Balloons hung from tables and chairs. Pizza, cake and gift bags filled with tissue paper decorated the tables.
Tiffany Turchetta’s mom, Bernadette, leaned back and closed her eyes briefly, and then opened them again, a smile crossing her face as she did. She watched proudly, beaming as her daughter adjusted her red Cranston High School West graduation cap and gown and reached for her diploma. She listened as the school’s principal, Tom Barbieri, spoke to Tiffany about how special this moment would be for her and for all in attendance at her graduation ceremony last Thursday afternoon.
“My mom’s only wish was to see me graduate,” Tiffany said. “So it’s really nice that she could see this.”
Tiffany’s mom has end-stage lung cancer and has been receiving care at Home & Hospice Care of Rhode Island in Providence. When it became clear recently that the June 14 Cranston West graduation ceremony would come too late for Bernadette to get her wish, Tiffany’s family and friends, her Cranston West family, members of the Cranston Public Schools administration and staff at Home & Hospice Care pulled together to make that wish come true.
On Thursday, May 22 at 1:30 p.m, a special graduation ceremony was held in a private function room for Tiffany. The room filled with so much emotion – happiness and sadness, mixed in with extreme pride and admiration for Tiffany and all she’s accomplished in the four years of high school, the same four years her mom has struggled with her illness.
A single mom, Bernadette raised Tiffany to be strong and confident, an independent woman ready to conquer the world upon her high school graduation – and all she wanted was to see it happen.
“It was just the two of us, and my mom has taught me everything I know,” Tiffany said. “Even though this is hard, she taught me to be independent so that I can rely on myself.”
Tiffany’s teachers, several of whom attended the special ceremony, each remarked on Tiffany’s amazing strength over the past four years as her mom’s primary caretaker, and most specifically over these past few months as her senior year was wrapping up and her mom’s illness progressing.
“I’ve had Tiffany in school for two years now, and she never once, ever asked for a single extra anything. For a long time, I didn’t even know her mom was sick,” said Holly Meyer, one of Tiffany’s science teachers. “This is a real testament to who you are, Tiffany, a testament to a maturity beyond your years.”
According to her guidance counselor, Deana Golini, Tiffany maintained a 3.9 GPA throughout her high school career, earning a spot in the Rhode Island Honor Society and performing community service for the Knights of Columbus as well.
“She never complained, she never asked for help. She just did what she was supposed to do, and she worked really hard,” Golini said. “She was accepted to all six colleges she applied to, and she’s chosen to attend UMass-Dartmouth majoring in 3D art.”
As part of the graduation ceremony, Golini presented Tiffany with the three awards that she would have received later that evening as West hosted its Senior Honors Night – induction to the Rhode Island Honor Society, the departmental award from the art department for Outstanding Art Student and the departmental award in social studies for Excellence in Sociology. Her mathematics teacher, Bob Cartwright, presented her with a certificate as well.
The Cranston West faculty and staff took care of every detail in planning last week’s ceremony. Social studies teacher Liz Romeiro brought Tiffany a dozen roses, saying, “It’s a tradition at Cranston West that each graduate receives a red rose at graduation, but we thought you deserved a whole rose garden.”
Golini presented Bernadette with an arrangement of flowers as well.
“These are for you, for raising such a wonderful daughter, a beautiful girl. You did such a wonderful job,” Golini said.
Barbieri expressed just one regret to Tiffany as he spoke to her during the ceremony.
“I regret that I have only known you for two years, as this is my second year as principal of West, but I know that this diploma is a ticket for you, a lifelong memory for you,” he said.
Barbieri later shared that he speaks to the topic of life moments during graduation, exploring the definition of a life moment with his graduates.
“For Tiffany, this is a life moment on so many different levels. We talk so many times about our students walking out into the unknown world, but for Tiffany, this will have a very different layer,” he said.
Barbieri was humbled by West’s inclusion in such a special moment in Tiffany’s life and drew on the strength of the West community when he spoke of her future.
“Tiffany’s a Falcon, she’ll always be a Falcon and she’ll always have our school to come back to for support,” he said.
Superintendent Dr. Judith Lundsten echoed Barbieri’s sentiments, and was proud of how the Cranston Public Schools family pulled together to give Tiffany and Bernadette such a special day.
“Cranston Public Schools is a true family, and we saw that today in this celebration,” she said. “Over the past couple of days as I was thinking of this upcoming event, I thought of myself as a mom. These are the significant events that we look forward to, that we want to be there for. As a mom, I’d want this for myself, and I am so pleased that we were able to provide that for her.”
At the end of the day, it was Bernadette who felt that she had truly received a most special gift – the opportunity to watch her only daughter turn her tassel and throw her cap into the air as she begins this next, bittersweet chapter in her life. There were times throughout the ceremony, when Bernadette almost could not believe her wish had been granted.
“I’m so glad, so proud,” she said. “Tiffany is so smart. Every time I opened my eyes, I’d think to myself, is this really happening? Is this real? But it was.”
Jen Cowart, who reported on this story, would like to help Tiffany by giving her a "giant care package" in conjunction with the fundraising that her high school has started. Jen's started a GoFundMe page, please find more information at http://www.gofundme.com/9l1qhk