by Christy Heitger-Ewing
“I will never get a tattoo!”
That’s what I said when college classmates impulsively emblazoned heart, dolphin, and butterfly tats on their thighs, ankles, and shoulders during inebriated spring break festivities. I reiterated the sentiment each time a friend inscribed her soul mate’s name on her body only to later be dumped by her Prince Charming. I’ve repeated the vow whenever I’ve heard people describe the discomfort associated with getting inked.
Honestly, though, I think the biggest reason a tattoo never appealed to me is because I’m no good at committing to anything long-term. For instance, every time I’ve gotten a perm, I’ve immediately run home and massaged half a bottle of conditioner into my hair in an effort to relax the curls. Lest we forget that the whole point of perming straight hair is to make it curly.
But here’s the thing: I’m a realist. I understand that if I were to get a tattoo and regret it, I cannot simply scrub my skin with a bar of Lava soap. My choice would be there to stay–like a “forever perm.” Yikes.
“Forever” is a long time so I don’t use the term lightly. Last year, however, something happened in my life that forever altered the fabric of my soul. My mother was my hero, my best friend, my confidant, and my trusted advisor. She was my shopping buddy, my partner in crime, the person with whom I most often laughed and cried. Moreover, she was a generous, caring grandmother to my two boys, ages 3 and 9, as well as my brother’s three children. In short, she was the sunshine of my world…until the chemicals inside her brain got all screwed up, throwing her into a downward spiral of clinical depression. Then, swiftly and cruelly, like a fierce tornado looming in the sky, Mom’s sunshine was snuffed out with a sinister force. On April Fool’s Day of last year, my dad called to tell me that Mom had ended her life.
Following Mom’s suicide, my brain stuttered as I repeated, like a broken doll, “I don’t know what to do.” I was paralyzed. Unable to move. To think. To sleep. To breathe. Tasks that once seemed easy were now difficult. And those tasks that were once difficult now seemed impossible. Moving forward without my mom in my life was a monumental chore.
In Mom’s profound absence, I lost all sense of identity. Who was I without my mom? I didn’t know. As a result, my universe turned disjointed and unstable. Week on week, I muddled along, but I wasn’t really living. I certainly wasn’t embracing or enjoying life because I didn’t know how to anymore.
Then six months after Mom died, I came across the beautiful French phrase, “Tu me manques.” Its literal translation is, “You are missing from me.”
Ding, ding ding!
It was as if a bell went off inside my soul
Since Mom had died, I had lost the rhythmic beating of my own heart, but these three foreign words spoke to me, and a thumping returned to my chest.
I felt like a kid strolling the toy aisle, spotting a coveted treasure on the shelf, and declaring with breathless anticipation, “Oh-oh! I must have that!”
I knew that every second of every day for the rest of my life, I would feel that Mom was missing not only from my world but also from my being. Suddenly the notion of having a “forever perm” inked on my arm sounded like a fabulous idea.
I opted for a wrist tattoo because I wanted it to be easily visible to me. Unfortunately, I read that the wrist is one of the more painful locations due to the high number of nerve endings that lie there–not to mention that there’s no fat to pad for pain. I rationalized away my fear by telling myself that if I could handle childbirth, getting an itty-bitty script tattoo would surely be a breeze.
I recruited my friend, Jen, to join me at the tattoo parlor for moral support. I sat down in the chair, extending my left arm for the artist, and looked straight into Jen’s eyes. I inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly in an effort to relax.
The moment the artist began, I realized that perhaps I had underestimated my tolerance for pain. After all, with childbirth, I was given an epidural. I tried to play it cool as beads of sweat dripped down my cleavage.
I’m not gonna lie. It was not pleasant. The good news is that it was over in ten minutes. But even if it had taken ten times ten minutes, the end result would have been worth the discomfort.
As I admired the heartfelt sentiment scrawled across my dainty wrist, a fast, fluttery sensation tumbled through my tummy. I realized that this was the first time I had experienced genuine excitement since Mom had died.
“You did it!” Jen exclaimed.
With my thumb, I lightly caressed the new dark lettering on my skin, and my lips curled into a gentle smile.
“I hope people ask me about it,” I said. “It’ll give me a chance to talk about Mom.”
“So, what’s next?” Jen asked with a sly smirk. “Maybe a heart on your back? A dolphin on your ankle? A butterfly on your shoulder?”
I shrugged and smiled.
I had learned to never say never.
Read Christy Heitger-Ewing’s new book “Cabin Glory: Amusing Tales of Time Spent at the Family Retreat” (www.cabinglory.com).
Note: This piece was first published on the Huffington Post on February 26, 2014.