I got my first tattoo five months after losing Iris. Eight days before her due date. I wanted to carry an acknowledgment of all of my children. After perusing photos online of various tributes from parents, I found one and it was perfect: birth dates, done in a square formation and typewriter font, in the upper part of my back. It was simple and I could show or hide it as I pleased. I used a tattoo artist that a friend recommended, at a little hole-in-the-wall shop several suburbs away.
Shortly after receiving that tattoo, I began to plan the next one. Or the next several, as it were. While I loved the tattoo and its placement, I began to think that I wouldn’t mind something more visible. Something that would invite conversation, questions. A woman at the yoga where I go had a beautiful circular tattoo on the top of her foot, the details of which I couldn’t make out, but as she moved within her practice I could always see it. I knew instantly what I wanted: a Tree of Life, and began to search for an image until I found one.
Earlier this year, I added the words “Be still” to the inner part of my upper arm. It was a segue to the Tree of Life that I still had in my mind: much more visible than the tattoo on my back, but less of a commitment. Most short-sleeved words would reveal the words, but with a location on the inner part of my arm, the angle had to be right for the tattoo to display. I still had some control. I had Autumn’s birthday added to my back at the same time.
I have various conversations around my two existing tattoos. The one on my arm was noticed at a work conference earlier this year. I found that I was able to talk openly about why the words “Be still” were so important to me. A fellow churchgoer approached me asking about the dates on my back when one Sunday I chose to wear a shirt cut in such a way that the tattoo there was revealed. I responded easily that the tattoo was five birth dates for my five children: three living, two that we lost. The tattoos were a pathway to talk with people who may not have otherwise known my story.
And so, the plan to add the tattoo to my foot began to formulate a bit more. I had also found a beautiful image of a tattoo of birds flying across the back and shoulders of a woman. I loved the birds, but already had my back tattoo. I took the two images – the tree and the birds – together to my tattoo artist and explained that I wanted the birds to be placed around my ankle and up my calf. I specified for her: seven birds, for the seven members of my family. Ger. Myself. And our five children.
I also wanted leaves leading from the tree to the birds, transitioning from one concept to the other. There is a quote I have often heard: “we give our children roots to grow and wings to fly.”
On the day of my scheduled appointment, she sent me a drawing earlier in the day of how she had melded the images together. It was perfect. I arrived and she positioned the tree and bird drawings on my foot and leg. She then hand-drew the he leaves between the two. The placement allowed many, many opportunities to display the tattoo, but still a chance to cover the top of my foot with the right shoe and my calf with pants, if I needed.
I asked her to add one dot before the line of birds began. Before Theo was born, I had a pregnancy that was suspected to be ectopic. At barely five weeks, I didn’t know that I was pregnant until landing in the emergency room with pain that I thought was appendicitis. Too early for an ultrasound to confirm the ectopic pregnancy, and after beta tests showed that there was no growth and therefore not viable, I was sent home with medication to help nature take its course. Ger held my hand and whispered “We’ll try again.” Six months later, I was pregnant with Theo.
At the time, it was devastating. Though now, I do not think about that pregnancy much. For me, that pregnancy did not change me in the way that losing Nelle and Iris did. I knew, once a lab test in the ER showed that I was pregnant, that it was likely over. I never had a chance to dream about that baby. The dot added to my foot was to symbolize that a pregnancy existed, though for me not in the same way as the pregnancies that formed as the children in my mind.
I then braced myself for the pain of the tattoo needle for the next several hours. The artist worked diligently and carefully. She is a newer artist, though with several years of experience and an impressive portfolio. I appreciated her patience and thoroughness. Several people – patrons and colleagues – popped their heads in to check on her work. All wanted to know the significance, and I easily replied “The birds represent my family, and the tree is where we scattered the ashes of two of my daughters.” Another tattoo artist, new to the shop, became a little choked up. He has a six-month-old baby of his own.
It took longer than she originally anticipated, close to two and a half hours. The pain on the top of my foot was sharp, but the worst was as she worked around my ankle. Tired by that point of holding in position for so long, I just wanted her to be done. It was worth it though when she finished and said “That is so badass.”
Brene Brown writes in her book Rising Strong: “People who wade into discomfort and vulnerability and tell the truth about their stories are the real badasses.”
When my kids were examining the tattoo, Theo asked what the dot was for. I had never told them about the ectopic pregnancy. I fumbled around the words “I was going to have a baby, but there was something really wrong…” I am not sure that I have ever said it in that way before: a baby. It has always been “the pregnancy.” But it was there, it had the potential to grow into a baby and the dot represents the start of our family. Quentin wanted to know if it was a boy or a girl, and I told him that the baby had stopped growing long before we could have known that. He decided it was a boy, because we have three girls already, and then we would also have three boys.
There are two leaves that precede the dot and the birds. Later, I kicked myself a bit for not deciding on a specific number of leaves and what they would represent. I finally decided it was movement from childhood, to adolescence. Stopping at the dot and the ectopic pregnancy. I do remember feeling at the time that it was a changing moment in our marriage. Losing that pregnancy became the shift from “playing house” into adulthood and needing to handle life’s twists as a team.
The permanence of a tattoo is never something I had envisioned for myself, before losing two of my children. I grew up with the discomfort and stigma of thinking that tattoos were not for “people like me.” Certainly not people who worked in offices, or lived in the suburbs, or drove minivans. How much my perception has changed. In the circle of parents that I know that have experienced loss, it is a reminder of their love. A constant visual of what is never far from our minds.
I do not get to see the faces of Nelle and Iris every day. But now, I look down at the tree on my foot, and the birds that represent my family, and can “see” that they are always carried with me.