I’ve visited the issue of grief’s visibility a lot on this blog. I’ve also been drawn to the comparisons of grief to a physical loss or impediment. The healing, or perhaps “coping” is really the word, process involves a subjugation of that visibility and a circumventing of the physical limitations. It is a sign that I’m doing “better” that people don’t see the pain in my features anymore; it is a sign of improvement that I can interact with the world in a way that doesn’t reveal my amputations.
It is a sign of improvement, but it also feels like a betrayal and like a disguise. And so, to honor that this loss is physical and keep it visible, I got a memorial tattoo for the 2 year anniversary of Alex’s death. I wanted a visible, physical marker that I have lost, but I also wanted it to demonstrate the enduring Alex, his extremism and his humor. When it came down to it, I wanted an image that would capture my loss without making me cry every time I looked at it. Since I can’t draw for shit, an image that captured that spirit was a while in the making and largely entrusted to the tattoo artist. I gave him some concepts, a story, and a glorified stick-figure drawing.
I’ve known I wanted a memorial tattoo for some time, but I didn’t realize how right it would be. I just thought of it as something else to do; as someone told me this weekend, when you’re stuck, your only non-option is doing nothing. It isn’t just that it serves as a prompt for me to talk about Alex with strangers, as I initially hoped; it also allows me to feel that I am carrying Alex with me at all times.
I still talk about Alex frequently, since our lives were constantly intertwined for some 15 years and only slightly less tightly woven for the next 14, so many of my stories feature him. Sometimes I talk about him in the present tense, which occasionally leads new people to ask where he is, a question I have answered variously with “that’s a bit of an existential question,” or “dead,” or “his body is buried in a suburban cemetery,” depending on whether I’m feeling snarky, or kind, or curt. None of those answers feels good. They don’t even feel honest — “dead” is not a where, and his body is not him.
I don’t get much cheesier than this, so grab a cracker and some wine and hang on: this tattoo has allowed me to answer the question of where Alex is with, “Here. He’s here, with me, and with everyone who knew and loves him.” (Those mismatched tenses are intentional.) And that feels honest, and, in the way that we make do with loss, good.
The point of this road trip was to change my narrative, the story of who I am and how I ended up here, wherever here is. I have suffered, I have lost, and I will not be made whole again. I won’t pretend otherwise. But I did not want to lead with my self-pity. Now, through distance, friends, and the unlikely aids of needles and ink, I’m at least beginning to change my lead, edit out the minor villains, and spend more chapters building my co-protagonist’s character rather than focusing on his cataclysmic demise.