashed, find a small cup or vase and put them in it for awhile. Flowers remind us of the fragility of life but they also remind me of its beauty. There’s creeks with refreshing water and fish that are more colorful than you could imagine. There is life beyond hospitals, beyond the office, beyond the traffic jam, beyond the clock. And just remembering that, remembering to stop a minute and appreciate time and beauty in its rawest, simplest and most appealing form… that’s beautiful.
I drew the U next in my mind’s eye, again in bubble letters. As I drew this one, I thought about unicorns. No scientific evidence exists to support the idea that they are real but my daughters’ wallpaper on their iPads are of these mystical, amazing creatures. Indeed, the very fact that no one seems to believe in them makes them all the more alluring. Children believe in them and create games around them because they have something that adults sometimes lose: an intense connection to their imaginations. Albert Einstein once famously said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Indeed, I believe imagination has the ability to save lives. Listen, if I had not had the gift of writing as a child, then I fully believe that, as a troubled teenager, I would have made serious attempts on my own life. Instead, imagination gave me an outlet, a reason to cling to hope. I dreamed of everything under the Sun. I used to have this recurring fantasy in which I was in the middle of this huge field, atop a magnificent black unicorn. The unicorn started racing over the field, rabbits scampered out of our way, until finally, finally, the unicorn’s wings flapped and we took to the sky. We soared over the ground and higher until, all at once, there it was: the rainbow. He landed on top of it and I pretended I danced along its colors until I was too tired to dance anymore. Only then did the unicorn fly me back to the ground. I eventually turned that fantasy into a children’s book when I was in college because I did not want to forget it. Imagination was a door through which I could walk to escape anything unpleasant, no matter how traumatizing or mundane it might have been. Even to this day, I daydream when I’m stuck in doctors’ offices or taking a bath. I “daydream” when I lay down at night, with my eyes wide open, because if I didn’t, I would never go to sleep. Imagination is hoping. Imagination is believing. Imagination is not being confined to the corners of any room, but seeing something no one else can. Imagination is one of the reasons life is such a beautiful thing.
The T came next. By this time, I’d been moved from the waiting room to the lab, where I was waiting for the nurses to draw my blood. This is a tedious, mind-numbing process that can take forever. The first person to stick me is never the last person to stick me. I knew she would have to go get help and whoever she got for help would likely have to find someone else to “look” at my veins. In order to escape the fear and sinking feeling in my gut during this, I went back to remembering why this world is so wonderful. The bubble letter T was decorated in clocks. I was stuck in a doctor’s office and worried that the tests would reveal I don’t have long to live. You see, I think I was about thirteen or fourteen when I started feeling a wrenching, sinking premonition that said I wouldn’t live long. I didn’t know how I was going to die, but I did not believe I would live long. This deeply buried fear surfaced in odd ways throughout my life. When I was college, I wrote Last Wills and Testaments out nightly. When my daughters were born, I was absolutely terrified that I was going to die while they were still babies and they wouldn’t know how much their mother loved them, so I started writing monthly letters to them that told them of the things we’d done and of how much I adored them. Issues with my health have been rather continuous. Heart surgery, cancer in the thyroid which resulted in another surgery, severely low iron which results in drips, breathtaking migraines, etc. And now, this. Since I was a teenager, I’ve been conscious of time. And scared of it running out. So I made a deliberate decision to live every, single day as though it were my last. I never sit still with the girls; we are always busy, either going somewhere or creating something creative at home. Nothing takes priority over my girls, not work, not school, nothing precedes time spent cuddling, playing, talking, cooking, being with them. And I’ve made some discoveries living that way. I’ve discovered that everything else really can wait. The world won’t stop spinning if I’m a little late. Work can wait. Writing can wait. But when you give the ones you love, and yourself, undivided time, you grow. Your children grow. Relationships are formed that are beyond your wildest imaginings. And, in slowing down, you learn that people are still good; they haven’t completed evolved into machines yet. It is in slowing down that you learn to trust others and, with trust, comes love. Time is not my enemy, it is my friend, if only I harness it for purposes that are really important. If i do that, and learn to see my time here on earth as timeless, it stops becoming the enemy out to defeat me and instead becomes something beautiful.
It took me a minute for I. I wanted to use imagination, but I had already combined imagination with unicorn. Distracted, I was pulled back into reality: the nurse had finally gotten the IV and now the iron drip was starting. This meant I had about 2 hours with nothing to do. Instead of focusing on my actual surroundings, I drifted off into the imagined world I’d been creating with the word beautiful. The letter I. The first word that came to mind was “icicle.” Down here in the South, we have been experiencing record-breaking, bone-chilling temperatures. Now, I got an extra good dose of the Polar Vortex by traveling to Kentucky and Ohio right in the middle of the coldest blast I have ever known. For a whole lot of people, Winter is depressing. But, for me, it’s magical. Christmas happens in the Winter. Both of my girls’ birthdays are in the Winter. Snow happens in the Winter. For all of these reasons, Winter is one of the most inspiring, motivating and beautiful times of the year. I dream about Christmas all year long, and I start singing the carols in August. It’s the one season, Winter is, that I feel. I come alive during the cold months, thrive when the cold air hits my face. I never complain about “how cold it is” because it invigorates me, gives me something positive to focus on. Each Season has it’s own set of joys but, for me, there is a timelessness to Winter, just that something special I can’t quite define. Winter has an innocence, a fragility, a tenderness to it that appeals to everything inside of me. All I know is that I am genuinely happiest during the Winter. I left my imagined bubble letter I white and smiled to myself at how beautiful this current Season is; if we can find something to appreciate and admire about every Season, how much more beautiful the world would then become.
Next, I drew an imagined bubble letter F. Inside the imagined letter, I grew lots and lots of balloons. My youngest daughter, Alight, loves balloons. We put dozens of them up at every party and sleepover. Whenever you see balloons, you think of fun. One day, when Breathe was about two years old, I walked out into my driveway and there was a flower growing in the middle of the concrete driveway. Instead of passing it by, I stopped and stared. I didn’t pick it because I wanted it to keep growing. But before she was born, I wouldn’t have even noticed that flower. I wouldn’t have noticed how bright the Sun was. I would have never climbed a tree. I probably would not have ever bought a kite. I would not have annual memberships to the Science Center, or the Zoo, or the Aquarium. It pains me to admit it, but I probably wouldn’t have gone to Beech Bend, either. I wouldn’t own an XBox 360. I wouldn’t have heard songs like “Stronger” or “Roar” because, prior to the girls, I only listened to country radio. I wouldn’t randomly dance around the house because I would be afraid of being silly. Afraid of being silly. I was afraid of spontaneous fun. Until I had daughters. And then I decided that fun was a necessary ingredient to life. I made the very deliberate decision that I wasn’t going to hinder them from being children. I didn’t want them to fear messing up or to think that they had to be a mini-adult, as I had. So, I started doing crazy things, like letting them paint their entire bodies just because they could and then hosing them off with the water hose outside. I learned what it is like to laugh until your sides hurt and tears start rolling down your face. Having fun evolved into more than just having fun. It started teaching me and the girls really important lessons about life, like how to enjoy the ones we love and how to relax and that laughing is a good thing. Having fun started making me happier with life as a whole. It made me appreciate the small things, like kites and balloons and birthday cakes. Every time I relaxed and just played with the girls, I walked away in awe of how beautiful the world was, regardless of what bills lay on the kitchen table or what tests had to be run at the doctor’s office. Those were important, but they weren’t the most important thing on my to-do list. The most important thing was to appreciate and love each other and life—having fun taught me how to do that. I started waking up excited about the fact that the girls would want rides on the “elephant” (aka: my back) or that we might have a tea party or a lemonade stand or a puppet show; I started waking up excited to see what new games we might create on a whim. And I went to bed happy because I had played, because I had fun.
The next letter in my head was another U. And I didn’t draw it in bubble letters. Instead, it was a printed, normal version of a U. When seen beside the other bubble letters, this U was unique. And that reminded me that everything about this world is unique. We’re the only planet that scientists can prove has existing water, a life-sustaining substance. Every, single person of the billions that are breathing air right now have a unique fingerprint and DNA composition; everyone has a different set of experiences through which she views life. We each have our own set of strengths and weaknesses that all add up to make every, single one of us unique. God did that. God carefully and deliberately created each of us in a unique way because He loves us that much. He could have made eight billion robots. But He didn’t. Sometimes I’m emotional. I’m overly introspective most of the time. I’m outright weird at least half of the time. I have yet to meet another “Tiffini” who spells her name the same way I do. We have different skin, different needs, different wants, different likes, different dislikes, different scars. But, underneath all the differences, our blood still runs red. Beneath all the differences, we still understand basic concepts like what it is to love and what it is to lose. Every mother on the planet can relate to the fear of her children being left alone should she die before they reach adulthood. Everyone understands heartbreak. We’re the same, and yet we’re not. The fact that we can co-exist, and support each other in times of great need, is an amazingly beautiful thing. I’m a Christian but about twice a year, I find myself drawn to attending a Jewish synagogue. Every time I go, I stand in their sanctuary and feel amazed at the beauty I’m surrounded by—not only the physical aspects of the synagogue but also because very different people stand side by side, me with my blonde hair and blue eyes together with their dark hair and dark eyes, to worship. You matter…. and I matter. Not because we’re the same, but because we’re who we are. I find all the uniqueness of the human race an endearing and truly beautiful thing.
The last letter of the word is L. I imagined drawing a bubble shaped L in my head. I filled it with hearts to symbolize love. I could have put lots of things there—-ladybugs, laughter, lions, I thought about all of those things—but ultimately love won out because it is such a universal emotion and because it changes who we are as a person. I won’t lie: part of me wishes I knew who “Tiffini” would be today if she had been truly loved by a father, or if she hadn’t moved like a nomad growing up. Despite that, I have been loved by some amazing people. I’ve only had a grand total of 2 real relationships, so I’m not really talking about romantic relationships, although those certainly apply. Instead, I’m talking about familial love. Without the support of my mother’s love, I probably wouldn’t have ever written a single story. Without the love of my sister, I would have no idea what “normal” is or what it feels like to try things that are out of my comfort zone. When you feel loved by someone, your entire world shifts from grey to bright. When you feel loved by someone, anyone, you feel like dancing even if the world is about to collapse around you. Love is tenderness; love is strength when you need it. Love is passion; love is calm in the middle of the flood. Love makes you believe in hope. Love gives you a reason to try. I can’t even begin to describe the multitude of ways in which I have grown and evolved as a direct result of loving my daughters, and of being loved by them. It has given me confidence I only dreamed of before. It has made me stronger and more sure of the path I want to follow in life. It has taught me how to give and the importance of opening up to others. But, even before the girls, love changed my life. John 3:16 says it best, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…” Comprehending that kind of love is almost impossible but that’s what love is: it’s turning the impossible into reality. Anything good or pure in me is a direct result of the love of God and of my family. The worst part of pain is when it lies and shouts that we’re alone. The worst part of pain is when it makes us believe no one is there for us. Blocking those lies can be quite difficult but if I remember that I am unique and loved, then I find the strength to get through any day; I can survive.
The iron drip wasn’t quite finished when I finished drawing the word in my mind, so I just sat there, quiet, peaceful.
I do not know what the test results will be. I do not know how long I might live; death might await me tonight. What I do know is that I’m not afraid of life. I’m not afraid of it’s most joyous moments and I’m not afraid of its valleys. What I do know is that I am so thankful that every, single breath gives me a moment in which to stand in awe of the beauty that surrounds me from all sides. I like to think of myself as strong. But that word made me cry in the hospital. No matter how strong I am, I can’t compete against a stroke or a blood clot or cancer. No matter how strong I am, I am helpless in the face of any of that. I think that’s where the fear comes in…. feeling like there is nothing I can do to stop it, like it doesn’t matter how hard I’ve worked to overcome trauma, depression, eating disorder and so many other things, because ultimately, I can be “defeated” by a small lump in the neck. It was very disheartening. But the reminder of how beautiful this world made me feel empowered. There is too much beauty around me to focus on what I cannot change. There is too much beauty around me to be afraid. There is too much beauty around me to hide. So when I feel the desire to crawl into bed under the covers, I will decorate the house with balloons and allow the girls to stay up all night for a “sleepover” instead. When I feel like crying, I will laugh instead. When I am scared, I will remember that God Almighty holds my hand and there is nothing to fear. When I think the medicine has made me ugly, I will remember that the commercialized models are not accurate representations of beauty because real beauty is found in the stories that exist beyond the scars. And when I am lonely, I will cuddle my children and then bask in the dialogue of my beloved characters. Why? Because no matter how easy it is to feel differently, the truth of the matter is that life is not my enemy; it is my gift. It is my cherished, beautiful gift.