I Want That Tattoo

They say the only thing that heals our wounds is time. They are wrong. Sometimes it takes a little audacity, an empathetic stranger, and a tattoo.

It was an ordinary spring Tuesday. I was contemplating two, hard-to-find, oversized Kimberly Queen ferns at the nursery, when it hit me like a two-by-four. I want that tattoo, I said to myself. Out loud.

I come from a long line of people who don’t color outside the lines, much less on their bodies. When I was six, my parents banished me to my room for drawing pink polka-dots on my brother’s face. With a permanent marker. He was three. My brother is still not the tattooed type. But the apprentice at my hair salon has many, and I’ve admired the designs snaking up her forearms as she shampoos my hair.

My son, Sam, did have tattoos. Over the years, I watched and worried as the sleeve, crept from his right ankle, up and around his calf, punctuated with initials of friends he’d lost.  And not to natural causes. When tragically, he fell to this same fate, I disappeared into an unpredictable fog of despair, anger, regret, relief, and resolve – a grey, ghost-like form that would, in spite of all, slowly dissipate to reveal a flicker of white light.

Healing begins as we allow ourselves to grieve. I moved through the days and nights in a slow-motion lethargy as I prayed for the clouds to part. I listened desperately for messages from Sam. Would he communicate to me from the other side?  How could I absorb his spirit-energy, and carry it with me, reverently, on this new version of myself? I begged for a sign. At just the right time, the universe decisively dropped an answer. And in that liberating whisper, I knew.

My massage therapist, Kimmee is all-knowing. I asked her for inspiration. She showed an image to me on her phone during one of our weekly sessions. I saw the flicker. Heard an anthem. And my spirits soared. The triskelion, an ancient Celtic symbol was perfect. Composed of three interlocking spirals, it represents a movement towards understanding, linking life, death and rebirth.

Transformation and healing accompanied me downtown one rainy Sunday afternoon, a year after Sam had moved on to the spirit world. I floated across the threshold of a non-descript, corner building I’d driven by more times than I could count. Before this day, there wouldn’t have been a snowball’s chance I’d ever felt called to darken the door.

Richmond’s River City Tattoo Studio packed the patrons. Each with a purpose. A collective energy held buzzing anticipation to ink the next narrative thread. Checking in with Luna at the register, I took an edge on one of the few remaining benches and waited for the sound of my name. I’d made an appointment earlier in the week. Emailed the artwork. For once in my life, I didn’t wring my hands. And I knew I’d never look back.

A chiseled, towering figure with inquisitive eyes appeared through the doorway, where I’d seen others disappear. He modeled the passion for his art. His body, a mosaic, mapping pieces of his personal story. I was a first timer who looked conspicuously out of place, and he wandered my way, helping himself to another corner of my bench. Curiosity prompted his gentle inquiry. “What brings you here today?” he asked. A bit skittish, I waxed effusive about the gallery walls of exquisite art, the intricate symbols, volunteering this was my first foray into the tattoo world.

I scrolled for the image on my phone and shared the photo. “Why does this speak to you? Mr. Chiseled probed softly. “I lost my son”, I ventured, “to an accidental overdose. This symbol stands for rebirth – Sam’s”, I trailed off. “New beginnings.” And my uncharted life without him, I was thinking.

Casey, a seasoned tattooist, appeared in that same doorway wearing a tender smile, and motioned me to the back. Showtime. He led me down a hallway, past a series of closed doors, to an open one. More intriguing drawings to compliment the space, a countertop with tools of the trade lined up just so, a massage table, a stool. Directing me to the stool, I took the seat, sat erect and stared straight ahead.

Casey had traced my design onto transfer paper. Positioning the stencil per my instructions, he made minor adjustments and asked for approval. The temporary image was then transferred to its future site on my body. “Ready to roll?” he asked. Instantly, I felt Sam’s presence. I nodded a yes, and he went to work. The needle hummed as the ink penetrated my skin. I winced. More than once. But the superficial pain would become heart healing, playing a powerful role in my grief journey.

Half an hour later, Casey scribbled a total for his services on a dogeared spiral pad.  The oddly comforting, antiseptic scent trailed behind as we headed up front to settle. “No charge,” hummed the cashier. My face registered bewilderment. “Your tattoo is my boss’s gift.” Mr. Chiseled? The Boss?  I now understood his gentle inquiry. In a reflexive response, I pressed some cash into Casey’s palm. The exchange seemed a conduit to power my transformation and illuminate my healing.

Squeaking out a thank you, I pushed through the door and out to the safety of my car before collapsing into back-breaking sobs of intense gratitude.

On the most ordinary days, simple kindnesses can come out of the blue. On days when we least expect it, we can be touched by grace. With this one intuitive gesture, I’d felt seen. And I felt like a mother-warrior. I allowed the gift to soak into my skin and nourish my soul.

I drove home, somehow knowing I’d be back, and hearing the faint whisper of another mother-warrior uprising.