Shirking a relentless list of urgent “to-dos” (including writing a long overdue blog entry), I spent three hours last Thursday getting a tattoo. Over the past two years, ink and needles have been flying as Lena’s friends and relatives sacrifice a patch of bare skin for a permanent, personal memorial. A sugar skull in full Dia de los Muertos regalia; a butterfly hovering on a chest, just above the heart; a reproduction of the same tattoo Lena had between her breasts: a ying/yang type symbol Lena said was African in origin and meant “No Fear Except for God”. Mimi had LaLaLa tattooed on the underside of her left arm, where it would rest against her heart. She doesn’t know why she added the extra “La”. But it seems right.
My tattoo intertwines a string of LaLas and Mimis into a double helix, down the length of my left arm.
Why does it seem so right to get a tattoo? This is not only a phenomena among those of us mourning Lena. Among a group of grieving mothers I recently joined, there are many who have tattoos or are planning to get them. An article about a couple who lost their adult son to AIDS mentions that the mother and her sons friends got tattoos honoring her son. In the photo accompanying the story, the mother appears so conservative it is hard to imagine her entering a tattoo parlor and getting “inked”. She probably had never considered getting a tattoo – until her son died.
Part of the reason may be a desire to shout to the world we have suffered a devastating loss – to make visible the scars of our battle with grief. I am proud of my new tattoo. But the first time I thought about going sleeveless to show it off, I realized that when the tattoo is revealed, so is my history. From now on, I will be telling the story of my life more often and perhaps when I don’t really want to. And I will always be reminding myself of the story too. No days of forgetting or pretending. No, sharing the pain is too big a burden to be the main reason tattoos are so popular an expression of grief.
Feeling the pain is what motivated me. The desire to break my own skin. Not just to break my skin, but rip it apart. A new friend who lost her step-son to suicide five years ago asked me recently, “don’t you sometimes want to unzip yourself and let out the pain?” Other people have expressed similar sentiments: the desire to tear open their bodies looking for relief on the outside. References to violent, self-mutilating expressions of grief appear in the Bible, in records of the Greeks – since the beginnings of humanity we go mad from the inability to reclaim what was just moments before death our most precious possession – the living presence of someone we love.
Seeking to claw our way out of the madness brings a second remedy: the prospect of a physical pain so great, the emotional pain will be diminished. As the needles went into my arm, I envisioned myself taunting grief with my strength and tolerance. Knowing I would have something to show for my experience emboldened me. I would not come out of this pain empty handed – or empty armed. Not a shout out to the world about losing my daughter, but a shout in to myself about what I am able to survive.
After the lettering of the tattoo had been finished, the artist added shading in areas, which meant running a bigger cluster of needles over my freshly inked flesh. For the first time in the session I felt the edge of my threshold. I had discussed another tattoo idea with the artist, a larger one, a half sleeve of a painting of Lena’s. As I paid her I said I wasn’t sure I could take the pain of such a large color fill.
“All pain is bearable,” she replied. “You can take it – look, you’ve given birth to children.”
Yes. Childbirth is painful – but when the pain is over, you have something – someone – to show for it. The memory of the labor pains fades into the joy of having a child.
The death of a child is painful – the pain is never over and there’s nothing to show for it.
So I lay bare my flesh and hope I can take the pain.