When I think of my dad, I think of the happy times we shared once he got clean — working on my little house together, walking our dogs in the park, going to Eat’n Park for breakfast.
He was sensitive, funny and kind, and I miss him every day.
But I also think of what it was like as a kid when my dad was using heroin. Driving to street corners in Carrick and Knoxville to buy tiny balloons, touching the cigarette burns in the couch from when he ‘fell asleep’ and missing the living room TV because he had sold it.
From a very young age, I knew my dad used drugs. I mentally prepared myself for the very real possibility that, at any moment, he could die. I would play over in my mind what his funeral would be like and what he would look like in his casket. It sounds morbid now, but I am a planner by nature and it made me feel more at ease to know what would happen once the inevitable call came.
I grew up during the ‘Just Say No’ years with classroom visits from police officers who explained to all of us how worthless addicts were. On D.A.R.E. day [Drug Abuse Resistance Education], I would feel hot shame course through my body as I was again reminded that my life wasn’t considered normal. I felt so alone. Who would I grow up to be? Could someone like me ever be ‘normal?’
My dad finally got clean when I was 15. He went out of state to detox. When he returned to Pittsburgh, he lived at the Salvation Army shelter until he could get his own place. Within a few years, he owned a house, a rental property and had a thriving construction business. He was alive in a way that I hadn’t seen before. He worked constantly and picked up new interests like golfing and riding his new motorcycle around town. It took a long time for me to see him as my dad and not as someone who would float in and out of my life. I resented him deeply and the way he just walked back into my life. But he didn’t give up and eventually the walls I had put up over the years came down.
He passed away nine years ago when I was 27. He was 51 years old. We got about 12 real years together.
When I went to college, I chose to major in education because I felt that, with my experience, I could relate to kids who needed the most help. When I was a kid, I got good grades but I spent so much energy trying to hide my dysfunctional family. When teachers would ask about my dad, I would lie. It was easier to say he moved away than to say that his phone was turned off and no one knew where he was. I never felt comfortable sharing what was really happening in my life.
School was a place I loved, and I deeply admired my teachers who seemed so perfect with framed photos of their families on their desks. I had a hard time imagining that someone like me could be successful. I try every day to make it easier on the kids who, like me, don’t feel normal or like they had the support to make something of themselves.
Never was the need for this more tangible than when I had a job coordinating an after school and summer camp program. The program served kids from the North Side who are experiencing poverty and considered to be at risk. One of the many components of my job was to pick up kids in the program in a large passenger van. One day while driving down Brighton Road, one of the kids said he was happy because he had gotten a letter from his uncle who was incarcerated. I told him that when I was a kid I also really loved getting letters from my dad when he was in jail. All of the kids in the van were shocked. “Teachers have dads in jail?”
I spent the rest of our trip explaining that yes, lots of people have parents and family members who are incarcerated and that it wasn’t something to be ashamed of. Those were the words I had always wanted (and needed) to hear as a kid.
Tiffini Simoneaux is the early childhood manager in the Bureau of Neighborhood Empowerment in the Office of Mayor William Peduto. She is a native of Carrick and resides in Stanton Heights. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @tiffini_gorman.
Edited by Halle Stockton and Mila Sanina.
Web design and development by Natasha Khan.
Top photo: Tiffini Simoneaux holds a photograph of her father, Donny Gorman, and her as a baby in Carrick, the neighborhood where she grew up. (Photo by Maranie R. Staab/PublicSource)
This project has been made possible with the generous support of the Staunton Farm Foundation.