I dreamed I died last night.
I don’t remember much of the dream, only that I died.
It woke me up and left me staring out the window at the still-darkened world outside. Amazingly, I didn’t cry. Instead, I just stared without moving at the window. After I’d stared for awhile, I took a deep breath; a really, really deep breath. I made my brain as blank as possible; I didn’t contemplate what it would feel like to die. I didn’t think about death. I just laid still, without moving, staring at the window. Later, when I finally got up, I decided to check my phone. Every day, I get “writing prompts” from a couple of different places. I never use them. I don’t even really know why I have them coming to me via e-mail. I guess a part of me is always searching for those questions that provoke serious thought, believing that a life-changing set of words are just an e-mail away. I don’t know. Whatever, I never actually write a blog based on the prompts, but I get them. And I read them. Today, one of them said:
Write your eulogy.
I did not make this up. That’s what it said. And since I had just dreamed I’d died, the prompt stayed with me as I made breakfast, as I worked on measurements and time with the girls, as I cleaned the school supplies away. Write your eulogy.
I didn’t want to.
But it wouldn’t go away, either.
And then, for lunch, the girls and I decided to have a picnic in the backyard. So I fixed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and we took the sandwiches and strawberries outside, along with our “picnic quilt.” As we sat down and started eating, my youngest daughter exclaimed excitedly, “A red bird! A red bird!” I turned my head and, sure enough, a small red bird was perched on the top of our fence. After the five seconds of excitement, the girls went back to chatting and eating their sandwiches. But my mind was stuck on that bird. I saw a red bird.
Red birds mean luck.
By the time the girls finished eating their sandwiches and jumped up to fly down the zipline, my heart had softened and I whispered to myself, Okay, fine, morbid brain of mine. I’ll write the eulogy. Only it’s not going to be a eulogy for the dead Tiffini. Instead, the pen in my head started writing something quite different. Instead of commemorating a life already lived, the draft in my head commemorated a life rich in experience and beautiful time. Instead of a page about the person I was, I wrote about how others had shaped me, for the better, and how surrounding myself among the hurting had taught me to live with a grateful spirit. Instead of a page of mourning, what I wrote was instead a call to live each moment as though it’s my last because, in so doing, I might create a legacy that will one day speak for itself. What I wrote in my head wasn’t a eulogy, per se, but rather a collection of my most beloved and cherished memories because memories propel us into chasing or letting go of our dreams and memories remind us we’re cared for and that we matter as human beings. Memories make up the patchwork on our life’s quilt, each one staples itself and the feelings it inspired to our hearts.
So anyway, below is what I’d drafted in my head. It’s likely not to make much sense because it really came in movie-like scenes that flashed across my head but, in the end, these are the things, the memories, the places, the people and the feelings, that I ultimately want to carry with me.
One of the greatest fears of my life has been being forgotten. Not because I am so important but rather because I fear my loved ones never really understanding how much I love them. I’ve feared dying young ever since I was a teenager….and not because I fear death but rather because I fear not having enough time to make my children know they changed my world. I want them to feel secure in the knowledge that they are loved and adored; to really make them believe that, I need time. But in case I’m not given that time, there are a few things I want them to know, a few life lessons that I hope will carry them through whatever storms come their way. At my core, I am a relational activist. I want to connect with others and the greatest moments of my life have been those times in which I felt truly connected to another human being. We can learn so much from the memories we find ourselves cherishing and from the ones we find ourselves fearing. Before I can begin to recognize which lessons mean the most to me, I have to go back into the memory vault and see which ones I find significant enough to mention.
My earliest memory is sitting on a pair of wooden chairs in the vegetable with Mama O. I was about four or five, I guess. The sun was hot and she was in her purple dress—the same purple dress she wore almost every day for decades. Mostly, I sat in the chair and watched as she worked the garden. But, for awhile, she sat beside me and talked. I don’t remember what we talked about, only that I felt loved. So loved that even though she died when I was six years old, I still remember her. So loved that I still miss her, even though I didn’t really know her for very long. Love does that to you; it scorches you, engraves people and places into your mind and turns little things into big things. When she died, I sat in the windowsill of my grandparents’ house and cried because I couldn’t go to the funeral. Mama O stayed with me for years after that. I wrote her letters every, single year on her birthday and when, one year, I started feeling afraid because I couldn’t really remember her face very well, Mama gave me a picture of her and I slept with it under my pillow for years afterward. All because she made a hurting little girl feel loved. Love matters. Love doesn’t have anything to do with expensive presents; it’s not loud or flamboyant. It’s the small things, things like taking the time to sit with a child in a garden, things like not fussing when a child takes your cane and uses it to swat at the string from the lightbulb. And, when it’s real and sure, it changes a life, no matter how long or how short a time it’s with a person.
It was a normal night when I ran into the kitchen where my mother was making dinner and told her that I wanted to write a book. At this point, I’d already written at least two. I was about eight years old now, though, and certain that I could do it better and “for real.” I knew almost nothing about grammar or even character development. All I knew was that I loved stories and that I thought I wanted to write one. Not only did she tell me to do it, she sat and listened to my ideas. She got excited about my ideas. She helped me with plot twists. She bought me a baby name book so that I could have help naming my characters. In essence, she listened to a dream and she supported it. It didn’t matter that I was only eight years old. It didn’t matter that my writing probably sounded like an eight-year-olds. She thought writing was a good idea. Furthermore, she wasn’t the only one. A year or two later, teachers would ask me to read the books out loud to my classmates during circle time. When I got into high school, my English teacher, who had a doctorate’s degree, was so impressed with “Mountains of Hope” that she wrote what was quite possibly the best recommendation letter on the planet. My grandfather bought me blank tapes and a recorder so that I could record the stories for him to listen to, since he was blind. My aunt buys a copy of every book I’ve got. My point here is that I was among the lucky because, from the time I can remember, my dream was supported. No one ever laughed at me because I was writing. No one ever said they were terrible. No one told me that it was a waste of time. This not only encouraged me to write and to keep writing, it made me believe it was something special about me. It made me believe I was good at something. It made me believe it was important and that I should keep doing it. In essence, it taught me to believe in myself, even if just a little. Without the written word, I would not be the same person I am today. Without writing, I would not be okay. Without writing, I would have likely turned to other, more destructive, ways to cope. Dreams matter. Teaching our children to dream is one of the most important gifts we can give them.
Pain isn’t the focus. My youngest daughter was about two years old when I walked out of the house and got into the car. Before I cranked it, though, I automatically reached for a pair of sunglasses that I kept in the glove compartment. Then I stopped myself and looked out the windshield. I was blown away by how brilliantly colored the trees in my yard were. Everything was so bright. I got out of the car and stared at the daisies. I looked up and stared at the sky. I had never known how bright everything was. For as long as I could remember, I saw everything I looked at through Pain. I was so focused on surviving that I forgot how nice the wind was and how colorful the world. All I could see was getting through the next minute, the next hour, the next day, that I paralyzed myself. I couldn’t focus on having fun, I couldn’t focus on doing anything except getting through the day. I couldn’t appreciate how much this world has to offer because I was hurting so badly. I couldn’t think about the future because the pain made me doubt there even was a future. After that day in my driveway, though, I made a decision that I wanted to know what this world was like. I wanted to see it without the blinders. I wanted to feel it. And so, instead of hiding inside, we went outdoors. We danced in the rain. We moved rocks looking for slugs and ladybugs. We reveled in the sight of dirt on our fingers. I’ve not been immune to pain since then. It has still rocked my world more than once. But now, whenever something happens that hurts my heart, I make a concentrated effort to remember that it’s not the only thing in my world. The trees are still bright. The sky is still blue. The sun is still shining. Whenever I am hurting, I look for reasons to smile…. any reason. I got out of bed… that can sometimes be a reason to smile. The kids did their schoolwork without complaint? That’s a reason to smile. There’s a bug on my windshield? That bug is proof that things around me are living and so it is a reason to smile. Pain interrupts joy and everyone needs to allow themselves to feel it and to mourn; but pain is not the focus of life. Love is.
A stranger held a door open for me. The lady running the checkout at Wendy’s signed a petition I started to keep my dad in jail even though she did not know my name; only that I was trying to keep a “child abuser” behind bars. I received a card in the mail today from a woman I do not know that said she thinks I’m a good person. Strangers are friends we haven’t met. We’re taught to be afraid of strangers even though it’s rarely strangers who attack—mostly, those we know and love do that. Strangers are human beings. They have their own stories, their own challenges and their own triumphs. And we are all connected because we’re human. Life isn’t about running from people, it’s about running to them. I never forgot the stranger that held the door open for me and I won’t forget the other two strangers, either. Kindness matters.
I used to pray and ask God to hold my hand when I was hurting. He always did. When I was a teenager and writing a book about the Holocaust, Satan attacked me. I know it was him because I distinctly saw demons in my room, surrounding my bed, laughing at me. But prayer and light supported me and kept me safe. We can do all things through faith. Faith has enabled me to see hope where there really is none. Faith has taught me to believe in something greater than myself, in something more beautiful than myself, in something perfect. God is real.
When my oldest daughter was born, my life changed in ways I could never have anticipated. For the first time in my entire life, I had a valid and oh-so-special reason to speak up. Love for another person motivated me to seek help, to tell, no matter what the cost. When she was just a few years old, I looked at her and realized, “She could burn the house down and it would be an accident. She wouldn’t deserve to be violated.” That thought led to the earth-shattering one, “You were her age once too.” My youngest daughter has a zest for life that is contagious; she always wants to go somewhere and do something. She wants to enjoy life. Together, the two of them make up my world. And it has taught me a lot about innocence; that children are never to blame, that they matter and that they are capable of so much more than we give them credit for. Motherhood has been the greatest and richest gift God has ever given me, and it teaches me every day to be amazed at life, to stand in awe of it, and to love with every ounce of my entire heart. Children matter.
I’ve had my initials carved in bark. I’ve walked out on logs over water. I’ve danced in the rain. I’ve been overwhelmed with emotion. Fairy tales exist. No matter how hard life becomes, no matter what kind of issues you have to deal with collectively and individually, fairy tales exist. Happily-ever-afters aren’t just pretend.
There are a whole host of other experiences and people who have shaped me into the person I am. But these are the ones weighing on my heart right now. Thinking about them makes me happy. Come what may, I remain grateful and humbled to have experienced such laughter, such warmth, such support and such beauty from those around me. Come what may, I’m grateful to be the mother to two beautifully amazing girls who have given me an entire world of beauty and grace. Come what may, I’m grateful for life; I believe in its goodness and in its people. Come what may, I believe in life’s potential and its richness and its color and its value.