Eva Tindle's cousin forced this blind date on her.
"He's going to take one look at this chubby lady and hit the road," Eva thought as she got ready.
She didn't want this. It was 2003 and Eva was nearly 50. After several marriages and relationships, she didn't want to mess with it anymore. She was still trying to overcome the ghosts of her childhood. Her dad drank. She remembers him holding a gun to her head when she was only 5, saying he would kill Eva if her mother didn't confess to having a boyfriend.
She remembers running, often, to her grandparents' house for help when her dad was beating on her mom.
As an adult — her parents and grandparents long dead — Eva still didn't feel like she was good enough. She went to church and wanted to turn all of the bad things that happened to her into good things. But sometimes, that was hard, and on that day of the blind date, she was resigned to a quiet life. Her only child, a daughter, was grown with kids of her own. Eva still dreamed of having a bustling house full of children who went through what she did and needed love. That seemed out of reach.
Her date knocked on the door.
• • •
David Knowles thought he'd been in love before but, in that moment, he knew he hadn't. He could see her goodness, her pure heart. She was short and soft, with an apple doll face. Her voice was comforting, like the feeling of waking up and smelling coffee and pancakes coming from the kitchen and knowing someone who cares made it for you.
Eva felt her heart melting. This was the last thing she expected.
"I've kissed a lot of frogs to get to you," she told David, who was lean and rugged, with rough hands that built things and fixed things: houses, plumbing, electricity. He had his own ghosts — as a child, he watched his father drown and that weighed heavily on him. David had been married for 25 years but it ended badly. They never had children. David turned into a loner who yearned for a family.
Two months after their first date, David proposed. They were married that year. Eva worked as a cook for a hospice center. David delivered milk crates to schools. They decided to become foster parents and went through the training and checks. But getting wounded children and sending them back didn't last long.
Eva and David adopted three brothers — Elijah, now 4, Jeremiah, 5, and Devin, 8.
Then came Trina, 5.
In March, Eva, now 56, and David, 54, went to the courthouse to complete their latest adoption — a brother and sister, Dylan, 6, and Julia, 4. Their home was what they wanted it to be — small hands holding theirs, little voices saying "Mama" and "Daddy," tiny bicycles lined up on the carport, bunk beds, homework. David built a huge wooden jungle gym in the back yard. They rescued two dogs; the children named them Sally and Flap Jack.
But they had one bedroom left. At the courthouse, Eva and David ran into Andrea Lancaster, a caseworker for Youth and Family Alternatives. Eva and David told her they wanted to adopt one more child — but this time, a teenager.
They didn't know they were answering the prayers of dozens of people. Andrea said she had the perfect child — a girl turning 18 very soon, who dreamed of finding a family before she aged out of the system.
"Tiffany," Andrea said.
Tiffany's parents used drugs and beat each other. She remembers blood.
"I remember everything," she said.
She and her older sister and younger brother were removed from the home in 2004. Her siblings were adopted, but Tiffany wasn't. She says she moved 36 times before ending up at Hope Youth Ranch, a residential therapeutic group home in Hudson. Executive director Jose Suarez said that when Tiffany arrived there three years ago, she picked at her skin so badly she was covered in more than 300 open sores. She had nervous tics. She was angry. She fought.
"I stopped trusting people," Tiffany said.
She could also be bubbly and kind. She was featured on television and with the Heart Gallery, a charity that features portraits and descriptions of children available for adoption. Linda Rotz, adoptions supervisor with Youth and Family Alternatives, said every time Tiffany went to an event, she would say, "Is this the time you think I'll find my adoptive mom and dad?"
But when a family was interested, Tiffany would act out.
"She never believed she was good enough to be wanted forever," Linda said.
In February, Rotz drove Tiffany to an adoption event at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Rotz and others who met Tiffany over the years worried she wouldn't find a family before she turned 18. Some foster children are okay living on their own. They didn't think Tiffany would be. If she aged out of the system, there would still be some financial help for her — but not the emotional support of a family.
"Help me find a family for you," Rotz said in the car. She asked Tiffany why she pushed away potential families.
"I was testing them to see if they would want me even when I'm bad," Tiffany said.
Rotz told her to open her heart.
"You deserve to have a family," she said.
When Tiffany heard that Eva and David wanted to meet her, she cried. She had a feeling that this time, finally, was the one.
Tiffany stayed at their home during spring break in early April. On her second day, she asked if it would be okay if she called them Mom and Dad.
"That would make us very proud," Eva and David said.
Tiffany fit in. She could feel it.
"I can trust them," she thought.
When she left, the kids kept asking Eva and David, "When is Sissy coming back?"
She moved in permanently shortly after that. To Eva and David, it was very simple. They loved her. It was her dream to have a family and they could give that to her, so they would.
A family at last
On Thursday they legally adopted her, in front of a packed courtroom full of people who rooted for Tiffany — adoption workers, former foster families, even the attorney who handled her case when she entered the foster care system. They came with gifts and balloons and cake. Tiffany didn't sleep much in the days before the adoption. She feared Eva and David would change their minds, no matter how many times they told her she was their daughter.
"Do you feel you can financially and emotionally support this child?" attorney Lisa Jayson asked Eva and David, who sat up front with Tiffany.
"She's a wonderful girl and we love her very much," Eva said. "She just needed a home."
"Every child needs a break in life," David said, "and Tiffany needed a break."
Judge William Webb granted the petition.
Tiffany was officially Tiffany Renee Knowles.
Her mother cried.
"I love you," Eva said, hugging Tiffany tightly. Her dad kissed her on the cheek. Tiffany turned toward the judge.
"Can I give you a hug?" Tiffany asked Judge Webb, who seemed taken aback, but agreed. She wrapped her arms around him.
"I'm really happy for you," Webb said. "Really happy."
Tiffany — glowing, bouncy — posed for photos with her mom and dad and brothers and sisters.
"I'm so happy," she said.
Today is Tiffany's 18th birthday. Eva and David are throwing her a Hawaiian luau party at a park, with pork and chicken, rice with pineapples, salads, sandwiches, chips and punch. Eva picked the theme because it seemed happy and bright. Tiffany is getting her own bike, so she can ride with the family. She'll be a senior next year and, after high school, she wants to be a chef. Just like her mom.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.