Bleary-eyed in the predawn darkness as I got ready for work, I caught sight of my new tattoo and shuddered into wakefulness. This piece, long anticipated, was now stuck on my body forever. The vivid ink taunted me, the black strokes glistening from my formerly unblemished skin. I was exposed, permanently opening myself up to lines of questioning I might not be willing to answer. I had tattooed my soul onto a living canvas and given permission to the world to ask probing questions.
Less than a year later, I got my second one.
Very few people have ever commented on my marked skin. Some look at the cyclic structure of the caffeine molecule on my arm and think I’m a scientist. Some wonder what the funny numbers on my leg are supposed to be. Most nod approvingly after hearing the elevator pitch and the conversation shifts, my small markings a mere aside in the greater world.
I sought after the ink, but watched it sit on my skin as though resting there. Absorbing it into part of me was a much longer, much more detached process. I know they are a part of me and I instantly rub sunscreen on them when I’m exposed, but nowadays I mostly let them be. I don’t stroke them absentmindedly during a movie, I don’t admire them in a mirror when I catch my reflection in a store. They simply are.
On rare occasions, someone will dig deeper. Probe just a bit further.
“Those coordinates – is that Denver?”
Surprised, I described how a little village in Europe which started my travels a decade prior was the actual location mapped on my calf.
“Ah, I was thinking west, not east…”
And then it moves on again, but this conversation is just a fraction more beautiful. Do you truly speak my language? Does this mean something to you, too?
I’m starting to realize grief is an awful lot like a tattoo.
Oh, yes, you know intellectually that you will lose someone important at some point in your life. But when it does happen, you wear it with anxiety and see your grief with every glance in the wrong direction. You feel as though it is the only thing others notice when they look your way: how can they not see this message written permanently in your eyes? Your shoulders must reflect the colors of loss, it must be impossible to ignore it!
But like the tattoo, it becomes a part of you. It never truly goes away. It just becomes a part of your reflection, as noticeable as the freckle by your eye or the bumps of your collar bone.
Oh, with time it will fade a bit. But you’ll still catch sight of it when you’re making dinner and the lump will gather in your throat. Some mornings it will seem so bright against your coffee that you can’t imagine how you didn’t notice it the day before. Sometimes weeks will pass before it pricks in your eyes and reminds you that it is still alive and well.
I wear my grief like my tattoos: easy to hide, but also easy to display. Not on purpose, like I did with the ink, but because that is where it chooses to lie. It chooses to wait for me to turn my wrist and remember how little sense it all makes. I am a living canvas, and I can’t hide from myself forever.
And oh, the conversations it generates. As with your tattoo, your grief will be reduced to pat answers. “Yes, he died. Thank you for your condolences, let’s move on, shall we?”
Because you don’t know the stories. You’ve never heard of a riverbend in Poland, nor do you care. You don’t understand the marriage of art and science, nor do you care. You never knew the sparkle in his eyes of my renaissance man, nor do you care. You comment to fill the silence, and then it is over. There’s nothing wrong with that: they are my stories, after all.
But there are those rare moments where the conversation doesn’t stutter over my scars. Where instead you hear the message I’m trying to convey, and your eyes reflect the grief in my own. Your understanding helps me absorb it a little more into me: to accept it as something real rather than a nightmare someone else is living.
You see my tattoos, both of ink and spirit. You understand me just a little bit more, in this permanent state of flux. You speak my language and understand me. And then we move on together.