My niece, Tina, was born when my sister, Nita, was still in high school Nita’s friends would come over, and they’d all go upstairs to “play with the baby.” Tina had more ruffled dresses, frilly bonnets and darling pajamas than there were days in a month. Before she had time to grow from one size into the next, another entire wardrobe would show up, one outfit at a time, gifts from doting teen-aged girls. By the time she took her first steps, Tina had been the subject of hundreds of professional and amateur photographs.
In spite of the many high-school girls that adored her, several young aunts that dearly loved her, and her firm position as my mother’s favorite granddaughter, Tina was not a spoiled child. She had piercing, dark eyes and a toothy grin that gave her a look that combined thoughtful intelligence with clownish good humor. It suited her. She was a bright child, a fast learner, and an exceptional student. She never seemed to take herself, or the world, too seriously. She was quick to smile, and her giggle was contagious.
Because she was close in age to my daughter, Kate, they paired up as cousin-friends whenever the family gathered. Tina came to my house for birthday parties and overnight stays. As an adult, she often mentioned how kind I had been to her when she slept at my house, even though she wet the bed. Having been a bed-wetter myself until I was past eight years old, I always treated those occurrences like the accidents they were, no matter who the child was. Though I was glad she remembered that I was nice about it, I honestly have no memory of the incident.
Once, while drinking, my sister Nita was going on about how beautiful my daughters were. With Tina sitting beside her, I said, “Nita, all of us have beautiful children!” Nita waved her hand dismissively in her daughter’s direction, and said, “No, but your daughters…” I know what she meant: she was trying to give me a compliment about my girls; it wasn’t about all children, and it wasn’t about her daughter. Plus, she was tipsy.
Still, I saw Tina’s face fall. I wondered if I had ever inadvertently broken the hearts of my own daughters like that, without realizing it. Then, Tina waved her hand right back in her mother’s direction, shrugged her shoulders, and mouthed, “She’s drunk.” Then she grinned.
As the years went by, our family grew up and stretched out in all directions. The years – a distant memory – when we all got together for Sunday dinner gave way to years where many miles and many states separated us. We gathered, then, infrequently, and too often for funerals. Social media and occasional telephone calls helped us keep in touch.
In recent years, Tina had moved around the country, and then settled in Texas. She came back to Michigan for a visit when my Mom was ill, and then to stay when her own Mom was dying. Clearly, extensive alcohol and drug use had taken a toll. Even more evident was her rejection of any lifestyle other than the one she had chosen, or fallen into. She declined all offers of help.
Shortly after her mother’s funeral, Tina packed up her belongings and headed south, to New Orleans. From a distance, we watched her roller-coaster life from sporadic posts to social media. Photos often showed her with lidded eyes and a vague smile, dressed in one goofy costume after another. She got an apartment…but then the place was flooded during a hurricane. She sobered up, from time to time, but it was hard. And definitely “not fun.”
Tina sometimes put out vague requests for money, or complained that she got no help. Once, I sent her a private message, scolding her for saying she had no support, when she deliberately moved far away from people that loved her, and that could help her. “Sorry, Aunt Cindy,” she answered, “I didn’t mean to post that…still trying to figure out my phone.”
Often her posts were pleas for affection, and her aunts and cousins and friends would jump in to reassure her, “hang in there, Tina,” and “we love you!” Tina and Kate had long, rambling text-message conversations that would go on for days. “Wow, you got old,” Tina told her once, in response to Kate having to either go to work, or get some sleep.
Last weekend, while out walking, Tina was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver. Suddenly, I live in a world without Tina in it. And even though she was far away, not a big presence in my life, and often aggravated me, this feels like a big loss. Maybe greater because she was so far away from all of my memories of her. Maybe because she died alone.
Tina, I hope you knew that your aunts and cousins and long-distance friends kept track of you as well as we could, that we missed you, and worried about you, and cheered your progress. I hope you knew that you were beautiful. I hope you always felt loved. Good-bye, sweet girl.