“This is for you, Mom.” My youngest daughter, Julia, is home from college for the first time proudly showing me ‘my’ tattoo—sprays of lilacs and dogwood blossoms covering her shoulder. I try to be pleased. She explains: the lilacs are for me, my favorite flower, and the dogwood’s for home, because of the one in our front yard she loved to climb. I tell her it’s beautiful, and it is, but secretly I mourn the smooth, clear skin those flowers erased. Reality shifts as my sweet Julia joins the crowd of others linked in my mind with tattoos–sailors and circus people, hard-eyed and world-weary; Bradbury’s Illustrated Man.
Elena, her elder sister who started this, goes even further: red poppies bloom upon her chest; bright Indian elephants march across her thighs; sugar skulls and wild orchids sleeve her arms; and orange seahorses float along her calves with wafting water plants. There are too many to list them all. With each tattoo a bit more of the baby skin I loved, petal soft and pink from the warmth of a bath, disappears. But her baby skin was already long gone, marred with harsh red lines of pain released. Pain I didn’t even know she had. It is a blessing for me now to see her carefully tending her tattoos, treating her skin like a precious treasure. Another image joins the others: my oldest daughter, healing.
A friend, who questions my daughters’ choices, asks me if they like the pain, if it’s just another form of cutting. I reel at her judgment and insist, “No, it’s not about the pain.” But maybe it is, a bit. Because my daughters’ tattoos are their stories told in mingled blood and ink. Indelible. And there is always pain in telling stories that are true.
Years later, although I think I understand, I still like my skin unmarked, stretching like pale silk across my bones. I prefer pen and paper for my stories. I write about my childhood, my mother’s death, my daughters’ births, my struggles with being the mother I wanted to be. I write a letter to Julia’s future child, my first grandchild, expected at Thanksgiving, about the pitfalls of perfection. I write and write and write.
But come November all my words are snatched away. We plummet from joy to grief so fast my family is left breathless. When Julia finally can bear a visit from us, my arms are of no comfort to her. But she allows my hugs and hugs me back. She knows too well a mother’s helplessness. I would give anything for her not to know.
Three months go by, each day so different from what was expected. The need to tell this story slowly builds, but pen and paper will not do. I need another way. So I decide to climb into this chair, padded and antiseptic like a dentist’s. Elena is with me. I clutch her hand when the pain gets bad. The pain, though, is not that bad. Nothing, really, compared to what brought me here. I cannot watch the artist work. I stare ahead and breathe, slowly in and slowly out, just like they taught me all those years ago in birthing class. I study the posters on the walls. I close my eyes. And then it’s done. It’s something simple, just an outline—a sweet pea flower for Parker Ellen, whom I will always love but will never hold.
In her professional life Kathy Kurz authored and edited consulting reports for higher education institutions and regularly wrote articles for University Business Magazine. Since retiring, she has been writing creative non-fiction, and working as an assistant editor for The Sonder Review and Sonder Press. Kathy also gardens and volunteers as a math and English tutor for adults preparing for high school equivalency exams.