Three Little Birds: For you, I will go on

The three of us leaned over a glass counter like the kind you would see in a jewelry store.  The sage green scheduling book was smooth and clean.

“When would you like to come in?” She said, her purple hair tucked back behind her gauged ears.

“As soon as possible. I’ve been thinking about this for almost a year. I’m not going to wait anymore. How about next Friday?”

She scribbled me into the book and gave me her email address so I could begin collecting ideas of what I liked to build a framework for the art to be done. I had always admired people with bold tattoos. Something about body art has always been a symbol of confidence and storytelling. I have a small well-hidden one on the top of my foot. I had told my husband I definitely wanted to get a tattoo with Reece’s name in it. That was days after he died. I felt the urge to shout his name from the rooftops so everyone knew that he was here, he was real, that he mattered. And that he had changed my life forever.

Months later, I would have a breastmilk pendant made with all three sons’ names encircling a tree made from Reece’s milk. My oldest son was so excited to see that everyone was included. It struck me that I couldn’t focus on just one son as I had done in all the rest of my jewelry, but zoom out and include them all. From that moment on, I knew if I was going to get a tattoo honoring Reece, I wanted the other boys to be included somehow.

I was amused by the idea that I would have a  list of dudes’ names permanently on my body somewhere. There is a scene in one of my favorite old movies, a classic Steve Martin film called The Jerk, where he comments about his girlfriend’s commitment to him. She says that his name is tattooed on her ass, right there under the Js. With that saucy scene in mind, I knew it would have to be executed well to include three male names.

The months between Reece’s death continued to tick by as I ruminated but didn’t execute. I have always thought tattooed sleeves were so bold. During a conference in the summer, a woman was sitting in front of me with a bold, bright half sleeve tattoo. I stared at it in awe the entire day. She worked in sign language like I did. If she could…A whisper blew in on the wind that I could be bold, too. Of all the adjectives in the English language, I would not pick bold as a word to describe me. I often think about things for a long time, sometimes, so long that the idea just drifts away. This keeps me from being whimsical, I suppose, but it also halts me from big ideas.

My life perspective has changed and honestly, all I can say is “Fuck it, why not?”

I had collected my ideas and the day of my appointment came. I have lived a lot of my life hesitating. Not this day and not this idea. The work began October 1st.

The art of a tattoo can tell a story. That whole “A picture is worth a thousand words” thing. That. But on your skin. Forever.  Reece, Dane, and Grant. For you I will go on.

There have been so many connections with birds and death. A common idea is that a cardinal visiting you is a loved one saying hello. Feathers lend itself to a visit from an angel. Birds represent freedom and transition. Even if you can’t see the bird because it has flown away, does that mean the bird ceases to exist? I knew birds would be sweet symbol of my “one bird flown away.” I also wanted to include orange calendula flowers, the medicinal flowers of healing and soothing. I received the seeds of these flowers from a dear friend and I wanted the famous flower of healing to anchor the tattoo. It is said that calendula flowers help wounds heal faster, fight inflammation, and increase oxygen flow to the wound.

Laying the outlines and basic shading for the first session took about three hours. It was a big undertaking. Outlines and coloring and sharing can’t be completed in one session. Tattoos, like grief, sometimes take time. October 28th  was the first session of color. The color was indeed more painful, required more focus, and a few more breaks

.I knew in my heart that as much as my skin hurt, I had been through worse. A broken heart doesn’t heal as fast as skin. And physically, I had birthed three tiny humans so a little scrubbing needle didn’t compare. I drew on the physical pain of Reece’s birth to guide me through coloring his tiny flower, on the underside of my arm. If you have a tattoo there, you know. The underside of the arm is a very sensitive spot. The tiniest flower hurt the most. My Reecer-man.

Reece’s birthday came and went. His party day was filled with joy. His name and his birthday, along with his brothers was forever etched into my skin. Another session on November 11th completed the running ribbon. The artist and I had talked at length about saluting the baby loss community through a pink and blue ribbon (the symbol of pregnancy and infant loss). The best way was to color it with Sharpies. I had decided with Reece up top and his gender-boundless name, I didn’t want pink running through his spot. Or the other boys’ names for that matter. So we thought to tuck pink at the tops and bottoms of the ribbon but that meant pink was next to the orange flowers and that made the tattoo too “hot” on the bottom. I’m so glad we colored with markers first to find out I didn’t like it. We agreed teal would be a nice touch.

So how could I still include a pink and blue concept without putting it in the ribbon behind the names?  One day, my little boy sent me a clue on my morning commute.

“Make a pink sunrise in the background.”

Losing our Christmas baby in early November right before all the holidays makes for a long two months. But it is definitely the time of year when the sky is it’s most beautiful. Now, I spend so much more time looking at the sky. I see every beautiful sunrise and sunset as a present from Heaven. A little message from my littlest dude that he is taken care of and that he is with me.

December 2nd was coloring the sunrise and adding color detail to the flowers and birds. Tattooing involved patience, strength, and grit. It hurts. Somehow, despite, the discomfort, a person goes back for more. In the name of art, it had to be seen through.

December 22nd was final highlights, shading, and touchups. Here was the chair. Again. But for the last time.

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When I look at this chair, I can smell the lubricating ointment and hear the buzzing of the needle. At my last session, I had a few sessions of EMDR therapy under my belt. My ability to experience the world physically was starting to open up again. We had determined after a few sessions that the trauma of Reece’s birth had caused me to shut down the part of life that processes physical experiences. Since this tattoo was over a span of many months, the time I spent in the chair changed drastically as I continued therapy.

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It began to hurt a whole lot more. I began to feel more. My sons would complain that we couldn’t wrestle because my arm was hurting and when it wasn’t hurting it was often gooey. In a span of three months, this was the final coloring.

December 22nd was also Reece’s due date. Two December 22nds have gone by without him here on Earth. It was a good day for bringing the tattoo journey to a close.

I was in a classroom recently when a student approached me and asked about the tattoo I had peeking out of the bottom of my shirt sleeve. She is so young, just turned 18. Her auburn hair was a mess of curls that flopped over her thick rimmed glasses.

“I want to get a tattoo so bad,” she told me. “But I kinda feel like tattoos should tell a story and I haven’t lived long enough to get any good stories yet.”

I smiled at her. It sounded like someone who cared about her had given her some wise tattoo advice. Tattoos tell a story. The tattoo I have isn’t a story of grief. The journey is definitely grief-filled. The journey will always have pieces of grief in it. We lost our son.

I will go on despite losing my son. I will go on despite holding the broken pieces of my heart in my hands. I will go on for myself. I will go on because I love my husband. I will go on because I love my sons. For them I will go on. I will go on because Reece went on. For you, my family, myself, this life, I will go on.

For you I will go on.

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