Dorri and I met John and Tiffany at Social Grounds. Their features showed characteristics of youth, or at least the youth of people in their twenties. Yet, the years had been hard, and it painted a picture on their faces of two much older people. They had already experienced enough hardship to last a lifetime.
At the time of the interview, John was about to turn twenty-eight. His story began with a white picket fence cover, yet inside the pages of his story, there was much more to discover. John was raised by a respectable family in Jacksonville and attended Light House Christian School. As I listened to the beginning of his story, I wondered where John would be going, how that beginning turned to a life on the streets. I found that sometimes the answer is not all that clear, because we cannot step inside another person’s mind and feel each event the way that person feels it for themselves.
John told his story with long pauses and shared looks with his wife, Tiffany. I sensed the communication taking place in the glances between them, and patiently waited as John shared his story, picking and choosing, it appeared, what parts of his world we would be able to view.
John learned that he had been adopted at the age of eighteen months. He later described his adoptive mother as being bipolar. He did not mention if this was an official diagnosis. For John, in those moments when being a child in his adoptive home became difficult, his mind wandered, and each question dug a small hole in his mind. Through time, that hole became a crater filled with questions that needed answers for him to feel complete.
John met his biological family at the age of eighteen after his adoptive mom made him move out. When he first pulled into the driveway of a house that, for so long, was not allowed to be his home, his biological sister ran out to greet him. From there, he walked into an environment peppered with prostitution and drugs. Accepting the family that he had craved, meant he had to accept them with all their flaws. Instead of his life becoming complete by reuniting with his family, it began to spiral. There were many reasons John’s biological mom was not the woman who raised him, yet he needed her and his siblings in his life even if they brought with them some darkness.
John learned that the state had taken him away from his family due to drug use and prostitution. The state placed him in a foster home, and it was that family who adopted him. John learned that he had one brother and one sister who his mother raised. He also had five half-sisters that were raised by someone else. His biological mother insists that the adoptive mother kept them apart, a fact that bothered John.
John also met his grandmother, but his time with her was cut short. When she passed, she took with her untold stories. John felt a tremendous loss, not just for the woman, but for a piece of himself that he would never get to know.
His biological family began to argue amongst themselves after her death. His mother moved to Virginia, and his brother ended up in prison, where he later died of lymphoma. For some time before this, he alternated between his biological and adoptive families, depending on the situation. John was left struggling to understand who he was amid two worlds that failed to help him define himself.
John shared that he has a three old son with a genetic brain development condition. His son lives with the mom’s ex-boyfriend’s family because the mother is in jail for child abuse and neglect. John insists that the family lied on the birth certificate and put the ex-boyfriend’s name as the father. He is working on getting a DNA test to prove this fact.
Tiffany’s first home was the backseat of her parents’ car, which she lived in for the first eight months of her life. Her maternal grandmother ended the situation by having her placed with her adoptive parents, people she knew. Tiffany described her adoptive father as a good man, but her relationship with her adoptive mother was strained. Soon after Tiffany was adopted, the adoptive mother became pregnant with a daughter.
Tiffany describes her life as a Cinderella story without the fairy tale happy ending. She states that her mother abused her when she did something incorrectly. She also sites another inconsistency in the parenting. Tiffany’s sister was given a Mustang at the age of sixteen, while Tiffany worked to pay for her first car at the age of eighteen.
When Tiffany was seventeen or eighteen, she went to her biological grandmother’s house, where she met her biological mother and three of her half-brothers, which were all younger than her. Tiffany learned that her mother had six children in all. Tiffany and her older brother went to adoptive parents, while one went to live with her father. The state took the three youngest brothers and kept two of them in the same home.
Tiffany married young due to being pregnant. In 2010 she gave birth to a little girl, and in 2013 she had a son. She lived with her husband and his parents, and although she claims her husband was a good father, he was an abusive spouse. Even when she was pregnant, he would hit and kick her. In 2017, at the age of twenty-seven, she left him and her children.
At that time, she got a job working with her father and lived with some of her coworkers. It was about this time that she met John through mutual friends. John was doing work for his landlord, who gave him free housing for his services. Tiffany would occasionally stay at his house with him. Romance soon began, and in 2018, they traveled to Missouri together to see her brothers and got married at a Tuesday night Bible study. She started cleaning houses there, but when the cold got too much for them, John and Tiffany came back to Florida.
At this point, the young couple is living in a tent under a bridge. John and Tiffany’s only issue, they say, is the sound of the traffic.
John and Tiffany’s lives are messy and complicated. They were born into worlds that consisted of homelessness, prostitution, drugs, neglect, and abuse. I asked them what their hopes for the future are, and they discussed dreams that would be difficult to attain. They want a home and their children back. John spoke of having musical talents and scholarships awaiting him at different Christian colleges if he chose to take advantage of them. Tiffany spoke of once wanting to be a medical assistant but now considers being a masseuse.
I felt frustrated at the end of the interview. How could I show John and Tiffany that life could be so much better when their reality had been so dark for so long. They were viewing their lives through glasses I had never looked through, and I didn’t have the answers.
I sensed that for each piece of themselves they shared, there was much more darkness to their stories that they chose to keep private. How do you dream of something you have never had the blessing of knowing, truly knowing? I thought about family and how big the responsibility is when we choose to begin one. How beautiful the birth of a child is when love awaits them, love and stability in an unpredictable rocky world. I am blessed that my children’s beginnings came from a place of warmth and love. Not every moment has been pretty, and I by no means handled all the parenting situations the way I wish I would have. I failed many times. Yet love washed away many of my mistakes.
Then I think about the heat of a car in Florida’s summer and baby Tiffany opening her eyes for the first time to learn that her nursery would be only that. I think of young John, wondering why his family gave him up, and how he walked into a world of darkness that somehow sucked him in and made him lost within it while trying to find himself.
Is there indeed anything more important than being a parent and instilling in our children the knowledge that they deserve to be loved and to feel secure? What has greater value than teaching our children how to love others and themselves, to believe in their capabilities, and that they have something to offer this world? In succeeding with the task, we teach them how to create loving homes for the next generation?
I don’t have the answers, but I do know that John and Tiffany’s journey will be difficult because the family unit broke down for them. We are all born into this world deserving the fulfillment of basic needs: to be loved, to be cared for, to be cherished. It’s a cycle that is worth investing our energies into to assure that it will be repeated generation after generation.
***The interviews are told from the interviewees’ perspectives and are not verified beyond their word. If there are untruths and inconsistencies, there are also many truths, enough that we as readers can step into their world and understand the need for change.
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