A tattoo for both of my parents

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Sarah Buino

~For my parents

Both of my parents died in 2014.IMG_7553

My dad died of a heart attack March 2014 and my mom died of breast cancer the following December. It’s difficult enough to grieve the loss of the people who gave you life, but I also had a really complicated relationship with each of them.

My dad wasn’t someone you could talk to or reason with. He was unfortunately quite misogynistic and sadistic. He mellowed out once he had a stroke in 2007, but then he became more paranoid and often repeated the same stories over and over. Still this great chasm between how I experienced the world and how he thought I should move through it.

His house was like a museum that hadn’t been touched for 30 years. When he died, my brother and I spent countless hours digging through the treasures, trash, and dirt. One of his most prized possessions was a real human skull he called Sydney. Sydney had been a school show and tell item for as long as I can remember. My dad would show Sydney off to his friends and visitors and over the years, he’d accumulated a large collection of skulls. (Sydney is now proudly displayed in my dining room and I’ve begun to cultivate my own skull collection.)

I think the image of the skull represents my father in many ways. Skulls can scare people as they invoke a fear of death due to its representation of mortality. There were elements of my dad that were very scary to me – especially as a child. But the symbolism of the skull is laced with our own judgments. It is very fragile without the protection of muscle and skin. I can choose to still see my father as a scary person who did a lot more to hurt me than to love me over the years, but in his death I have chosen see the fragility of his nature.

My mother was nearly the exact opposite of my father. Loving to a fault, she wanted so much to care for me and did so to the detriment of herself. She had extremely self-sacrificing views of what constituted love and because she and I did not hold the same values, neither of us felt like we loved each other the “right” way.

She was a gardener. I doubt there was more that brought her pleasure than tending to her garden and sharing it with others. Lavender was her favorite scent and the lavender in her garden was prolific and hearty. She would make lavender sachets as gifts. She also loved roses and I can still smell the roses she’d cut fresh from her garden and bring into the house throughout my childhood.

My mother wrote a lot and in one of her writings she completed in the months before she died she said, “If by chance you would ever miss me after I’m gone: I’ll be in the scent of roses and lavender; the taste of peppermint; the butterflies flitting from flower to flower…”

My mother was a lot like the flowers she tended: beautiful, but ephemeral. She was beautiful – there were many qualities inside and out that made her so. But she was so sensitive and couldn’t withstand the harsh winters of her life. She died at only 62 years old after suffering myriad ailments throughout her life.

When people ask about this tattoo, I, taking after my father’s sadism, like to shock them by saying “this is my dead parents tattoo.” It’s much easier to shock someone out of pitying you than tolerating that awful “I’m sooooooo sorry for you” look that pisses me off every time. The truth is that grief is so complicated it can’t be summed up and empathized easily. The tattoo is a way I remind myself that I am connected to people who were flawed, but made me who I am today. It’s taken a lot of good psychotherapy and time, but I believe I’m finally able to say with gratitude that I appreciate all they did (and didn’t do) for me.

Copyright © behind-the-ink, Nancy Perlson