I felt sorry for her, the girl with crippled hands who had come to our Frassati dinner, so I invited her to come to my birthday party. I now wince at the subtle condescension in my offer, as though I were bestowing a kindness. I think of the woman at the well believing she is being asked to do Jesus a favor…. Meanwhile! “If you only knew the gift of God…” He tells her.
Tiffiny came to my birthday party at Max Brenner later that week, and so began my friendship with a saint.
We bonded at first over fine chocolate and our mutual love of good food. Tiffiny was one who fully entered into and enjoyed life. Her tastes tended toward the gourmet; she loved music, loved to dance, loved a good time with friends of all kinds.
She was very accomplished—we only learned how much so, in small doses over time, as she rarely spoke about herself. It would be a casual remark “that time when I was recruited by the FBI and studied body language” or a brief anecdote about playing on the national golf circuit, or writing music and choreography at Carnegie Hall, or about the friends made while working in the fashion industry. We would often laugh at how very many different areas she was gifted in, and how often we were taken by surprise by newly revealed talents.
Tiffiny was a facilities manager at Fidessa in downtown Manhattan when the planes flew into the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. She was a witness to the carnage that day. Then, in part because of her service to others (including helping to pack up the personal effects of those who had fled), she became a victim herself.
It was then that she contracted toxic mercury poisoning, which triggered scleroderma. Scleroderma is a fatal autoimmune disease which causes a hardening of the skin and organs, and was responsible for the disfigurement of her hands and face which I noticed that first day. It also caused worse damage internally, and profound physical pain and suffering. Before Tiffiny, the longest anyone had survived this diagnosis was only ten years. Tiffiny lived for fifteen more years, until 2016, her body and abilities slowly giving out on her, but her soul was only strengthened by her sacrifice.
Many friends have remembered how Tiffiny listened patiently to our complaints, and we only realized later how much her suffering in those moments eclipsed our own often silly complaints. Even while sick, Tiffiny’s schedule and accomplishments were amazing. I thought I was busy and hardworking as a healthy person, but what she did put me in the shade. Her joy was contagious, witnessed not only by those who shared her faith but by people of all walks of life. “That girl is a saint” said the security officer in the building where she worked. So many people were drawn to her, testifying to a life that was not hidden under a bushel but visible and always attractive.
I didn’t always see eye-to-eye with her. Actually, when she first took over as leader of Frassati, I thought she was crazy. We had started preparing monthly dinners after Mass at St. Vincent Ferrer, and things were not going smoothly. I was ready to quit, having prepared the last one alone in the kitchen without help until five minutes before serving time. Tiffiny’s first idea was to put out vases of flowers on the tables, and add table cloths (light blue, for Our Lady). “You want to add more work?!?” I asked incredulously.
She was right, of course, as is evidenced by the fact that years later, our dinners host more than 140 people. She knew that it was the little things that mattered, that beauty mattered, that hospitality was more than just meeting physical needs.
It was Tiffiny who began our weekly bible study, taught by then Brother Sebastian, ensuring that our friendships were formed around the faith. When we had picnics or other events, they would always be preceded or followed by Holy Hour and/or Mass.
It was Tiffiny who taught me about prayer, taught me that it mattered, that it made a difference. When she prayed for me, things happened. More than once, I physically felt her prayers from afar. She would occasionally be given prophetic words for me “X will happen as you are hoping, but Y will not.”
I would learn that this was because when she said “I will pray for you” it wasn’t a throw-away line—she meant it. She would spend hours each night in prayer, in the presence of Jesus and Our Lady and the saints and angels, who she spoke of with intimacy and affection, as though she knew them personally. I would later learn that she did—her life was touched with mysticism.
She was as a friend encouraging and supportive, but not afraid to challenge me. “What makes you think that will make you happy?” she would interrupt my complaints, startling me into looking twice. Or “But that is changing, isn’t it?” regarding something she had been praying for, and knew God was answering, before I did. Sometimes she would stop me in mid-conversation: “Hold on, I am trying to hear what God wants me to say to you” and then deliver a wisdom that could only be supernatural.
It was her insistence that God was good, and her personal affection for Him and for Our Lady, in spite of all of her suffering, that was most formative for me. Prior to her I saw God’s love only in providence and blessing, not in things that went wrong. At best I would remark with Saint Teresa of Avila, “if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!”
Tiffiny however saw her illness not as abandonment by God, but as fulfillment of her greatest desire—that He be at the center of her life.
In Tiffiny’s own words (from an interview in 2011)1:
In 1998, I had begged Him to show Himself more in my life, and from that day He has been preparing me for this, my cross. I was on my way to a fashion show when I got the diagnosis [of scleroderma]. I remember that I went to the show anyway, on the arm of a friend. I think I must have immediately given everything into God’s hands in order to continue with my daily life as I did. I went on with great hope and promise, which came from Another….
…It was almost a relief to know I would have to depend on him now. God had to take each one of my gifts and talents away one by one for me to see what the real Gift is. My life is no longer who I know, all my contacts, what I can do — because I can no longer do what I was able to do physically. Now my life is just him, on whom I fully depend. I still work in finance, designing office spaces. I can’t play music anymore, but I still have my voice and I am composing music with the help of friends. I have to give everything to everyone because I am so dependent. But if I had not already been in a relationship of dependence on Christ, accepting so much help would be unbearable. Instead, my friends are signs of him for me.
Two years ago this week, on August 5th, 2016, Tiffiny went home to Him. Tiffiny, our saintly friend, pray for us!
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1The interview quoted initially appeared in Traces magazine. The link is no longer available but was here.