Tiffaney Banks was not naïve. She saw this coming. All of it.
So many times, she watched her sister, Tonya, go into the hospital. Another visit with specialists. Another round of chemo. Every so often, Tonya came out and proudly said she was cancer-free.
The problem was, it always came back.
“Unbelievable,” Tiffaney said. “I don’t think I’ve met anyone as tough as my sister was. She was so brave. ... It started off with a lump in the breast. It went from breast to the liver, spread to various parts of the body.”
Months turned into a year. Two years turned into five years. At some point, the whole family had to swallow a hard truth: Tonya, a single mother living in Shreveport, was about to lose the battle.
“She fought it to the very end,” Tiffaney said. “In the final stages, everybody kind of knew.”
That hard truth led to a hard question. What to do about Tonya’s two teenagers, Michael and Brianna?
All along, Tiffaney and her husband Roman, now the men’s basketball coach at Southern University, thought they might have to take on an extra burden.
So a year later, when Michael came down to the Banks’ home in Hammond for the summer and asked to stay for good, they were prepared.
And a year after that, when Brianna asked to do the same, they were prepared again.
It wasn’t a light decision. Tiffaney and Roman had two kids of their own, a son, Tre’lun, and a daughter, Kennedi. Taking in two more teenagers? It didn’t figure to be a breeze.
In truth, however, they felt there was only one answer.
“It’s tough, but I always thought that you tell the character of a person in times of distress,” Roman said. “There wasn’t any second-guessing of this. ... I just had to do it. We’ll make it some kind of way. It’s the right thing to do.”
It was 10:30 p.m. on a Thursday in late June, and in Hammond, most families were winding down after another lazy summer day.
Not the Bankses.
Only then were assorted members of the Banks household trickling in.
Roman, fresh from eight seasons as an assistant at Southeastern Louisiana, is chin-deep in a massive rebuilding project at SU; some nights, he gets home at 8, other nights, it’s 11.
Michael (Bud) Gray, 20, just returned home from a date. His sister, Brianna Gray, 19, just got in from work.
The family schedule looks like it’s been hit with an ink grenade. Bud and Brianna both work at a chicken-finger restaurant; Tre’lun has basketball games in far-flung places; Kennedi has dance classes.
There’s a daily battle for the car and a detailed plan on who picks up whom.
“Everybody’s always moving,” Tre’lun said. “We all get the job done, some way.”
Each kid has a responsibility at home — the trash, the lawn, the dishwasher. Small, but important, stuff.
Each kid has pets. Bud has two geckos and a Chinese water dragon (“Long lizards,” Roman calls them); Brianna has a hamster; Tre’lun, an iguana; Kennedi, a dog.
Roman’s wife, Tiffaney, just got back from New Orleans. A teacher at Hammond Junior High, she has spent most of her summer preparing kids for standardized tests, but on this night, she was watching Tre’lun play in a basketball tournament at Xavier.
An emerging talent, he made all-district last season as a sophomore at St. Thomas Aquinas; as a junior, he’ll play for his uncle, Carlos Sample, at Scotlandville, whose magnet program could be a good fit (Tre’lun is big on science classes).
“I grew up loving animals,” he said. “I kind of surprised them with the iguana. I just came in with the pet one day. ... But it’s cool. It’s a herbivore. You have to feed ’em cabbage and turnip greens, stuff like that. And you have to have it warm in there.”
Kennedi will turn 11 this month. She was born in Baton Rouge, when Roman was an assistant at SU. She, too, will have to find new friends and a new school when the family moves this summer. For the record, she’s OK with that.
Of course, this household has grown accustomed to big changes.
When Bud moved in three years ago, well, that was another belly to fill and another young man for the Banks family to guide. Bud eventually found his way; he’s now a shift captain at the restaurant and has taken on more responsibility at home, handling chores and shuttling Kennedi back and forth.
When Brianna came to Hammond, a year after her brother, that represented a huge change for Kennedi as well. For the first time, the dance-class princess had to share her bedroom.
Here’s the thing: Kennedi might’ve adjusted faster than anyone. She certainly lent a great perspective.
What did she think about?
“I liked it,” Kennedi says.
“Because I got more family here,” Kennedi says. “I was happy. Because with Brianna here, I wouldn’t be the only girl. And with Bud, I would have somebody else to argue with.”
Tonya died when Bud was a freshman at Evangel Christian Academy in Shreveport, Brianna an eighth-grader.
The Bankses were always close to Bud and Brianna, and they thought the kids might ask to move in immediately. Instead, they chose to live with their dad, Michael Gray Sr., in Fort Worth, Texas.
“We were respectful of that relationship,” Roman said, “but it didn’t really work out.”
Bud spent one year with his dad, then moved to Hammond for the summer. About a week before school started, he asked to stay.
“I just thought this was the best place for me,” he said.
Brianna, meanwhile, moved in with her grandfather in DeSoto, just outside Dallas. For the third time in three years, she was at a new school.
The next summer, she was back in Shreveport, talking with her older sister, Jasmine.
“She just thought that me moving to Hammond — that would be the best place for me. ... The beginning was difficult,” Brianna said. “But then you kind of settle in.”
It’s still difficult at times.
Quite naturally, they miss their mother. Roman and Tiffaney never shy away about discussing it with them; if they need to talk, they talk.
“Her memory is going to keep us up and keep us around,” Roman said.
Just last week, Brianna thought about all she and her brother had seen and been through together, and her emotions got the best of her.
Bud, for his part, fell a year behind in school.
Still, their journey toward adulthood keeps looking up. They have two strong role models now, and a stable household. Their two cousins, Tre’lun and Kennedi, are really more like siblings.
On May 21, 2010, with hordes of family members looking on, Bud and Brianna walked across the podium together, both graduates of Hammond High School.
“It was great. It was a relief,” Bud said. “My auntie stayed on me the whole year. I was like, ‘I made it.’”
Bud and Brianna both spent last year at Delgado Community College in Covington. They’ll transfer to BRCC this fall, and after that, Roman said, he hopes they can both find spots at a four-year school.
They’re not entirely sure what they want in a degree. But these days, they’re a little more certain about what they want from life.
Brianna: “Hopefully, I can graduate from college and get to where I have a stable life.”
Bud: “I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot. That was my reason for moving down here. ... In 12 months, maybe I’m staying on my own. I think that’s something I could handle.”
Who knew? Long after their mother fought breast cancer and lost, her two youngest children are still fighting to succeed. Given a second shot, they’re making the most of it — thanks to a family that saw it coming. All of it.
“You may not earn a reward for doing something like this,” Roman said. “But we believed it’s the right thing to do. That there’s a heavenly reward for it one day.”