Tiran Jackson learns to harness the power of resilience after a life-altering tragedy.

In March of 2018, Tiran and Maleka Jackson of Woodstock booked a trip to the Bahamas to celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary.

A year earlier, Maleka had taken a Caribbean vacation with her sorority sisters and swam with dolphins. She had dreamed of doing something like that with her husband.

They booked a stay at the Sandals Emerald Bay Resort on the shores of Exuma, a district consisting of more than 365 islands.

The months leading up to their July 1 anniversary were hectic. Maleka had just gotten a promotion at her job as a senior manager for diversity and inclusion for a real estate firm. The new job had her traveling constantly and when she wasn’t traveling, Tiran, an engineer, was.

They needed a vacation.

“We wanted a way to spend time and connect,” Tiran said. “It was something that we needed to do for our relationship.”

On June 28, after dropping their son, Cameron, off at relatives in Nashville, Tiran and Maleka boarded a plane to the Bahamas.

When they arrived they were bombarded with barkers handing them fliers for excursions. One was for an excursion run by Four C’s Adventures to the uninhabited Big Major Cay to swim with feral pigs. They were skeptical at first, but that was the only thing that Maleka definitely wanted to do on the trip. After checking with the resort concierge, who gave Four C’s Adventures a thumbs up, they booked it.

On the morning of June 30, Maleka and Tiran boarded a bus outside of the resort, where they struck up a casual conversation with Chris Clark, former offensive lineman for the Carolina Panthers, and his wife Stacy. Two boats were scheduled to go to Pig Island that morning. They parted ways at the docks. The Clarks had opted for the all-day trip; the Jacksons were taking the half-day tour.

Along with eight other passengers, Tiran and Maleka boarded the 38-foot, gas-powered aluminum vessel and took a seat in the third row. Tiran sat to the left of Maleka with his hand over her shoulder as they set sail on the 20-mile round trip voyage.

The water was warm and the sky was a perfect Caribbean blue.

“I am thinking this is gonna be a great day,” Tiran said. He had no idea it would be his worst day ever.

Credit: Tiran Jackson

Credit: Tiran Jackson

‘Like a crime scene’

From their boat, the Clarks watched the Jacksons’ boat take off and turn a corner around the island, still in shallow water.

“They disappeared around the curve. In 20 seconds, we heard the loudest boom you can hear. I never heard an explosion like that,” Clark said. “We roll around and the boat is inflamed, and we see people in the water. People are screaming.”

Thick black smoke blotted the clear blue Bahamian sky. Flames jumped off the boat.

The first person Clark saw was Maleka standing in the water holding a little girl in her arms.

“She looked fine. She looked unbothered, consoling a child,” Clark said of Maleka. “She was not screaming, not in shock.”

Tiran, who doesn’t remember the blast, was knocked unconscious on the bottom of the boat. He woke up to his right thigh on fire. His left leg was split open and his ankle was dangling, exposing the bone.

He went into shock.

Tiran tried to push himself up to get off the flaming boat, but his collarbone was broken. He dragged his broken body across the boat but passed out again.

Who knows how Tiran got off the boat, but Clark, who had blocked for Cam Newton, waded into the bloody water to carry him to the second boat.

“It was like lifting dead weight,” said Clark, who retired in 2020 after 12 years in the NFL. “The boat was like a crime scene. Blood everywhere. Limbs missing. Tears. It was like a horror movie.”

Tiran kept asking for Maleka, but another boat had picked her up.

“I thought Maleka was good,” Clark said.

When Tiran arrived at the George Town Community Clinic in the capital of Exuma, the scene was chaotic. He could hear Maleka crying in agony, “fighting for her life.”

After a while, Tiran asked an EMT how Maleka was. In his thick Bahamian accent, he said “she’s good,” Tiran thought.

It would be hours later that Tiran realized that he meant, “she’s dead.”

Manslaughter charges

It wasn’t until Tiran was transported to the hospital in Nassau that he learned Maleka had died at the clinic.

“At that point, I am heartbroken. All I could do was cry. Why did this happen to us? I remember crying myself to sleep.”

He called Cameron Sunday morning to tell him that his mother wasn’t coming home.

Tiran’s sister, ReVonda, arrived in Nassau that Sunday and demanded her brother be flown to Fort Lauderdale, for treatment in a U.S. hospital. All of his vitals were off the chart, his blood pressure was skyrocketing and his foot had become infected. The clinic sent a priest to pray over him. Tiran expected to die in the Bahamas.

“They bandaged my leg and were just giving me pain meds, prolonging my inevitable death,” Tiran said. “Had I stayed in the Bahamas two more days, I would have been dead.”

Of the 10 passengers on the boat, Maleka was the lone fatality. Her cause of death was listed as “complications of blunt force trauma to the lower extremities.” But the carnage from the blast sent everybody on board to the hospital with a range of injuries.

Doctors in Fort Lauderdale immediately agreed that Tiran’s leg had to be amputated to save his life. Stefanie Schaffer, a 22-year-old student who was vacationing with her family from Vermont, lost both of her legs in the explosion.

Clayton Smith, the owner of Four C’s Adventures, and Roderick Watson, the captain of the boat, have been charged with manslaughter in Maleka’s death.

A devastating report by the Bahamas Maritime Authority found that the boat was not registered with the Port Department and had never been inspected.

According to the report, it was a homemade vessel that did not meet safety standards. No technical drawings were used to build it, and the boat’s fuel fill and vent hose were substandard. The boat was holding two gasoline tanks with a capacity of 120 gallons each when it exploded.

“Under no circumstances” should Four C’s have operated the “craft on a commercial basis,” investigators wrote in their report.

After the accident, the Bahamian Ministry of Transport and Aviation ordered Four C’s Adventures to cease operations. But today, the company is still offering tours.

Tiran plans to pursue a civil case once the criminal case is adjudicated. He anticipates going back to the Bahamas for the first time since the accident in August to testify in the criminal case.

Credit: GoFundMe

Credit: GoFundMe

Third time lucky

Tiran and Maleka first crossed paths in the late 1990s when they were both students at Tennessee State University, a Black college in Nashville.

They were familiar with each other because Maleka was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and Tiran is a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity.

Maleka graduated from TSU in December 2000 and got a job teaching in Nashville. One night, out partying with some of her sorority sisters, she ran into Tiran at a club. Twice she turned down his invitation to dance, but she relented on the third — and according to Tiran — final ask.

They went on their first formal date on Valentine’s Day and became a couple. They got married on July 1, 2003. Their only child, a son, Cameron, was born in 2005, while Tiran was working as an engineer for Rolls Royce in Indianapolis.

The winters were rough, and Maleka, who was originally from Chattanooga, struggled with the bitter cold.

“I remember once where it snowed for eight straight weekends,” said Tiran, who is from Florence, Alabama. “It was depressing her. We put a plan in place to get back closer to the South.”

In 2009, they moved to Atlanta and built a fulfilling life.

Credit: Tiran Jackson

Credit: Tiran Jackson

‘Angry at God’

Tiran remained in North Broward Hospital for nearly two weeks. Maleka was buried seven days after he was released.

“It was rough on him,” said Tiran’s fraternity brother Chris Jones, who served as his bodyguard during the funeral, literally protecting his fragile body from well-meaning mourners. “It is one thing to have to cope with the loss of your spouse, then have to figure out how you are going to deal with the loss of your leg. My heart went out to him and Cameron.”

While Cameron stayed with relatives, Tiran recovered at ReVonda’s house in Nashville. He suffered nightmares, lost 30 pounds and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.

“My moods were all over the place, and my sister had to watch me to make sure that I wasn’t going to too dark of a place,” Tiran said.

Tiran was “angry at God,” and still struggles to talk about the first time Cameron saw him after the accident.

“It was a shock for him to see me, and it took Cameron a while to get to a point of acceptance that Maleka was no longer here,” Tiran said. “His grades dropped and he struggled to focus. He would get angry and mad.”

Tiran recalled a conversation with Maleka a year before the accident. It was about death and what they would do if one of them died. Maleka told him that if she died first, she wanted Tiran to go back out in the world and be happy.

“But most importantly, she wanted me to make sure that the only part of her that was still here on this Earth was well taken care of. And that was our son,” Tiran said. “That was the trigger. I needed to get back on my feet physically and emotionally. I had to get myself together to be strong for Cameron.”

Credit: Chris Day

Credit: Chris Day

Rebuilding a new life

When he got back to Atlanta, Tiran began intensive work to rebuild himself, physically and mentally, with therapy and rehab.

Three months after the accident, he was walking on a prosthetic. He was jogging soon after. Just nine months after the accident, he struggled through his first 5K.

But he finished.

He even looks different. His daily workouts have packed muscles on his once slight frame. His hair, previously corporate short, is now styled in a trendy afro, to go with his new beard.

Less than a year after the accident, a friend invited Tiran to speak to a group at an insurance conference. He wasn’t emotionally ready, but he agreed.

Tiran broke down several times delivering that speech, but it sparked something in him. People needed to hear his story, so he continued to tell it.

At conferences, on podcasts, at churches and at hospitals, he looked out at audiences of people who were also dealing with physical and emotional pain. Never a speaker before, Tiran became comfortable talking about how he bounced back and reshaped his life after the accident. But it is still hard for him to get through his story without crying.

“I started seeing how I was helping people,” said Tiran, who no longer works as an engineer. “I saw the transformation in me. There was a level of empathy, willingness and sacrifice that I needed to understand.”

In 2019, Tiran started Reborn Resilient, a coaching and motivational speaker service where he focuses on the mental health of Black men to get them to “look within and rediscover the courage, strength and clarity to overcome.”

Credit: Tiran Jackson

Credit: Tiran Jackson

A hand to hold

In October 2019, not long after the one-year anniversary of the boating accident that killed Maleka, Tiran returned to their alma mater, Tennessee State University, for homecoming.

It was going to be an important trip.

It would be the first time since the accident, that he would be back among the friends that he and Maleka had gone to college with. He was also announcing that he was setting up the Maleka Jackson Scholarship Endowment Foundation, for qualified TSU students from Atlanta, Chattanooga, Nashville and Indianapolis.

He was at a tailgate party when he literally bumped into Kaye Ross.

The Tampa, Florida, resident was in Nashville that weekend visiting friends.

She had heard the story of the man who lost his leg in a boating accident that killed his wife but had no idea that it was Tiran. Her friends told her that Tiran was a widower, but they didn’t tell her the circumstances. He was wearing pants the day they met, so she didn’t notice his prosthetic.

“It was odd that so many people knew, but they didn’t tell her,” Tiran said.

But they clicked. Tiran took a selfie with Kaye and promised to text it to her, a ploy to get her number.

At one point, Tiran grabbed Kaye’s hand and absent-mindedly didn’t let it go.

“I thought, ‘Why is he holding my hand?’” Kaye said. “But I knew he was gonna be holding my hand the rest of my life.”

Credit: Tiran Jackson

Credit: Tiran Jackson

Sharing scars

After they had both returned to their respective homes, Tiran finally told Kaye his story.

“He kept telling me that he had a prosthetic. My first reaction was, ‘How is your heart?’” Kaye said. “I said, ‘I am sorry that that happened to you, but are you ready to love and start over? I could care less that you had your leg amputated.’ You could hear a sigh of relief in him.”

Meanwhile, Kaye, who was working in information technology in the healthcare industry, was dealing with her own issues.

Kaye, 47, also had a son, and she was coming off a divorce. She had her own physical scars, too. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, she had undergone a double mastectomy and multiple reconstructive surgeries.

“There was a moment where we sat, talked about it and showed each other our physical scars. We had already talked about our mental scars,” said Kaye, who was three years cancer-free on April 15. “It was a spiritual and magical moment for both of us. Intimacy like nothing else I had ever experienced.”

Despite all they’d been through, they held onto their sense of humor. While they were dating, if Kaye didn’t want Tiran to leave, she would hide his leg. When Tiran was feeling playful, he would take his leg off and hand it to Kaye, saying he needed a pedicure.

Tiran and Kaye got married on Sept. 4, 2021.

“I went back to TSU to honor the legacy of my former wife, and I had the opportunity and the blessing to meet the lady who will become my future wife,” Tiran said. “So, if that’s God not working in certain ways, I don’t know what is.”

Credit: Chris Day

Credit: Chris Day

‘Choosing resilience’

Fast forward to two weeks ago. Kaye had a worried look on her face.

While working out at their neighborhood gym, Tiran grabbed two weights and gingerly stepped on a balance ball. After breezing through weight training, the treadmill and basketball, it was the first time he struggled all morning.

“I don’t like seeing him do this,” Kaye said. “The fear of him falling at the gym — not only for his ego — is frightening for me. I have seen him fall before.”

But anyone who has ever seen Tiran fall has seen him get back up.

He got back up after Maleka was killed in the 2018 boating accident.

He got back up after that same accident cost him his left leg.

He got back up after fighting anxiety, PTSD and depression.

In each instance, he was shaky, but found his core and steadied himself.

A balance ball was nothing.

Credit: Chris Day

Credit: Chris Day

“There was a time when I didn’t feel like a normal person. When I had to accept the reality that I didn’t have a leg anymore,” Tiran said. “My balance will never be the same, but it doesn’t bother me.”

After an hour in the gym, Kaye remembers that she has a hair appointment, before checking in on the wine business she started during her cancer battle. The Random Whine is now in more than 50 Atlanta restaurants, hotels and stores.

Tiran — whose first book, “Choosing Resilience: All Things Work Together for Good” (Frieling Publishing, $18.98) about his life, the accident and recovery, will be released in August — has a long list of things to do as well.

The newlyweds hold hands while walking to their car.

Cameron, who was still asleep when they returned home, has embraced Kaye as his “bonus mom.” Kaye’s 21-year-old son, Jaylen, has become his brother.

Credit: Tiran Jackson

Credit: Tiran Jackson

The newly blended family has a mantra that they say to each other regularly: “Be Bold.” It means “Building Our Love Daily.”

In their home, the one Tiran and Cameron once shared with Maleka, there are subtle signs of her everywhere. In the basement, photos of Maleka and Cameron line shelves along with wedding photos of Tiran and Kaye. But the most visible reminder is 16-year-old Cameron, who looks just like his mother.

“Maleka and I are family because of Cameron,” Kaye said. “I love Cameron as if I gave birth to him. That is what she would want.”

Just days earlier, on June 30, Tiran and Cameron drove to Chattanooga to visit Maleka’s grave on the fourth anniversary of her death.

“We definitely have conversations to talk about all of the great times that we all had when Maleka was here on Earth,” Tiran said. “We definitely know her presence is still here because I can see her in him.”