GREENFIELD — They keep the letters in a memory box stashed away in the closet.
They pull them out on occasion, though it always leads to a flood of emotions. The sight of her sprawling handwriting — how it switches at random from print to cursive, how she uses a capitalized “r” in the middle or at the end of a word on occasion – brings tears to their eyes.
Ten years before she died, Tiffany Carter wrote her parents each a letter, thanking them for all they’d done for her. In the notes, she told Dean and Joan McFarland how much she appreciated their love and guidance throughout her life. She thanked her mother for the years of homework help and late-night chats, and she thanked her father for all the big bowls of popcorn they’d shared while watching movies. She thanked them both for instilling in her a deep Christian faith, a love for God and her community.
When the cancer took Carter away – four years ago in September — the McFarlands packed up their daughter’s notes, but they’ve never forgotten her words and how thankful they were to read them.
In addition to capturing her love and appreciation, they say the letters also captured Carter’s personality, her willingness to put others’ feelings before her own.
Carter was diagnosed with stomach cancer in May 2013. She thought the pain she was having in her abdomen was related to her diet, so she tried to fix the problem herself. By the time she made it to the doctor, the cancer was already Stage 4.
She battled the disease for just four months, declining treatment after just one round of chemotherapy, Dean McFarland said. She felt like the drugs made her sicker, and she wanted to live out what she knew were her last few days feeling as well as possible, he said.
Carter died Sept. 7, 2013, at the age of 42.
The years that have passed have been difficult, the McFarlands admit. Losing their daughter, saying goodbye to her a final time, hosting her funeral. These were painful days they find hard to describe.
But it taught them a lot, too.
“I want to carry on for her.”
As they try their best now to keep Carter’s memory alive – talking about her, sharing memories with her friends and their other three children – they try to live as she did in her last few days. They try to embody the strength she showed, celebrate their faith in the same way she did and spread to others the feeling of love and joy she always brought to their lives.
Carter was the youngest of the McFarlands’ four children. They love all three of their children deeply, but they always had a special bond with Carter.
When Carter married and moved to Hancock County with her husband, Lee, and daughter, Chloe, the McFarlands followed her, moving into a little house in Greenfield and making the place their home.
Carter was always strong in her faith. When she was a child, she asked her parents to let her transfer from a public school to a private, religious one, where she could grow equally in academics and creed.
That commitment showed as Carter got older.
She loved to be with people and to help them, her parents said. She had a wonderful smile that drew people closer to her. She hosted parties at her home in hopes of growing friendship with neighbors. She taught Sunday school and worked planning events for seniors living in local nursing homes.
Her parents say they hope that’s what people remember most about her. Even in the last days of the life, as she lay dying in hospice care at a hospital, she would ask the doctors and nurses who came to her bedside if they were believers.
It was like she knew her days were numbered, so she’d better get to work spreading her faith to as many people as possible, Dean McFarland said.
Now, they strive to do the same in her memory.
Dean volunteers with several county nonprofits, building anything from wheelchair ramps to churches. Joan attends mission trips, sometimes to other countries, where she can spread her faith just like her daughter did.
“I want to carry on for her,” Joan McFarland said.
Cancer type: Stomach
Date of diagnosis: May 2013
Status: Died September 2013